A Little Happier: How Ordinary Behavior at Work Can Amount to Sabotage—Really!

I was absolutely astonished by the following account. In fact, I found it so surprising that I suspected that it was apocryphal, so I spent a fair amount of time looking up the sources—and it checks out. This account is true. You can look it up for yourself on the site for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, now the CIA) published a secret pamphlet to give direction to potential foreign saboteurs. These recruits were most often people who were sympathetic to the United States during the war, so these potential saboteurs wanted to disrupt efforts against the United States. This guide describes “simple sabotage”—not the kind of elaborate sabotage that requires detailed planning or specially trained, organized operatives, but rather, the kind that can be done by ordinary citizens, as part of their ordinary lives. The guide explains that simple sabotage…

is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness or stupidity.

With ordinary means, and safely, civilians could inflict sabotage with actions that no one would find remarkable or suspicious, and they’d act without violence—but their actions would nevertheless have the effect of reducing or disrupting progress and productivity in war efforts against the United States. The pamphlet, called the “Simple Sabotage Manual” gave suggestions to ordinary people. These were people who wanted to sabotage an organization—and they wanted to look like a regular member of the organization, just doing their job, and all the while, sabotaging the work being done. The site Insider published an abridged list, which I will read. And here’s the interesting part: pay close attention to what the OSS considers “sabotage.” Ask yourself if this kind of activity sounds familiar.

Organizations and Conferences

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.”
  • Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible—never less than five.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.


  • In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.
  • Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw.
  • To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
  • Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

I think that often, people engage in these behaviors in the sincere belief that they’re being helpful, and contributing to an effort. Realizing that these actions are officially deemed sabotage puts them in a different light.
 The manual is now declassified and available for free. Click here to read it.




Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.