This US spy manual intended to sabotage Nazis has great tips for coping with your toxic boss

In which the US taught its spies to act like giant, bureaucratic corporations.
In which the US taught its spies to act like giant, bureaucratic corporations.
Image: AP Photo/Lana Harris
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“Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken.”

“Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.”

“Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant projects.”

Do these sound like common refrains from your oppressive, toxic office job? Like something that informed the way your boss micromanaged you in your project last week? Like the reason you’re ready to leave office culture forever, set up camp on a beach, and spend your days sipping cold beverages out of a coconut while your lover slathers sunblock on your exposed parts?

These are actually real tips from the US Office of Strategic Services—the precursor to the CIA—on how to sabotage the Nazi party in the 1940s, published in a World War II manual entitled Simple Sabotage Field Manual, or Simple Strategic Services Field Manual No. 3.

The above recommendations come from section 11, titled “General Interference with Organizations and Production.”

The now publicly available manual landed in my inbox recently, sent by a former co-worker with a wink. It took just a quick perusal for me to realize the stunning similarities between an actual secret intelligence guide to winning a war and the type of everyday dysfunction many people encounter at work. I certainly have in previous places of employment.

Is a horrible boss the ultimate saboteur?

Issued in January 1944, just one year before the US and its allies stormed Germany and ended the war, the manual outlines steps that guide agents toward crippling Nazi operations through simple acts that do not require special tools or violence.

The 32-page booklet, classified until a decade ago, is “based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit.”

Citing that acts of sabotage were already occurring throughout Europe, the manual calls on more people to “add to their efficiency, lessen their detectability, and increase their number.”

Basically, the US intelligence service was teaching agents how to act like the giant, bureaucratic corporations of 2019 to slow down and even halt business.

The OSS saw these methods of non-violent “simple sabotage” (as opposed to more overtly violent acts such as “slashing tires, draining fuel tanks, starting fires, short-circuiting electric systems”) as a means to be an “effective weapon against the enemy.”

A main objective of the text is to “harass and demoralize enemy administrators.”

There are more tips for sabotaging productivity and efficiency in enemy ranks:

“When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.”

“To lower morale, and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient works; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers.”

“Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”

Sound at all like how you felt when you spent weeks working on that presentation, only to have your manager tear it apart and tell you management had already decided to go in another direction? Or when you were required to attend that useless training conference while your inbox piled high with more important requests you couldn’t get to?

What does it say about broken workplace culture in America if the cumbersome protocol and hierarchical malarkey is reminiscent of Nazi-era espionage sabotage?

Of course, no one ever tells you to gum up the works and slow everything down at work. They probably tell you the opposite; that your work needs to get done in lightning speed, that you need to produce more deliverables in less time to meet your objectives and drive the bottom line, and blah, blah, blah. But then when you go to actually get it done, you’re met with bureaucracy.

There are emails that go unanswered and you feel like you have to turn into a savvy email marketer—urgent, but not nagging, with a dash of humor and personalization—to get a response from the guy who sits six feet away from you. There are executives that ignore everything for months and then swoop in just as you’re ready to launch something and blow it all up. There are nitpickers who aren’t satisfied with version #34 of that deck.

If you work for a large company or a corporation, it’s very likely that you have experienced some of this red tape that makes your day-to-day frustrating and often inefficient. I’ve experienced it at small organizations, too. It’s as if the main US spy agency trained your colleagues and they are out to sabotage you or the company—or both.

But really, the layers of approvals, the formalities with titles and who gets final say on what (and how that conflicts across different approvers), and the general turtle pace at which some things move, is a function of an organization that has leaned too heavily on protocol as it has grown in size, and is in need of some serious triaging—or maybe some allied forces coming in to emancipate your workforce.

How to sabotage the saboteur

If you feel like your boss is following these directions, the only option is to insert yourself as a counter-saboteur, and to get ahead of their actions. This World War II manual has actually proven helpful in my own corporate work experience. If nothing else, it has prompted me at times to think about how to turn an overly bureaucratic situation into a productive and expedient one.

Direction: “Do everything possible to delay the delivery of orders.”

Action: Don’t fall into their trap. It’s easy to settle into the culture at your workplace and try to fit in. After all, it’s only natural to want to feel a sense of belonging. As a human resources person once said to me, “You have to fit in before you can stand out.” So true.

But you that does not mean you have to conform to bad behavior. If you see people around you dragging their heels, avoiding making decisions, not finishing projects, then you should not try to fit in and follow suit. Be the person who picks up the pieces and carries them over the finish line. Be the breath of fresh air at the stale organization. You will be rewarded for it, if not by your colleagues or superiors, then at least in your soul.

Direction: “Prolong correspondence.”

Action: Don’t take silence as an answer. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard colleagues say “She never got back to me” as the reason why they didn’t move their work forward, or get final approval, or complete a project. If there is a particular person who seems to be a blockade to you getting your job done, go around them. This gets tricky when the barrier is, say, your direct boss, and you need their sign-off, but often there is someone else who can help you break through or another avenue you can take. Maybe your manager’s personal assistant is the magic formula and can bring your project in with a pile of their other to-dos. Maybe there’s a work style you’re not understanding, as when someone reviews printed materials quickly but often misses emails. Maybe if you tell them you’re hitting send on the final deliverable by SUCH AND SUCH A TIME IN BOLD AND ALL CAPS they will see it and respond. Whatever they are, find ways to push through or go around hurdles to get the job done.

Direction: “Multiply procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions.”

Action: Don’t assume the way you’ve been taught is the only way to do it. Your manager tells you this is how the company does X,Y,Z. But you notice that it could be done more efficiently in a different way. You don’t want to ruffle feathers, sure, but there’s a way to diplomatically suggest an alternative. Bringing in proof points or evidence is always helpful in making your case and being respectful in your delivery. Don’t make it sound like what they’ve been doing is wrong; make it sound like you’re the mad genius that you are and have helped them find a way that is even better (and cheaper! Or faster! Or more turnkey!).

The next time you’re feeling frustrated because your work is at a bureaucratic impasse, take a breath, have a chuckle, and read a passage from the manual. Then get up and go park yourself in front of the desk of the guy who won’t answer your emails.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the manual as a CIA document.