Protect your culture by thinking like a saboteur

August 24, 2023
Lucy Hargreaves


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By Lucy Hargreaves, Development & People Director at gunnercooke

Culture is the most precious but least tangible asset a business has. You won’t find it on the balance sheet, and it can’t be accurately measured or valued.

And yet leaders know it’s culture that drives performance, underpins talent recruitment and retention and is fundamentally linked to achieving purpose.

Leadership’s role is to nurture the norms which help a unique and productive culture thrive.

But you’ll only get so far purely thinking about headline values and the positive behaviours and attitudes you want to encourage.

It’s crucial to identify and address any underlying organisational factors that could stand in the way of your culture and business flourishing.

Often these are seemingly innocuous processes, ways of working or even attempts at engagement and collaboration that may be stifling development, sapping morale and undermining your efforts to build the best culture.

Always read the manual

You may have seen a widely shared chapter from the second world war-era document the ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’.

Entitled ‘General Interference with Organisations and Production’, it contains advice for agents to undermine enemy industry effectiveness, output and morale from within.

The manual lists techniques to slow down decision making, prioritise the wrong things, create overwrought and onerous reporting structures, create uncertainty and hinder skills development and knowledge exchange.

Some of the methods listed would be obvious performance management issues in a modern business, like filling out forms wrongly, duplicating files and approving defective goods.

But other ones you will recognise as familiar underlying challenges such as inflexible processes, stifling hierarchy, indecisive leadership, restricting speed and creativity and entrenching a blame culture.

Either consciously or subconsciously, homegrown or imported, this kind of self-sabotage can easily take hold within a business and the pernicious effects will undermine wider effort to foster a high performing culture.

Set the tone

Leaders lead by example. It’s well worth looking at every level of management when starting to root out cultural sabotage in your business.

It’s hard to be overly self-critical, but a quick look at the techniques in the manual provides food for thought on how senior leaders and managers may be unintentionally impacting culture:

  • Make ‘speeches’. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.”
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions.

These examples can easily be found in modern businesses where unnecessary meetings, overbearing managers and tedious processes impact employees’ ability to perform their role, erode their wellbeing and make it harder for them to buy into the wider vision.

The best cultures enable colleagues to be successful, not through overly risk-averse micromanagement, but through empowering them to use their own skills, insights and personality to contribute to wider purpose.

Enthusiasm, new ideas and effort can lay dormant if a business’ culture doesn’t encourage AND facilitate them.

It’s worth running the rule over everyday work habits and processes to see if they are helping or hindering.

The flipside

Whilst ‘General Interference with Organisations and Production’ is about sabotage, it’s helpful to reverse the behaviours and methods it highlights.

For example the manual advises the saboteur to…

“Be worried about the propriety of every decision. Raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

So take this and think about how hierarchy works in your culture. Can team members act with agency and is creative thinking and entrepreneurial risk taking (within reason) encouraged and rewarded?

It’s something we focus on at gunnercooke. Our Partners thrive on the ability to be their own boss and use the flexibility afforded by operating outside the confines of traditional law firm structures to deliver better outcomes for clients, innovate and grow their practices as they see fit.

As with many aspects of culture, communication is key. The manual suggests:

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

In any culture it’s worth exploring how collaboration plays out and if, despite best intentions, it is having a negative impact.

Too many inefficient meetings are a major productivity drag and a bugbear of many employees.

So is information overload.

Should presentations be stuffed full of detail and graphs analysing the past? Or should they focus on telling an engaging story linked to purpose that people can interpret and apply to their own role and objectives?

Remain vigilant

When success is hard to come by, it’s naturally easier to blame increasing competition or a tough macroeconomic environment rather than address ‘hidden’ self-sabotaging aspects of your culture.

The ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual’ is a useful reminder to constantly look at the more prosaic aspects of your business. These directly impact how people work, interact and achieve…and therefore have a big influence on culture.

Cultures and working practices are never static, with new threats and opportunities appearing quickly.

Leadership must remain vigilant to self-sabotaging aspects of our daily business and find solutions to address them appropriately.

Find out more about the culture at gunnercooke.