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Can you recognise a saboteur?

Now I feel that the activities are starting to return to full speed again. The improvement initiatives I am involved in have been recharged after the summer’s reduced intensity. How is it for you? Are you up and running?

12% are saboteurs, working against the organization.

You’ve probably heard me talk about the Gallup report that shows engagement in our businesses around the world. In Sweden, unfortunately, we only have 14% of the workforce engaged. And that applies to everyone, at all levels. They are the ones who really drive the business and the improvement work forward.
Then we have 74% who are classified as disengaged. It does its job, but with minimal effort, and they take no initiative to improve operations.

Then comes the 12% that are left. They are actively antagonistic and do what they can to sabotage the business and the improvement work.

It’s amazing when you start to do the math. That there are six people in a department of 50 who are actively working against and sabotaging the business.

There are, of course, various reasons why these exist. Probably a whole bunch. Everything from personality, revenge for some perceived wrong, unhappiness, stress, to not feeling appreciated.

These 12% are inside the business and exert their resistance in different forms and in different areas. When it comes to improvement work, or change as many talk about, it is an area that is fond of sabotage.


One way to sabotage is to always question everything. Everything from the manager’s decision, or the manager’s boss’s decision, to the employees’ suggestions for improvement, to what some consultant says is good for success. These individuals are not unintelligent, of course, so they use good reason in their questioning.

Another way is to simply take the position that “that doesn’t apply to me”. If you have a culture in your organisation where it’s okay not to do what you want, then you can also ignore the things you don’t like. All without any consequences.

A pattern to identify

A clear pattern I see in those who are counter-workers and who do not like improvement work is:

You start by ducking, hoping it will blow over.
Then you start blaming it on not having time, right now. It’s just procrastination.
Then when it starts to burn, you start to question the whole work.

Do you recognize yourself in the above three steps?

If I just duck, I won’t be noticed

The first step is to simply ignore doing what someone has decided. If you are a head of unit, you may not care to do what the head of department decides. You can set any level you want: units, departments, divisions or administrations. It is the same for all of them.

Importantly, it does not actually have to be a strictly hierarchical decision at all, with pure order refusal, but the decision can be taken in the departmental management team. The opponent plays along but still chooses to duck and not to care that he heard or read what was decided.

Of course, this is also facilitated if departmental management meetings are not structured. There are no activity lists, and if there were, they are not followed up. What do your management group meetings look like?

So, if you want to stop “cowering” as a manager, one tip is to have structured management group meetings.

It’s a bit busy right now…

The second step comes when the adversary feels that just ducking and hoping the storm will blow over is no longer working. Then you start to play along but switch to delaying action as we say in the Armed Forces.

They say that they are “looking at” how to improve, but that “there is a lot to do at the moment” so they don’t really have the opportunity.

Unfortunately, many times the discussion never deepens that by focusing on improvement work you will actually get out of the situation you say you live in, that is, that there is always too much to do.

Counterattack hopes to stop

This delaying tactic works for a while. But if those who are driving the improvement work in the business stand up and push it forward, then the counter-worker goes into the next stage. They counterattack.

One way to counterattack is to demand that an evaluation be carried out to see whether the improvements now being made to the business are worth working on. They want to suggest that it might just be a waste of resources and something they would rather never have started.

This attempt is to deflect the spotlight away from oneself and one’s own inability and/or unwillingness to work on improvement. If you don’t counterattack, the spotlight will soon shine on the opponent, revealing a lack of progress.

It’s a bit like “watch a bird” and so you get the other person to look away while you hide something. Can work with children and candy I’ve heard…

Learn from ju-jutsu

If the opponent is in such a position that the counter-attack cannot be easily countered, you may need to play along. But then a tip might be to do so in style.

Why not use a budo style; such as ju-jutsu or judo. In these styles, it is common to reverse the opponent’s force so that the attacker “falls on his own grip”, so to speak.

If the counterpart pushes for an investigation into what the improvement work has actually led to, you can say, for example, “Yes, we’ll do that investigation.

It is important that we evaluate the improvement work, and I would also like us to evaluate and look at what has happened to the activities that have not worked on the improvements.”

Evaluation should cover 360°

If you want to evaluate what has happened to those who work on improvements, you should also evaluate what has not happened to those who have chosen not to work on improvements.

This disarms the counter-worker, so to speak, in his efforts to counter-attack.

Methodology and benefit analysis

Another thing I’d like to point out about preventing counter-attacks in the third step is to make sure you have a well-developed method for driving improvement.

A good method that supports you in your work from start to finish naturally includes the tool of benefit analysis. This allows you to easily assess the benefits of implementing the improvements in your business. It will be easy to demonstrate that you have been in control all along and that the business is benefiting from your work.

So what about you in your organisation, do you recognise any counterparts in the above description?

Good luck with your improvement efforts and avoiding too much negative impact from your opponents on your important work.

Wishing you a nice late summer week,


PS. Want to know more about the “world’s best method” for improvement? Contact me and I’ll tell you more about the Shaper of Business Excellence methodology and what it can do to ensure you and yours succeed.

Of course, it includes steps to make the above mentioned benefit analysis. I can tell you more about that too. All to give you the tools that will benefit you and your business.