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 5 difficult employees and as their leader, you might be able to influence 3 of them.
  • The other 2 of the 5 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.

As an 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 silence 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.

Related:  #5 Barrier to Leadership – Not Believing

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. 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 category which 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 needed 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 on 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!

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