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A psychologist explains the top 7 ways we unconsciously sabotage our workplace

How we can become conscious of sabotaging behaviors and take steps to stop them.

A psychologist explains the top 7 ways we unconsciously sabotage our workplace
[Source photo: Getty Images]

In 2008, the CIA declassified a 1944 training manual on simple sabotage, which revealed how to disrupt an organization using basic tactics such as creating unpleasant work conditions and fostering poor decision-making.

According to Michael Drayton’s book, The Saboteur at Work, our unconscious minds often drive self-sabotaging behavior. Strangely enough, many workplaces exhibit these same sabotaging behaviors shown in the training manual, often unconsciously, leading to disastrous consequences for teams, projects, and overall workplace environments. Here are the top seven ways we may be sabotaging our workplaces today and how we can become conscious of these behaviors and take steps to stop them.


Unconscious bias refers to making judgments or decisions based on prior experiences, assumptions, or interpretations without awareness. Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination are by-products of our cognitive efficiency, which makes it challenging to judge candidates entirely on their merits. While unconscious bias training can raise awareness, it is not enough to eliminate discrimination in the workplace.

Instead, it requires creating recruitment processes that eliminate all forms of prejudice at every stage. This is a crucial step toward achieving a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Companies can level the playing field for all applicants by substituting a blended skills-based assessment for traditional hiring methods. One way bias-free, blended assessments can help employers remove their unconscious bias in the equation is by letting them look past candidates’ backgrounds and instead focus on their skills, fit, and potential.


Poor frontline managers can have a detrimental effect on the workplace, leading to disengagement, high turnover rates, and, ultimately, sabotaging the organization’s success. Lacking empathy and understanding can lead to toxic work environments where employees feel unsupported and isolated. All these factors can lead to low employee morale and reduced productivity, negatively impacting the organization’s overall success.

Organizations must recognize the crucial role of frontline managers and invest in their development to ensure they have the skills and tools necessary to lead their teams effectively. Leadership training can prevent frontline managers from micromanaging their employees, creating a sense of distrust, and limiting creativity and innovation. They may also want to consider a 360 assessment before placing someone in a leadership position. This will give a good snapshot of an employee’s strengths, skills and their potential to succeed before taking on that big role.


Stressful experiences and workplace culture can significantly impact our decision-making abilities, as highlighted in both politics and corporate environments. Many organizations have also been conducting layoffs and this can also play a major role in how well your employees are feeling.

When working in high-pressure environments, anxiety can impair our ability to think clearly and make conscious decisions. Instead, we are more likely to rely on our unconscious mind, which can contribute to irrational decision-making.

Given the impact of stress on all employees, especially those in positions of decision-making power, it is crucial to reduce pressure in the workplace and create mechanisms for scrutinizing high-stakes decisions by multiple parties. Feedback loops are also an effective way to ensure that findings are evaluated and adjusted if necessary.

By recognizing the effects of stress on decision-making and taking proactive steps to mitigate its impact, organizations can create a more productive and supportive workplace culture.


An inflexible work environment can be a significant source of frustration for employees and can sabotage the success of an organization. Short-term thinking, for example, can lead to a lack of long-term planning, limiting the potential for growth and innovation. In-person-only work scenarios can restrict access to talent and limit opportunities for remote work, which has become increasingly important in today’s global work environment.

Similarly, overly structured work scenarios can stifle creativity and reduce autonomy, leading to low employee engagement and job satisfaction. It is essential to create a work environment that values flexibility and adaptability, allowing for a balance between structure and autonomy. This can include offering remote work options, flexible schedules, and encouraging employees to take ownership of their work. An adaptable work environment allows for more creativity, innovation, and a sense of fulfillment for employees, ultimately contributing to the organization’s success.


Effective communication has become a critical factor for organizations to focus on, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic. As humans who have had to interact with impersonal virtual forms for months, our capacity to choose the most appropriate form of communication has been challenged. This challenge is compounded by the fact that cognitive load and exhaustion are high.

For recruiters and organizations, there are four key themes to get the right communication balance: First, they must do what they say they will do within an agreed time frame. Second, they should repeat messages in multiple forms that appreciate a variety of thinking styles. Third, it’s essential to keep it simple and share critical notes that everyone can understand and act upon, leaving nothing to guesswork as bias is more likely to creep in. Finally, they should seek feedback from diverse groups and across multi-generational stakeholders to ensure that their communication strategy is inclusive and effective for everyone.

By prioritizing effective communication and implementing these four key themes, organizations can establish clear lines of communication and build stronger relationships with their employees and stakeholders.


Groupthink can be a severe obstacle to effective decision-making and problem-solving within organizations. This cognitive bias can lead to a desire for harmony within a group, often at the expense of critical thinking and healthy debate. Groupthink has been a contributing factor in many corporate failures and incidents.

To prevent groupthink from taking over, creating a team culture that encourages positive interactions and diversity of thought and opinion is essential. This involves managing team tensions and ensuring that all voices are heard and considered. By doing so, teams can make better decisions and avoid costly mistakes.


Poor performance can significantly drain employee engagement and productivity, primarily when management does not address it. When low performers are allowed to continue without consequences, it can create resentment among high performers, who may feel that their efforts are not being recognized or rewarded. This can lead to disengagement and decreased motivation, as high performers may feel unenergetic and less likely to go above and beyond in their work. Additionally, when low performers are not held accountable, it can create a culture of mediocrity and lower overall standards for the entire organization.

Managers need to address poor performance promptly and effectively, providing support and resources to help employees improve and recognizing and rewarding high performers for their contributions.

There are a variety of forms of workplace sabotage, some of which are motivated by our subconscious. The first step in changing these habits is realizing that they exist. Leaders can boost their productivity, morale, and overall success by actively working to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Investment in the growth of frontline managers, open communication channels, a focus on making sound decisions, and a culture that encourages employee initiative are all essential. By taking these measures, leaders can foster a culture of trust and support among its staff and external stakeholders.

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Nicky Garcea is the cofounder and president at Cappfinity and an accredited industrial and occupational psychologist. More

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