Introduction of The Saboteur at Work
Our story begins on a warm, sunny day in Sydney, 13th October 2020. Elimelech Levy was driving around the suburb of Bondi Junction looking for a parking space. Mr Levy was a 36-year-old man with one child. He was also a rabbi of 14 years’ standing and a well-respected figure in his community. People who knew him described him as a mild-mannered, peaceful man.
However, on 13th October he was feeling anything but mild-mannered. He had been driving around for ages trying to park and was becoming increasingly agitated. He was late. As he turned a corner he saw it – an empty parking space. His heart leapt with joy and with a smile he muttered ‘todah’, the Hebrew word for ‘thank you’. He slowed, indicated and stopped to reverse into the space. As he did so, another vehicle swerved, nose-in and quickly claimed the parking space. Mr Levy’s smile turned to rage as he got out of his car to remonstrate with the driver – a man named Richard Georgeson.
‘That was my space – what the hell are you doing?! Get your car out of my space now!’
‘Tough,’ Mr Georgeson said, ‘suck it up, buddy,’ and he sauntered off with a smirk on his face.
Mr Levy stood there for a moment staring at his car and the parking space. Then it happened. He went berserk. He snapped the windscreen wiper off Mr Georgeson’s car and began smashing it against the bonnet. He then broke off a side mirror and kicked it hard down the street, before getting back into his car and driving off with a screech of tyres.
As Mr Levy drove, he began to calm down. ‘What have I done?’ he thought. ‘What was I thinking?’ He was eventually overcome with remorse and returned to Georgeson’s car and left a note on the windscreen, confessing.
When he later appeared in court, Mr Levy attributed his behaviour to ‘a brain explosion’, saying he had deeply regretted his actions ever since. He was fined, but his lawyer and the magistrate acknowledged Mr Levy’s behaviour as completely out of character (Parsons, 2020).
In some respects, this is a comical story. It’s the story of a mild-mannered man being pushed just a little too far and losing the plot. It brings to mind the scene in Fawlty Towers where Basil’s car breaks down and after a moment or two shouting at the car Basil disappears out of shot, only to return carrying a tree branch with which he starts to manically beat the car.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation to Elimelech Levy? Feeling so frustrated and overwhelmed that you behaved in a manner that was out of character for you? Maybe you were driving your car and another driver overtook and cut in too quickly, causing you to brake shapely. Then, overcome with fury, you tailgated the offending driver for a couple of miles until common sense returned and you backed off. You got home and thought about your reactions and the possible consequences. ‘What if he’d braked and I’d gone into the back of him? All the hassle of the insurance claim, the car off the road... all for what? What was I thinking? He was an idiot – why didn’t I just ignore him? I turned into a monster for those few minutes.’ Indeed, you turned into a monster for those few minutes, or as Elimelech Levy would have said, you experienced a brain explosion.
This isn’t just a story about individual road rage. It is about how this experience of not quite being in control of ourselves can impact on our careers, our performance in teams and organisations, and our place in society as a whole.
Enter the saboteur
These stories raise an interesting psychological and philosophical question. What happened to Elimelech Levy during those few minutes of brain explosion? It didn’t seem like the peace-loving rabbi was in control, someone else, a monster, was. If you were the person tailgating the bad driver, then who was actually driving the car for those few minutes – who was the monster who had taken charge of the car? This book sets out to explore this question, to understand Mr Levy’s brain explosion and the monster who was driving your car.
This book is about an unconscious psychological force that routinely sabotages our lives: our own brain explosion, our own monster. I call this force ‘the saboteur’ and it exists in all of us; in individuals, teams, organisations, and sometimes even in whole nations.
The saboteur is what connects your own personal dramas, meltdowns and cock-ups with events such as the tragic suicide of Sylvia Plath, corporate failures such as that suffered by the Boeing Corporation, and even global historical events such as the Holocaust and the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The saboteur is a human phenomenon that has always been with us and will always be present, influencing our lives.
What this book is about
The Saboteur at Work describes how unconscious psychological processes can sabotage individual lives, the functioning of groups, teams and organisations, and even global politics. If you manage a team or lead an organisation, you need to understand the role played by the saboteur in your workplace and in your own career and life.
Self-sabotage: The saboteur at work in you
I set the scene in Chapter One by looking at self-sabotage – how despite our best intentions we often mess up in life. It is a common experience to set a goal, to want to achieve something, but fail to follow through on the behaviour that would reach that goal. The dieter who is desperate to lose weight eats chocolate; the person wanting a stable relationship turns a blind eye to the warning signs that their potential partner is probably already in a relationship; the person who wants a promotion at work who sleeps in and is late for their interview. All these people genuinely want what they say they want. The problem is, there is another part of them – a part they are not consciously aware of – that does not want the desired goal. A part of the overweight person is terrified of being slim because of the attention it might bring. A part of the single person is terrified of commitment in relationships. A part of the person seeking promotion feels they are not competent enough to be in charge. This is the part I call the saboteur and it is at the root of many problems in individuals, organisations and societies. The saboteur also embodies unconscious anger and destructiveness, as well as the fearfulness referred to in these examples. This can result in destructive behaviour wrapped up in the cloak of good intentions.
I draw on Sigmund Freud’s concepts of the unconscious, defence mechanisms and repetition compulsion to explain how and why we self-sabotage. I bring these ideas up to date by relating them to current research in neuroscience; for example, Timothy Wilson’s work on the adaptive unconscious. Throughout the chapter, I bring these ideas to life with stories from my experience as an executive coach and clinical psychologist.
Chapter Two explores and sheds some light on our own dark cellar: our unconscious mind. I describe the evolution of ideas about the unconscious from before Freud to modern research in neuroscience. I establish that the human mind is an iceberg with most of its ‘data’ and processing power hidden beneath the surface of our consciousness. In terms of the information the human brain contains, consciousness is not in the ratio of one to a million but more like one to a billion. The things we are most frightened of, ashamed of and desire live in the unconscious and comprise the saboteur. This chapter discusses the unconscious and decision-making at an individual, team and organisational level.
Chapter Three asks the question ‘Why did I do that?’ by exploring our psychological defence mechanisms. It’s a common experience to deny the reality of a painful situation; for example, a smoker may deny the health risks associated with smoking. Defence mechanisms are unconscious coping strategies that protect us from thoughts that would otherwise overwhelm us with anxiety. The term was first coined by Sigmund Freud and the theory was developed by his daughter, Anna. These defence mechanisms are how the saboteur shows itself to the outside world. I link self-sabotage with the phenomenon called repetition compulsion. This is where people compulsively repeat, time after time, upsetting or traumatising events. People find comfort in familiarity, even if that familiarity is deeply unpleasant. In exploring how defence mechanisms relate to self-sabotage, I describe the early psychoanalytic work on defence mechanisms and bring it up to date with more recent studies in neuroscience. I illustrate this by exploring the disastrous decision by Tony Blair and the British government to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2002.
Chapter Four explores anxiety and self-sabotage. Anxiety is the emotion most associated with the saboteur. Most of us do our best to avoid feeling anxious, either by avoiding an anxiety-provoking event or doing something impulsive to end the anxiety. When we are anxious, our body is like a house with an oversensitive burglar alarm. If something harmless comes along – for example, a cat walking across the garden – the burglar alarm goes off, lights flash and sirens wail. When we are anxious, little things that are really no threat set off our physiological alarm, and just as if our house alarm has gone off, we pull the duvet over our heads in fear or grab the baseball bat to go and investigate. This chapter looks at the psychological and physiological roots of anxiety and how the saboteur interacts with this anxiety either by acting impulsively or avoiding problems. I explore how this can play out in decision making in high stress situations. I will also explain why zebras don’t get ulcers.
Chapter Five discusses the stories we tell ourselves and how we create our personal saboteur. Our reality is based on the stories we tell ourselves. This applies to individuals, organisations and nations. These stories become part of our unconscious and often part of our saboteur. The chapter discusses personal, organisational and national stories and how they can support or sabotage. I discuss the work of psychologists Kurt Lewin and Timothy Wilson on how changing stories changes behaviour. I tell the story of Nat Tate, David Bowie and the Author William Boyd. I also look at Sylvia Plath’s most famous poem, ‘Daddy.
Chapter Six looks at risk-taking and decision-making by discussing personality and the saboteur. I discuss the Big Five model of personality and how the five personality factors interact to either support or sabotage us at work. In particular, I look at personality and risk-taking in the financial services industry, considering the story of Nick Leeson and the Barings Bank scandal. I base the chapter on the neuroscience of risk-taking behaviour.
Having set the scene by looking at how the saboteur influences individuals, I move on and describe how the unconscious saboteur undermines the work of groups, teams and organisations, using the theories of Wilfred Bion and Kurt Lewin to explain why groups often perform terribly.
Chapter seven examines how the saboteur is present in groups, teams and organisations. This chapter discusses the psychology of unconscious group dynamics and how these can affect decisions and behaviour in a positive or negative direction. People behave differently in a large group compared with when they are alone or with a few people. In groups, we consciously and unconsciously assess our and other people’s position in the dominance hierarchy. Groups generate conformity. Groups create polarisation when people with similar views come together and make more extreme decisions than they would as individuals. If the group members are naturally risk averse, then the total group decision could be exceptionally cautious. If the group members include individuals who have a robust appetite for risk, then the final group decision could be a substantial gamble. To relate these theories to real life, this chapter looks at the unconscious group dynamics at play in the Stanford Prison Experiment, Chernobyl disaster, and the Abu Grahib scandal.
Chapter eight discusses how the saboteur can grip, not just individuals and groups but also entire nations; how the saboteur can shape large- scale social and political movements. This topic is a grim one: - the role played by the saboteur in the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. I also tell the story of how IBM and Ford helped to facilitate the hollocaust.
Chapter Nine focuses on the practical steps that you can take to start to understand and manage your saboteur. The saboteur serves an important purpose, and it can actually help rather than hinder you. Feelings from the saboteur can compel you to behave unusually – perhaps even badly. But when you learn to stop, listen and reflect on what your saboteur is trying to communicate, you gain control over your actions. Noticing and reflecting on your feelings gives you lots of very useful information you can learn from. We all have an inner psychological team, and each character on that team needs to be heard. Then your internal CEO can make an informed decision about whether and how to act. The saboteur has a collection of masks. It’s important to recognise when the saboteur is at play in your life and use strategies to manage it. Working on ‘levelling up’ your ego will help you to build a better relationship with your saboteur.
Finally, chapter ten will explore the far more complex problem of tackling the saboteur in organisations. I tell the story of how the saboteur in the Boeing Corporation contributed to two serious plane crashes and the deaths of 346 people. I’ll contrast this with another organisation, one that was very successful. An organisation that, according to Winston Churchill, shortened World War II by two years, saving millions of lives. This organisation was Bletchley Park. The organisational culture at Bletchley Park was characterised by two factors that made it very difficult for the saboteur to operate: cognitive diversity and psychological safety. I’ll then go on to unpack the various factors that create a culture that will inhibit the unconscious destructive parts of our unconscious - in other words our individual and collective saboteur.
- Jung, C.G. (1965). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House.
- Parsons, L. (2020). ‘The “brain explosion” that saw a respected rabbi go berserk after a driver “stole” his coveted parking spot – as he ripped the windscreen wiper off a stranger’s car and used it to smash the bonnet’. Daily Mail. 4 December 2020.
- Solzhenit︠s︡yn, A. I. (2003). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Random House.