Are Disengaged Employees Sabotaging Your Company’s Success?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “sabotage?”

Dark-cloaked spies lurking amongst shadowed enclaves? James Bond detonating a strategically placed explosive device, just seconds after making his escape from a secured facility? Hackers introducing malicious content into the launch sequence codes of a nuclear missile?

This is great for Hollywood, but a little far-fetched for those of us in the every day workplace.

Despite the unlikelihood of any of the above taking place in a workplace near you, many would be surprised to learn that sabotage is actually a fairly common occurrence in today’s workplace.

Sabotage? In my company? No way!

The origins of the word “sabotage” are questionable, but most sources seem to point back to similar backgrounds. In the 14th-16th centuries, French and Dutch workers found that they could stop the mills and textile looms by throwing a wooden shoe — a “sabot” — into the cogs of the machinery. Doing so would either shut down production completely, or would cause the cogs to break over time. Therefore, a discontent worker could seek revenge by “sabotaging” a very expensive piece of machinery, thus shutting down production.

Pretty devious, right? But does that happen today?

Sabotage can take two forms — active and passive sabotage. To simplify these two terms, think of active sabotage as doing something you shouldn’t be doing which causes harm to the organization. Passive sabotage is not doing something you should be doing, which thereby harms the organization.

For an amusing experience, take a look at the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, created in 1944 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. As the precursor to the CIA, the OSS created the manual to give ordinary citizens of other countries a guide that they could use to disrupt their countries’ wartime policies towards the United States. It’s interesting to see how so many of these concepts relate to active and passive sabotage in organizations today.

Sabotage suggestions from the past

A few instructions from the 1944 Simple Sabotage Field Manual:

  • Managers and Supervisors — To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work
  • Employees — Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do, instead of a big one.
  • Organizations and Conferences — When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Telephone — At office, hotel, and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
  • Transportation — Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

Many of these forms of sabotage sound familiar — even today!

Engaged employees are actively contributing to the success of the organization. Disengaged employees sabotage the organization’s progress. Sometimes, this is active sabotage.

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A disengaged employee may intentionally cause harm to the organization. We find, however, that this is fairly uncommon: less than 4 percent of employees are actively disengaged, according to our DecisionWise research.

Quite common is the employee that commits “passive sabotage” in the organization. These are those employees, for example, who may not report a quality concern when it’s noticed, go the extra mile for the customer, help in training the new guy, or remain attentive in meetings.

It may be the person who simply doesn’t seem to care about anything beyond doing what’s required, and then clocking out. Our DecisionWise Employee Engagement research has found that roughly 28 percent of employees fit into this category. They are those we refer to as the “Opportunity Group.”

“Sabotage” may seem like a harsh word to use, but it’s an appropriate one, nonetheless. Merriam-Webster defines sabotage as “an act or process tending to hurt or to hamper.”

Wouldn’t, then, a disengaged employee fit this definition?

This was originally published on the DecisionWise blog.

Tracy Maylett is the Chief Executive Officer of DecisionWise, and co-author of the award-winning book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement and The Employee Experience: How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers, and Drive Results published by Wiley & Sons. He is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. Tracy has a doctorate in Organization Change from Pepperdine University, an M.B.A. from Brigham Young University, and a B.A. in Education from Utah State University. He has also received certification as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR), as well as earning SHRM-SCP credentials.