The Saboteur’s Guide to Management

By Jeff Schwaber and Travis Marsh

November 23, 2021

Here at Human First Works, we’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to have a mission to ensure that their organizations fail. Although we usually coach people who are trying to build success, we don’t want to be exclusionary and leave out those who have the opposite goal. This series is for you, saboteurs of the world. And maybe for everyone else too. 🙂

Theory of Failure

As a manager, you are responsible for ensuring that a group of capable people does something that is valuable enough for an organization that it’s worth paying you.

So, to ensure failure, work to create:

  • No group of people, or a group of inadequate people, or

  • Ensure your people do as little as possible or actively do harmful things

  • Failing that, ensure the things they do aren’t valuable or efficiently done

To fail, make good people leave



As a manager, you are often dependent upon the quality of the results that your reports are able to deliver. You can improve your chances of failure by getting your best people to leave.


Successful managers depend upon employees delivering high-quality results. The easiest way to get people to leave is to fire them. But some places make it hard to fire people. You can always try these alternatives

  • Bad, arbitrary performance reviews
  • Yell at them and, otherwise be abusive

No (mis)management technique works perfectly

Unfortunately, humans are contextual creatures, and do not behave according to consistent operating instructions. Other than firing people, none of the methods here will work in every circumstance. 


After all, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and the CEOs of Activision-Blizzard, EA, and most of the video gaming industry have consistently shown that abusive behavior toward employees isn’t always enough to get them to quit or cause the project to fail.


In some instances, these techniques can even cause increased success, whether due to humans’ perverse oppositional psychology or other factors.

To Cause Talent Flight, Understand Motivations

Sometimes the basics are too obvious, or just don’t work, and you need to resort to more sophisticated methods. Understanding your employee’s motivations can help you find the right path to make them quit or at least quit producing. 


Here are a few models of what motivates us:

Reduce Autonomy

As a motivation, autonomy is about people having a reasonable degree of control over the general way that they go about their work, the decisions that let them succeed, and the time that they spend. To reduce their autonomy you can:

  • Make decisions for them, especially decisions that they recommended against

  • Control their schedule or location when it isn’t required for their performance

  • Expect employees to respond immediately, and frequently ask them questions or schedule meetings on short notice

Prevent Mastery



As a motivation, mastery is about people having a chance to become good at what they do. 

To reduce their opportunities for mastery, you can:

  • Ensure people are stressed out fulfilling short-term needs that are already within their skillset

  • Keep people bored

Minimize Purpose

As a motivation, purpose is about people feeling connected to the greater purpose or value that they work they do delivers to the world. To reduce their sense of purpose you can:

  • Break the work up and hand it out without telling people why any of it is important.

  • Mix unimportant and important things together with equal priority

  • Don’t let workers talk to real customers if at all possible

  • Prioritize cash in any way you can over any kind of long-term commitment to the customer’s needs.

Break Relatedness

As a motivation, relatedness is about people enjoying the people they work with. To reduce their relatedness you can:

  • Make your people work alone. Do not let them have time or freedom to connect with other people at work. 
  • Require them to work with the people they like least on the team or in the company. 
  • Stress them out enough that they cannot find time with their peers that is pleasant.

Don’t Promote

When people are motivated by their title, it is usually because they want a sense of progress in their career and to be recognized for their work. To prevent them from receiving this motivation, you can:

  • Don’t promote people. This also works to reduce their compensation

  • Use non-standard titles so that they can’t demonstrate their career to other companies.

  • Give out inflated titles to everyone, so nobody feels like their title means anything

Compensate Poorly

As a motivation, compensation is fairly obvious. People want to be paid. Abusing compensation is one of the easier methods of getting people to leave.

  • Obviously, don’t pay them as much as other companies will pay them.

  • For extra insult, don’t pay promised bonuses.

  • Give lower raises to long-term employees, but pay market rates for new employees to guarantee the people with the most knowledge don’t stick around.

  • Give out equity instead of salary, and then use various tricks to dilute the equity. 

Control Location

As a motivation, location is about people feeling comfortable in their environment and about the status of their location relative to the best regions of the office. You can also see abuse of the location motivation in the current round of RTO (return to office) drives. Some people prefer to work from home. You can abuse people’s motivation with location by:

  • Don’t let people work from home when they want to. 

  • Move them to smaller, smellier or noisier spaces, or move them near people they don’t like.

  • Don’t allow people to decorate their spaces.

A Little Goes A Long Way

It might seem like there’s a lot to do if you’re going to destroy the talent of your team, but fortunately, there’s a structural effect that allows you to get a lot of bang for your buck. 

The best people often have the most options

So fortunately for you, even a little mismanagement can go a long way to decimating the talent of a team!

If you’re stuck with good people…

Sometimes you have to accept that you’re stuck with good people, but you still want to fail. In those cases, your best bet is to ruin their output. A lot of the motivational tricks work here, but there are other ways too. Here are some core ideas:

  • Bad and changing priorities

  • Overcommitment is a way of life

  • Lay the groundwork for lots of firedrills

  • Ensure conflict through poor communication

Drive Bad Priorities

Getting the wrong priorities is a good start to ruining people’s ability to deliver value to a company. It’s a good start on your mission.

But even with the wrong priorities, teams with good people will often discover ways to deliver value. If you’re stuck with teams that are outperforming your ability to prevent them, one magic button is to reprioritize constantly. 

Every time you reprioritize, they have to start over, and all the work they’ve done is lost! You deserve kudos for every change in plan.


An easy way to need to constantly reprioritize is to overcommit. The more things you’ve promised, the more you’ll suddenly discover the need to get a project done right now that nobody was working on yesterday.


Bonus, this will wreak merry hell with the schedule but it also burns people out, as people like to have some predictability in their workweek. 

Lay the Groundwork for Firedrills

That sudden discovery of something that you need to get done right now? That’s called a firedrill. You can ensure that you generate more firedrills, and thus more burnout, in a number of ways:

  • Overcommitting

  • Don’t allow the team time to fix foundational issues

  • Ideally, don’t even allow the team time to notice and identify foundational issues

  • Ensure that documentation doesn’t exist or isn’t findable, so that when
    problems arise there’s little understanding of what to do.

Setting the building on fire tends to be a little bit overkill, but hey, you do you.

Drive Conflict

Conflict is a great way to get team members to waste time, lower motivation, and generally gum up the works. You can create conflict in lots of ways, but here are a few golden oldies:

  • Play telephone and get things that people say wrong

  • Create siloes so people don’t see what others are working on until it’s too late

  • Complain about people to other people in the team


These are the relatively benign ones. For more advanced methods, I recommend reading Machiavelli.

Oops, your team succeeded anyway?

In the worst case, if your team has succeeded despite your best efforts, remember that you always have the option of misrepresenting your team’s work to upper management. The more inaccurate a picture they have, the better for you!

Coaches at Human First Works guide and support purpose-driven leaders and teams to build great businesses and thrive doing so. Are you new to your leadership role and could use someone outside your org to help you pick the best path? Have a team reporting to you that’s struggling and could use some experts to help them gel? We help teams and leaders reach their full potential. We’re always happy to spend an hour finding out if we’re a good fit and providing a bit of coaching along the way.

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