SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is a nefarious organization run by me, a criminal mastermind named Ernesto Blofeld. It has its tentacles in many different parts of the world and is connected with varied criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, gambling, terrorism, and other money making enterprises. This is all to fund its ultimate plan for world domination.

I am a wonderful and benevolent boss who is a joy to work for. However, I have a policy regarding my employees that failure is to be met with death. This is meant to set an example for the others and sets the bar high for them to succeed by keeping it competitive. People are executed in various ways, such as being fed to animals, electrocuted, flayed alive, etc. This has led to a high turnover rate for many jobs within the organization, and some minions are becoming disgruntled due to the fact that they feel unappreciated for their hard work and all the risks they are forced to take.

While the standard is to kill these employees before discontent spreads, I can only kill so many. How can SPECTRE motivate its workers and keep its executions down to a minimum?

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    Is the execution mandatory ? Could the punishment be a a secret exile in a far away section of SPECTRE ? Or a super hard and difficult training session on an inhospitable island ? But without the rest of the team of the punished knowing, leaving the illusion he just disappeared ? – Don Pablo Sep 12 at 13:55
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    In other words, when they mess up, they commit a "grave mistake"? – Hosch250 Sep 12 at 15:02
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    Replace the word "kill" with "fire" and I fail to see any differences from common corporations. – Nuclear Wang Sep 12 at 18:22
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    Such harsh punishments won't increase productivity. It will decrease it. Employees won't concentrate on doing things which benefit the organization the most, they will focus on gaming whatever scoring system is in place to evaluate them, and on sabotaging each other to that someone else will be fed to the sharks this month instead of them. – vsz Sep 12 at 18:39
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    Relevant: The Simpsons explored this very concept in Season 8: You Only Move Twice. Hank Scorpio was an excellent and inspiring leader and manager. – user535733 Sep 12 at 21:22

14 Answers 14

You have to distinguish between internal and external ruthlessness.

Your organization's reputation, and the fear it engenders, will largely be based on your external-facing ruthlessness. If an external counterparty fails to deliver, you want to wipe them out in as messy and horrifying a way as possible, and you want your action to be generally known.

But internal ruthlessness doesn't really add to your organization's reputation, because (since you're a secret organization) it generally won't be known to anyone outside the organization. You can feed the assistant director of stealing plutonium to sharks if you want - nobody outside your organization will know or care.

The situation, therefore, calls for you to increase your external-facing ruthlessness while at the same time modifying your internal procedures to more closely match best practices for a large organization. Internally, you may need to focus more on employee appreciation and compensation and less on feeding-to-sharks.

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    “Yeah, the dental package is great, but we can’t let anyone know, y’know? So the boys at the dentist’s office make sure to play screams and drill noises and throw plenty of fake teeth and stuff out back once they’re done. Sometimes we even join in with the screams if we ain’t laughing too hard... Good times. Ernesto sure treats us right.” – Joe Bloggs Sep 12 at 15:53
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    Of course, too much incompetence might move employees from the "internal problems" to the "external problems" category. But there should be a pretty high threshold before the switch happens, and until then employees should be treated well. – Arcanist Lupus Sep 13 at 4:01
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    @ArcanistLupus Or, if you keep your organisation split into small-ish "cells", then you can just move incompetent employees into a different cell, belonging to your "sister organisation" with all the over-the-top and outlandish schemes to keep those nought-y Secret Agents distracted from your real plans! – Chronocidal Sep 13 at 8:30
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    Think of the old-fashioned Mafia. Once you were in, you were family — the bosses would look out for you, look after you, reward you when things went well, protect you when things went badly. But it didn’t undermine the reputation for ruthlessness, because it only applied as long as you stayed in — god help anyone who tried to get out… – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Sep 13 at 10:06

The classic formula is to punish the behavior you want to suppress, and reward the behavior you want to encourage.

Right now, it sounds like you are punishing bad results and rewarding good results. The trouble with judging by results is that sometimes correct behavior (which you want to encourage) leads to bad results anyway, because of bad luck, failure elsewhere in the organization, or other factors outside the employee's control. And sometimes bad behavior leads to good results because of luck or intervention from elsewhere in the organization.

You need to come up with a code of conduct for your employees. This should detail what powers they have, and what responsibilities they have. When a mission fails, you should only kill the ones who violated that code of conduct.

Here's an example:

Sgt Malice is assigned to break into a vault. That's his mission. Since he's new, he does not have the power to requisition supplies without authorization from higher-ups. He was told to pick up a supply drop, however. The supply drop is Lt. Sloth's responsibility. When it comes, however, it contains only half the explosives that Sgt Malice was told to expect, too little to get in to the vault. Sgt Malice is ordered to maintain radio silence for this infiltration mission. He doesn't have the power to fix this, and it wasn't his responsibility. Now, you might think that your ruthless policy of killing in any case of failure would inspire Sgt Malice to get creative, but honestly people don't need to fear for their lives to get creative, and they tend to actually be dumber when they are afraid. If he tries some things, does his best, and then reports back that he couldn't do it with what he was given, he should be spared. The supply drop wasn't his responsibility, and without enough explosives, he didn't have the power to succeed. It's Lt Sloth who should be punished. He had the power to succeed yet failed his responsibility. That is bad behavior. Into the lion pit he goes.

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    I just imagined the organization's boss saying in a cheerful voice tone "Into the lion pit you go." – John Hamilton Sep 13 at 12:20

Chen Sheng was an officer serving the Qin Dynasty, famous for their draconian punishments. He was supposed to lead his army to a rendezvous point, but he got delayed by heavy rains and it became clear he was going to arrive late. The way I always hear the story told is this:

Chen turns to his friend Wu Guang and asks

“What’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“Well then…” says Chen Sheng.

And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising, which caused thousands of deaths and helped usher in a period of instability and chaos that resulted in the fall of the Qin Dynasty three years later.

The moral of the story is that if you are maximally mean to innocent people, then eventually bad things will happen to you. First, because you have no room to punish people any more for actually hurting you. Second, because people will figure if they’re doomed anyway, they can at least get the consolation of feeling like they’re doing you some damage on their way down.

~Scott Alexander

Always be cautious about applying the death penalty for failure.

If someone powerful within your organization knows that he's going to die for failure... the moment the plan starts to go south the only way he can survive is to kill you first.

Instead why not pay your lackey well with hefty bonuses for creative cruelty against your enemies.

Have a weekly prize pot for the lackey who most creatively makes an example of the family of one of your enemies.

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    I enjoyed your example a lot. good choice, humorous and perfectly illustrates the point. – Ruadhan Sep 13 at 15:26

As the films show, Mr Blofeld, you have already mastered this. In From Russia with Love, Rosa Klebb and Kronsteen failed to kill Bond, but the one who was 'let go' was Kronsteen. Not only did his plans fail, but he didn't put enough work into making sure the inevitable faults were overcome. Failure is tolerated, so long as the failure is not due to laziness or incompetence. If you do everything right and things still don't work out, it's not the end of the world. Yet...

As a results-driven boss, this becomes a learning experience for your employees. Failure is tolerated, yes... but as it has consequences for the organisation, so too does it have consequences for the individuals. The first attempt failed? Perhaps they didn't have the right resources, then. So unlike a less enlightened employer who might demote an employee for failure, you support them with better training and resources, to maximize their ability to succeed.

If they still fail at that point, clearly they're unable to benefit from the learning experience. At which point, sadly, they're no longer suitable for their role. Or for living past the next scene...

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    As supervillains, "it things don't work out, it's not the end of the world" should be pretty obvious - after all, "the end of the world" is quite possibly the expected result when everything does work out. – Chronocidal Sep 13 at 8:10

Create a vast incremental hierarchy.

I mean VAST like 1000 layers of ranks that makes army ranks look small. Even if you have to have intern levels 1-10. Minor failures now end up being demotions and successes move you through the ranks. Major failures remain quick and brutal no matter where you are in the hierarchy.

If you fall to the bottom of your rank ex. lvl 1 manager misses a deadline? He disappears (presumably to the torture room). Afterwards, depending on his previous failure history, execution or he is now a Level 5 assistant manager.

The large array of ranks keeps something to strive for and compare against as well as quantifiable progression. It is also a warning against failure if your rank start to slip towards punishment. This provides motivation and reduces turnover. Win-Win.

Instead of threatening employees with harsh punishments, my suggestion would be to treat your employees extremely well so they'll want to do their best. In fact, you should want SPECTRE to be the #1 "best companies to work for", even if it's an evil corporation bent on ruling the world... but aren't they all? ;)

Seriously, though, take some ideas from Google and Apple and give employees the best benefits:

  • Free health care... so when Sgt Malice gets injured blowing up a vault, he knows the company will pay his medical expenses.
  • Or if your employees shouldn't go to the hospital because it'll expose secrets of your death-ray, then have an excellent on-site medical staff.
  • Free meals
  • Free child care
  • College scholarships
  • Paid holidays... because even employees of evil companies should get Christmas and Hanukkah off work.
  • Paid bank holidays- who doesn't like getting a paid day off because of a random day in October?
  • Paid 3 weeks vacation time... and tell the employees that no one is so overworked that they can't take a vacation
  • 401k and other retirement packages that are transferable.. so when Sgt Malice doesn't come back from a mission, his wife and kids get benefits
  • Coach and encourage employees on how they can do better
  • Make sure to give employees the resources they need to do their job... such as making sure Sgt Malice has the X9000 explosives instead of the X8000
  • Have plenty of employee recognition and appreciation... tell the entire company how well Sgt Malice blew up the building

To paraphrase Wreck-it Ralph: Just because you run an evil organization doesn't mean you have to be evil to your employees.

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    "Paid 3 weeks vacation time" Given that 4 weeks is the absolute minimum for a legal job inside the EU, Mr Blofeld will have to be a bit more generous, at least for his European operatives. ;-) – Pete Sep 15 at 13:37

Add a mystical component, thereby subverting the meaning of the concept 'alive' and 'dead' - for instance generating great gains will get you a 'blessing' that accumulates to extra lives, buffering eventual deadly repercussions. Also, you can shield others by blessing them. The higher up you are, the more deadly you can be to the ones below you, with you, Blofeld, as unkillable and omnideadly god being above those things.

Your organization retains their image, as people are still 'executed', while the headcount stays more stable. You also gain cool monickers like 'deathless', 'double dead', etc. helping you engender even more of a superstitious fear-aura in the general populace.

Demote them to an unattractive post: For example set up a mining base in Antarctica or Siberia and depending on the severity of their crime have them work there. For example if somebody messed up a paper that doesn't harm the organization too much, congratulate him with his new job as a manager or guard to the Antarctic base. Most people will not want to stay there for too long. If they screw up a bit worse then they can become a miner there for a couple of months.

Irritating 'redemption' courses: Have you employees suffer through something they really don't like. For example administrative personel could be forced into a military boot camp for a few months. The soldiers could be forced to become miners, janitors, construction crew or used for menial tasks for a few months.

These things are in my opinion severe enough to have people rethink messing up again, but not too severe that they will get a grudge out of it.

I like the classic Yakuza trope that you see in the movies where the person who failed offers a finger to the boss as an apology.

If this is a future or fantasy world and someone really botches something they sacrifice their arm to the boss in exchange for their life. Then down the line after earning their place back and completing some really troublesome jobs the boss rewards them with a Bionic Arm or something redeeming them from their past grievance. Now they are an uber badass who has learned their lesson and also seen the worst and best the org has to offer. All the while maintaining the feeling you are going for.

  • As far as I know Yakuzas chop their little finger as initiation ritual. – L.Dutch Sep 13 at 16:51
  • I saw a movie where they did it as payment for a grievance. I don't know if it's real, I doubt it, but it was pretty intense and gritty. I am thinking of a specific example but I feel like I have seen it more than once. – Simon.y Sep 13 at 22:58

Get them to apply the punishment to their co-workers. Every week someone else is on execution duty, gets a list of buddies to kill for their failures.

By administering the penalty themselves, they acknowledge its validity, and will begin justifying and vindicating it. They'll do their best to avoid failure not only because of the fear of death, but because they accept the justice of failure=dying.

As @Simon.y mentioned, when failing, they'll eventually come to you to offer their lives to redeem their honor/sense of their place in the company.

When this becomes the norm - you can be magnanimous when the employee is a good one and their failure stems from actual odds-stacked-against-them. You'll look good when letting them live, and culling out the weak will be a standard, expected procedure.

This does not work: badly burnt (austin powers)

Look to the Evil Overlord list

Specifically #68: I will spare someone who saved my life sometime in the past. This is only reasonable as it encourages others to do so. However, the offer is good one time only. If they want me to spare them again, they'd better save my life again.

Now I'm not saying it is just a life-saving thing. Instead, work a 'get out of failure' system into your rewards. Every six(?) successes, you earn a credit to fail with no (or at least a greatly reduced) penalty. They can save up as many of the credits as they can earn, but you might want to work in a system that successive failures start to cost additional credits.

Usual Evil Corp Stuff

  • Bring your child at work day
  • free fruit&coffe
  • annual group cohesion activities
  • christmas dinner

If it works on my company...

As any good manipulator knows, the optimal ratio of positive to negative feedback is 4:1. This is actually true regardless of the quantitative level of competence in your organization (regardless of whether you've got a whip-smart team of workers or are trying to train a dog to not poop on the carpet - and from the sounds of things, your organization is unfortunately veering towards the dog-poop-carpet side of the spectrum.)

So the first step is to baseline your competencies. What levels do you need to hit for positive or for negative reinforcement? You'll have to examine your historical performance to answer this. Either you'll need to:

  • Punish fewer people. This will be a challenge. Trust me, I know. Killing idiots is a sublimely cathartic act, and cutting down on this will be a difficult sacrifice.
  • Reward more people. This may be even more of a challenge. You'll find yourself rewarding marginal, semi-competent people far more than they likely deserve.

But it's needed. Without that 4:1 ratio, you'll find yourself running into headcount issues from a disloyal and unsatisfied workforce.

Fortunately, if you follow the 4:1 ratio, the general competency will rise from year to year. And this will get you where you want to go: where the idiots all fit into the :1 portion of the ratio, because you've got enough competent people earning lavish praise to justify sending all the idiots into Piranha Tanks. Which, honestly, is the reason a lot of us even get up in the morning.

Make them compete

SPECTRE is a vast and complex organisation. As any big group, there must be a lot of layer and divisions, subdivisions, task forces, teams, association...
Turn them one against another. Not on importants matters, but on numerous (and ultimately meaningless) subjects. Think of the houses on Hogwarts, competing for the title of house of the year.

Reward the winners, and punish severely the ones who bring poor results. Make them care A LOT about the competition. It must be one of the most important subject on their life.
If (and it will be the case) someone doesn't want to be implicated in that system, the rest of the team will pressure them to do so, fearing to lose points and be demoted.

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    You know what happens when you do this? Your employees start to focus on sabotaging each other rather than on advancing your goals. See "stack ranking" for how it plays out in the corporate world, or Nazi Germany for how it works when applied to a country. – Mark Sep 12 at 22:52

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