April 18, 2023

Lessons in Productivity From The CIA’s Guide to Organisational Sabotage

3 min read
By Jeremy Bell

Sometimes knowing what NOT to do provides much-needed direction for doing better. In 1944 the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), published a field guide aimed at assisting agents in training “saboteurs” to “destabilize or reduce progress and productivity by non-violent means.”

Declassified in 2008 and now available on the Homeland Security website, the manual is separated into specific areas of organisational disruption, including: “Managers and Supervisors”; “Employees”; “Organisations and Conferences”; “Communications”; and our favourite, “General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creating Confusion.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite being nearly 80 years old, the activities suggested to hinder productivity are still all too common in modern workplaces.

We’ve collated some of the CIA’s ageless instructions on how to be an awful employee (or “worker” if you’re from the 1940s). If any of these tips remind you of yourself – or make you wonder if your colleagues or managers are potentially enemy operatives – take a look at our potential remedies to employ to prevent further sabotage:

The CIA’s “Simple Steps to Ensure Organisational Dysfunction”:


  • “(11)C.6: Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skilful worker.”
  • “(11)B.9: When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions… Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.”

What not to do: Gatekeep skills and confuse your new hires with ineffective onboarding and learning

What to do instead: Create impactful and personalised learning and development that highlights your organisation’s core skills

In 2023, decades after the CIA recognised the importance of Learning & Development in their field guide, LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report highlighted how L&D C-suite influence continues to surge as the function “becomes more central, cross-functional, and strategic than ever before.” L&D is increasingly being recognised as a powerful feather in the cap of any organisation looking to strategically get ahead of their competition.

In a competitive hiring market where 92% of people think having access to professional development is  important and 80% of people don’t think their current employer provides enough growth opportunities, the importance of L&D as a tool for retention, recruitment, and wellbeing cannot be understated. If you’re looking to bolster your organisation’s L&D Offering, our 2023 Guide to Future-Ready Skills explores a selection of skills aimed at providing a foundation for your people to be exceptional at work.

  • “(11)B.6: In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.”
  • “(11)B.13: Multiply the procedure and clearances involved in issuing instructions. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”
  • “(11)D.8: See that procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible, involving the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation, entailing more than one meeting for each grievance.”

What not to do: Make your managers’ lives harder with unnecessary and confusing meetings, processes and procedures

What to do instead: Ensure your managers are supported in their roles by streamlining processes and providing them with the right tools

Even the most well-intentioned managers can struggle with prioritisation, delegation, process, and doing their “day job” in addition to their managerial duties. This is perhaps more so the case today than it was when this guide was published in 1944, as line managers’ jobs are reportedly ten times harder than they were before COVID. It’s unsurprising that today 80% of managers feel their time is spent on activities that don’t “add value”, and 66% wish they didn’t have to manage people.

The good news? There’s a host of scientific and human-centred methods to better support your line managers, including soft skill development, fostering psychological safety, and mapping development journeys. Our Line Manager Toolkit explores how to level up your line managers at a time when a new approach to leadership is sorely needed for organisations to thrive.

  • “(11)A.11: Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”
  • “(11)A.3: When possible, refer all matters to committees for ’further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—never less than five.”
  • “(11)A.5: Endlessly haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.”

What not to do: Spend time creating confusing, lengthy, and boring comms that don’t stick

What to do instead: Unite your organisation with impactful, clear and scientifically-crafted communications that speak directly to your people

It’s not hard to see why the CIA dedicated an entire section to communications given its vital strategic importance to organisations and productivity: studies have shown that when people believe that the leadership of their organisation communicates effectively with the rest of the organisation, they are 73% less likely to feel burned out at work.

We’ve helped leaders at global brands like EYOcado and more launch strategic agendas through scientifically-designed communications and experiences. If you’re struggling to leverage stakeholder buy-in or consistently embed messaging across your organisation, our Solutions Team can help.


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