Detecting a Saboteur – the Ultimate Leadership Skill

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

There will always be employees whom you cannot reach—team members with goals that do not match those of the organization and who are unwilling or unable to change.

What is a Saboteur?

It’s important to point out here that a saboteur is not an employee with bad habits such as chronic lateness or inconsistent follow-through or who has the potential to be a top performer but has not made the right choices to get to that level—far from it.

Saboteurs are like cancer in an organization, bent on draining the productive energy from the workplace, and are so good at causing disruption they are hard to detect (like a needle in a haystack).

Unfortunately, these people are often at the heart of major problems in the workplace.

Here are my statistics from working with saboteurs:

  • In a group of 300 employees, you will have five difficult employees, and as their leader, you might be able to influence 3 of them.
  • The other 2 of the five will be the saboteurs.

These people will choose termination rather than changing their ideas or behaviors to be more in line with the organization’s values—unless they are “written up” by a reactive manager, which they take as a challenge.

At that point, you may find them changing their tactics and continuing their destructive behaviors in different forms.

They Don’t Care if They Get Disciplined

Saboteurs do whatever they can to negatively affect the efficiency of the workplace. They may break equipment, falsify reports, or pit team members against each other with the intent to slow down production.

Actions such as these are a form of unregulated negative responses on the part of the saboteurs, who focus on retaliation by bringing chaos into the culture through dramatic events, reaction-getting tactics, and blaming others for their own poor choices.

They see their expressions of anger as a form of justice and use them to control the environment in which they work. They intimidate other employees and undermine managers. In fact, in many cases, they are managers.

For example, one of our client companies had a manager whose behavior did not fit the company’s core values. An employee went to the manager (saboteur in this case) and expressed concern directly to the manager about her behavior. Needless to say, the employee’s difficult conversation was met with hostility and threats.

The employee kindly suggested they have someone facilitate their conversation.

“If you go over my head,” the manager told the employee, “you can expect not to be here tomorrow.” The manager was a saboteur going against everything the company stood for and intimidated into silencing any employee who tried to stop her.

Why a Saboteur is Hard to Detect

When confronted with a saboteur’s unruly behavior, others on the team tend to react to this person instead of holding him or her accountable. That is, a saboteur’s coworkers will respond by using negative comments or pretending the behavior doesn’t exist. This only adds to the disruption.

Rather than telling the saboteur, “This behavior doesn’t fit with the organization’s core values,” people react to the saboteur and “act out.” The result? Everyone gets ugly! This gives the saboteur exactly what they want and leaves team members intimidated and under the saboteur’s control.

When such dysfunctional activity becomes a daily occurrence, it’s difficult for managers to tell who the saboteur is because everyone on the team can seem like one. They become angry. They’re venting, yelling, and prone to using profanity in their frustration over what is going on.

Here’s a frightening situation: Many times, if the saboteur is uncovered in a large organization, they might just be transferred to another division, where someone else will have to deal with the saboteur’s behavior. Have any of you had this happen?

How to Resolve a Toxic Situation

To start, managers should discuss the Steps of Accountability, core values, and personal responsibility with a potential saboteur. The hope here is that this person may be in the 3 out of 5 categories that can be reached (for exact conversation, see Excelling with Difficult People). This generally puts an end to this person’s bad behavior if they are just misguided and need your one-on-one direction and leadership.

If the person is a true saboteur, don’t coach this person. You must coach all the other team members in the areas that have to work with this person to not react. In the absence of accountability, the saboteur is able to cause a lot of damage.

Specifically, emphasize to team members controlling their own actions and interacting with each other appropriately and productively. And when all this is being done correctly, any saboteur in the workplace will stick out like a sore thumb. They can’t get anyone to take the bait.

Suddenly unable to push anyone else’s buttons, they become aware that there is a level of accountability they must meet. At this moment of truth, they will either leave the organization on their own or do something so outrageously in violation of policy or procedure that there is no choice but to terminate them.

Unable to cope with being accountable for their own actions, saboteurs will self-destruct. The saboteur will naturally be “ousted,” and the problem will fix itself.

Share This Post

I hope you have found this article meaningful and have discovered that many managers do the opposite with potential saboteurs – they discipline them individually and don’t coach the reactionary team members.

This is a crucial mistake, as you will find yourself spinning in circles trying to detect who is working with you and who is not. Take a minute and share this post with other managers so they may detect saboteurs.

How Do You Detect and Deal With a Saboteur?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Aaron Swart, MSW says:

    This is a wonderful article, and hard for some of us to read who have had to deal with this type of personality. Thanks for sharing that saboteurs cannot be coached, as many believe that spending countless hours and resources to change them will have sustainable outcomes. Focus on strengths! Thanks for your insight.

  • I have a employee that i think is doing things in my shop messing with or trying to damage machines what do i do I haven’t caught them yet or they haven’t broken anything yet but its coming!

  • Some are pets and want to sabotage those with whom they compete. Everyone is afraid to tell and no one wants to put their head on the chopping block. They stage conflict to project eronneous problems.

  • Great article, great to read, the article says-
    “Unable to cope with being accountable for their own actions, saboteurs will self-destruct. The saboteur will naturally be “ousted,” and the problem will fix itself.”
    The problem has not fixed it’s self. In our team, the saboteur has been confronted and “ousted,” but they continue to deflect responsibility to others and fail to be accountable for their actions. They continue to push limits but stay just short of breaking policies. This is a public sector job and unfortunately in this area no one gets sacked, if it was the private sector they would be gone, this is a cancer that due to years of poor line management has festered. I am hoping the problem will fix it’s self eventually but until then the team members have to tolerate this individual and their behaviour.

    • Public Sector Issues says:

      I share your pain. As public sector supervisors we are constantly caught in a cycle of behavior, discipline, grievance, arbitration, and often rehire. It no doubt sends the wrong message and almost rewards the saboteur for their behavior and often leaves them feeling “untouchable.” My suggestion is to document, document, document and document some more. Use progressive discipline and do not stray off of the rails. We have had similar issues with covert destructive behavior (literally destroying property), poor interpersonal interactions, negative responses to accountability… but, in our case the individual became so focused on their anger and retaliation that they forgot to pay attention to the details. This is what finally bit them in the… well, you know. Patience, perseverance and documentation… drive on, if you can stay the course, it will change your organization for the better. It is worth the effort.

  • Joyful Leader says:

    I’m currently being targeted by a consultant trying to sabotage me. I manage a contract that she works on. I have always thought her to be a sociopath, based on her joyless, manipulative, machiavellian behavior. But I know realize that she has been trying to sabotage me, oh so subtly, for some time now. My guess is that she resents my ‘likeability’ and natural leadership skills, and my joyfulness.She also realizes that she can’t control me, as I am not afraid of her or anyone. I do what I think is best, always, based on my moral convictions. She has no moral convictions, only opportunism and greed. She desires to move up the ladder, to become a rock star. She never will though, until and unless she somehow develops a sense of humor, a conscience, and some better actual skills. So she is trying to bully her way to the top, by taking down leaders in the office whom she can’t control, leveling their power.
    I have a situation I really need help on, as this person has now caused me to react (you hit the nail on the head on that one) and I used a profanity at her (called her a ‘sociopath’ and ‘a##hole’). She has filed a complaint, and I will have to defend myself. How honest should I be about who she really is and how she has been? Her boss is actually terrified of her. He IS afraid of her, and has cowered down like a little baby. The whole situation is so toxic, b/c of her, I just want to resign as I don’t have faith that my superiors will really see it for what it is. Perhaps they will, but they aren’t particularly courageous either and don’t have particularly strong moral convictions. Is there any way I can email you?

    • Trying to take out a Saboteur says:

      We have the EXACT same problem in OUR organization and it’s OUR FAMILY BUSINESS! My dad won’t take the steps he needs to with any of these people so they allllll are trying to gain control. It’s sickening and dysfunctional as H#LL!! If u ever get an answer on what to do, please let me know! Thanks for everyone’s Honesty on this site!! Good article !

  • my_two_cents says:

    A very useful idea, and one that CAN be implemented.
    Saboteurs end up staying in the organization while many precious, talented people are leaving due to frustration and being scapegoated. Management does not do anything and most HR departments are BS, in my experience.
    Unity, non-reactivity and making that person stick out like a sore thumb is something I will now implement 😉
    This approach also frees us from expecting the management to help out, which NEVER happens!

  • It was really an experimental post was very useful for leaders analytics

  • Currently dealing with my department lead who is a saboteur. He has been in the position way longer than I have worked for the company. He has had numerous complaints and issues reported and filed against him. The issue is the store manager refuses to actually grow a pair and confront him about it! All of the other managers are in agreement but with out his say so nothing can really be done. He continues to bicker and run employees off and turns around and complains to store manager that he can’t seem to get any real help…

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