Are “Safety Saboteurs” in your midst?
Here’s how to thwart even unwitting subterfuge
Do you ever wonder if there are Safety Saboteurs in your midst?
I can assure you there are — individuals who may unwittingly create havoc to thwart safety initiatives.
In their recently published book Simple Sabotage,1 Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene draw on eight tactics used by the Office of Strategic Services in World War II to disrupt the Nazi war machine. They were published in a pamphlet, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, which was dropped behind enemy lines. In addition to physical tactics, the Manual gave techniques to disrupt decision-making processes in organizations.
Galford, et al. detail these techniques and add one of their own present tactics used in today’s organizations to disrupt progress. Let’s examine the authors’ simple sabotage tactics in the context of hampering safety activities.
Sabotage by obedience
Organizations create a plethora of rules to comply with OSHA regulations. The Obedient Safety Saboteur follows these rules to the letter whether or not they make sense.
To address Obedient Safety Saboteurs, the authors offer the following approaches:2
• Give employees responsibilities that require judgments to be made beyond adhering to the safety rules.
• Set job metrics to align with safety processes and outcomes needed for the business to succeed.
• Avoid pushing “continuous improvement safety” to the extreme, which can lead to “improvement fatigue” and strict obedience to the safety rules.
• Tolerate mistakes and celebrate good judgment.
• Ask, what is the stupidest safety rule we have around here? What are the three biggest obstacles you face doing your job? If you could rewrite one safety rule what would it be?
The authors describe six types of verbal sabotage:3
• The Long Talker –The benefits of long stories are outweighed by the negative consequences from time spent listening.
• The Tangent Talker –The conversation barely relates to the topic at hand.
• The Lost Talker – The speaker takes too long to figure out what to say or loses his train of thought.
• The Sensitive Talker – An idea is thought so important it needs to be repeated three times.
• The Oh! Oh! Talker – The speaker feels he must contribute to EVERY conversation, even when he has no expertise in the subject matter.
• The Jargonista –Language totally unfamiliar to the audience leaves everyone asking, “What the hell did he just say?”
The authors provide excellent means to control Safety Saboteurs by Speech.4 Tell attendees how long the meeting is and establish a timekeeper to remain on schedule. Distribute an agenda or specific goals to achieve two days before the meeting. Remind everyone from the start what the goals are to stay on topic. Invite the right people to make the decision. Decide in advance if you’re going to ask for comments and, if you do, why? Don’t open the floor for comments when it is not necessary. It will derail your meeting.
Is your committee comprised of members who cannot agree on anything? Does your safety committee just meet to meet? As the authors note, if meetings end with everyone liking each other then it was a good meeting and it is a great meeting if donuts are involved!5
Avoiding safety committee sabotage requires establishing roles for each member, with care to assigning accountability.6 Make sure the task at hand requires a committee. Keep committee numbers small, preferably eight to ten members. Control membership by identifying what each brings to the committee. And establish clear deliverables, deadlines, and periodic written progress reports.
This is sabotage by living in the past. “Let’s learn from our past incidents,” someone says. But often the past has nothing to do with the current safety matter.7
To prevent sabotage by irrelevancy, emphasize common goals and avoid drifting into off-track discussions or activities. Don’t fall prey to baseless venting.8
You’re creating a new safety policy or procedure and find yourself clashing with a “Defender” of a point of view no one agrees with. Or you’re driven up the wall by the ever-present “Wordsmith?” The “Grammar Police” correct every single grammatical, spelling and punctuation error. All of these are variations of sabotage by haggling.9
Stop the haggling before it starts. Ask your group you to provide their primary concerns as three or four feedback points. If haggling persists, reframe the conversation. Focus on what is needed. Be specific about feedback you want — not necessarily what you’re getting. Have individuals you trust review the document. Make sure everyone knows who makes the final call — you.10
Too often Safety Saboteurs use this technique because they believe they’ve been wronged, they didn’t agree with the original decision, they weren’t asked their opinion, or they disagree with the decision and decide to do something different. Occasionally, there are good reasons for reopening a past decision. If so, make sure the reasons are well articulated to foster buy in.11
On occasions, caution is taken to the extreme, paralyzing forward progress. When a Safety Saboteur asks the group to slow down, ask him why. Get the facts. Then list the pros and cons of moving forward. Excessive Caution may be the most personal of all tactics because it feeds on people’s fears and anxieties.12
What happens in a discussion when someone raises the question, “Is it really our call?” The Doubting Thomas can cause no decision to be reached. Why do people question authority? 1) Lack of confidence in themselves or the group; 2) The decision to be made lacks definition; 3) No one knows who is in charge; or 4) Convincing the manager to override the group’s decision.13
Be sure to cc: everybody
This is the ubiquitous “cc” to as many people as possible, and hitting the “Reply All” when responding to an email. Once received, most feel compelled to respond. To control sabotage by clutter, institute practices that involve formal updates. Ensure people only receive what they need. And encourage face-to-face dialogue versus Email communication.14
1 Galford, R.M., B. Frisch, and C. Greene. 2015. Simple Sabotage – A Modern Field Manual for Detecting & Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors that Undermine Your Workplace. HarperCollins. New York, NY.
2 Ibid. pp. 20-34.
3 Ibid. pp. 42-53.
4 Ibid. pp. 57-60.
5 Ibid. pp. 71.
6 Ibid. pp. 72-85.
7 Ibid. pp. 89.
8 Ibid. pp. 92-96.
9 Ibid. pp. 111-116.
10 Ibid. pp. 121-130.
11 Ibid. pp. 134-153.
12 Ibid. pp. 160 & 171.
13 Ibid. pp. 176-190.
14 Ibid. pp. 197-204.