I find this type of office behaviour surprisingly crafty. Malicious Compliance is not only one of my favourite biz speak expressions, it’s such a nasty little bit of treachery that when I’ve actually encountered it for real, I’m fascinated. Having worked as a Host/MC and executive coach in the corporate sector for 25+ years, however, it’s apparent to me that the precise definition of the term is not universally understood.
So, let’s circle back, peel the onion, open the kimono and leverage our synergies to ideate about Malicious Compliance. To begin with, there are other buzzwords and jargon that might also be used to identify this type of workplace treason, such as: “White Mutiny”; Faithful Obedience; Badass Bureaucrat; and, Obstructive Bureaucrat.
FOLLOWS RULES, AS DESCRIBED
What most people understand about someone who is exhibiting Malicious Compliance is that they are following rules, or orders from above precisely as described, to the l-e-t-t-e-r.
Yet, while Calvin is cute in his faithful obedience to his mother’s instruction to get into the bathtub, he’s not “malicious” in his compliance, he is simply delaying the inevitable.
Likewise, when sardonic social media stars post a quote from Taylor Swift’s album, “1989”, tagged with legalese, they’re not really being diligent in obeying her precedent-setting trademark rules; they’re mocking her.
HATEFUL INTENT, RESULTING IN FINANCIAL, OR ETHICAL HARM
The Calvin and Hobbes and Taylor Swift examples above are missing the other widely known aspect of Malicious Compliance. Like the Obstructive Bureaucrat, for a MalComp, (if I can coin the term), the rules are being followed in order to make things inconvenient, slow down production, or get revenge on those who made, or enforce the rules. Malicious Compliance describes someone who follows orders, or rules, while either allowing the result to reveal the flaws in the rules, or exploiting the flaws to sabotage the situation.
Certainly, in the 2003 movie, Old School, Mitch, Frank, Beanie and the rest of the fraternity of white-collar professionals in their thirties infuriate the Dean by filling out all the forms and going through all the necessary legal channels to stay on campus. They dislike him, so there is spite to their actions. But, in the end, they are not trying to sabotage the University by following the rules to a “T”. In fact, their behaviour is essential to their lifestyle, which brings us to a lesser-known key component of Malicious Compliance.
STRICT CONFORMITY NOT VITAL
For a behaviour to be officially an example of Malicious Compliance, it is especially so when the strict conformity to the rules is not vital. In other words, it would be easy for the person behaving this way to ignore the orders.
Now, without the backstory, it’s hard to know for sure if Dan Aykroyd’s character “George” has any contempt for his boss, John Belushi, in the classic SNL “Olympia Restaurant” sketch. In the meantime, while it’s clear that the cheeseburger order conformity is not vital, another less widely understood element in describing Malicious Compliance is absent from the diner scene.
ORDERS ARE PROBLEMATIC AND GIVEN BY SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES
By strict definition, Malicious Compliance occurs when a manager, or superior makes a mistake in giving an incorrect order, not fully knowing what might result from someone following them, and the employee realizes the error. So, even in the famous Milgram experiments on obedience to authority figures at Yale University, there is deviation from being an example genuine Malicious Compliance. The social psychologists measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. The orders were problematic, but the scientists were fully aware of the scope of what they might cause. The experiment found, btw, that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress.
If you’re still somewhat baffled by what Malicious Compliance is, you’re not alone. Even the most “informed” individuals can be confused. One of the most bizarre uses of the term I’ve heard came from CNN’s Anderson Cooper in reference to Iraq, post U.S. invasion in 2002.
“Malicious compliance is when your boss tells you to do something and you do it even though you know it’s not going to have the desired result.”
He was describing how Iraq was maliciously complying with orders from the “boss” (the U.S.) to prove they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction by handing over thousands of pieces of paper instead of what he argued, could have been just one single page.
Not quite. Bit of a stretch, actually.
If you encounter someone who is behaving in a manner which you suspect is Malicious Compliance, like me, you may be fascinated. To be certain they are officially a full-on MalComp, here’s a checklist:
-They do not deviate from the orders in any way
-They intend and desire for harm to be inflicted
-They could easily ignore the orders
-The orders are problematic, or incorrect
-The person giving the orders has made a mistake
Finally, I have summarized why I love the crafty phenomenon of Malicious Compliance in this short video commentary. You must not deviate from watching it.