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April 30, 2021

Malicious Compliance

There's a lot of business "office speak" buzzwords and jargon. This one, "Malicious Compliance", is a beauty.

This is one of the corporate buzzword phrases that still strikes me as intriguing.

It’s been a few years since I coached leadership communications courses on a regular basis.


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 30+ 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, ObstructiveBureaucrat.


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.


The other widely known aspect of Malicious Compliance. Like the ObstructiveBureaucrat, 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 describe 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 theUniversity 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.


Fora 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“Olympic 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.


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 YaleUniversity, there is deviation from being an example genuine MaliciousCompliance. 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.”

-Anderson Cooper  

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 bee 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

If you're also now in the mood for a cheeseburger, I'm taking orders.

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