MALICIOUS COMPLIANCE – THE SMILING SERPENT

I was talking to a colleague last week over a beer. He was full of ‘disgruntle’ as he related the story of his day. Basically it went like this…

I have been working on this IT project for months, doing long days and occasional weekends. This morning I arrived at 10.15am. In front of everyone the project manager shouted at me that the project hours were 8.45am to 5pm and that I should make sure my timesheet reflected my late start. Not only was I embarrassed by the reprimand, but the project manager gave me no credit for the fact that I never left the project before 6pm – ever.

I asked him what he was going to do about it. He answer was simple – “I will work the project hours, no more, no less. Then when the project is not delivered on time, it is the PMs fault, not mine”.

At the time of writing, he has been true to his word. Working what he calls short days.

I reflected on his story and I recognised that at some point in our professional lives, we have all stood in front of a manager receiving a dressing down. Outwardly we maintained our professional demeanour, while inwardly we were seething. The situation for which we were reprimanded may have been our fault, but our motives were honourable. We were working in the best interests of the project and colleagues. In our mind the reprimand was just wrong.

After such a reprimand it is quite human to leave the manager’s office with a mindset of – stick it buddy, if you don’t want me to ‘X’, then I won’t. It’s ‘by the book’ from here on in.

For most of us the emotion subsides fairly quickly and we get on with our job recognising that we can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

The problem is that there is a minority group who do not forgive and forget quite so easily. For these people their chagrin runs deep and they cannot readily bounce back from a reprimand. These people take their ‘by the book’ vow to heart and they consciously set out to change their behaviour for the worse. Next time the manager asks them to do something they follow the instruction to the letter, entirely aware that what they were asked to do is not what the manager actually wants. They know full well that following the instruction to the letter will be counterproductive to the manager’s intent and for that reason alone, they do exactly that.

This dogmatic adherence to the exact instruction given, rather than to the intent of the instruction is termed – malicious compliance.

From a business or project point of view, malicious compliance is a treacherous form of corporate sabotage. It can be very difficult to identify and even more difficult to treat. It can manifest in many ways including; adhering strongly to shift start and stop times, not contributing to a discussion when you know the answer unless you are asked a direct question, exaggerated responses to instructions, working strictly to the agreed standard or preparing reports you know to be unnecessary or irrelevant.

Failure to identify malicious compliance can set a project back months or as I have seen in some cases, derail the project altogether. This is especially true if the ‘bad apple’ is a leader in the group. Example; If the leader starts to work to the standard hours then it won’t be long before the whole group is following suit. Equally if the leaders attitude goes unchecked, it won’t be long before the whole group is grumbling and questioning the authority and leadership of the (project) manager. This can force an unplanned change of management as that becomes the only option to bring the situation back to normal. This in turn could unfortunately reinforce the negative behaviour of the employee or group and it may be some time before management is able to get the balance of power back.

The trigger for resorting to malicious compliance will vary by individual and includes everything from an individuals need to implement a machiavel private political agenda of destabilisation to those who are suffering change fatigue and need to resort to doing the minimum just to get by.

I consider those who are machiavel to be a smiling serpent. They smile to your face while sabotaging your project. They have perfected the art of hiding in the open.

For an employee to be maliciously compliant requires the employee’s manager to know that the employee could do a better job if they wanted to. It is a case of ‘can but won’t’ as opposed to ‘can’t and won’t’. The difference between the two is motivation. The formers motivation will always be negative and the latters could be neutral or positive.

Most people cannot ‘maintain the rage’ for long and generally do not require remedial action beyond possibly having a chat with them after the emotion has passed. For this majority, bouts of malicious compliance should be seen as part of the process of building corporate experience and maturing as a professionals – Learning that you can get angry and then get over it.

For the few that do persevere with malicious compliance there are three remedies:

  1. Discuss outcomes and show belief in the person.
  2. Give short instructions.
  3. Critically listen to the employee.

Moving the discussion to outcomes forces the staff member to answer the – so what – question.

“You fulfilled the instruction – so what. What did you achieve”?

Forcing the employee to confront their contribution, or lack thereof, is a powerful means of communicating that malicious compliance cannot produce satisfactory results and that obvious and continued mediocrity cannot be ignored by either party. Both need to take action.

By definition, malicious compliance is a conscious choice. The employee chooses to behave in this manner. Therefore, they can choose to relax their stance as well. In remedy 1 above, I mention that the manager should show belief in the person. This is especially important when the employee cannot see a way out of the situation they have created. By accepting their justifications at face value and showing belief in them as a person, the manager allows the person to ‘save face’. This gives the person room to move, to adjust their behaviour without having to fully admit fault. It should lead to the return of an acceptable level of output and behaviour.

As part of the addressing the issue, the manager should give the employee short and simple instructions where the deliverable is easily identifiable and within a short timeframe. This allows the employee to build success upon success and to receive positive feedback frequently. It will help to mitigate any self-esteem issues the person may have.

Equally, these two remedies will provide the manager with the sufficient case study material should it become necessary to begin a job transfer or termination procedure. Because – if you can’t change the people, then change the people.

The third remedy is to critically listen to the employee. If the employee is a person with obvious skills and talent who is in effect dumbing themselves down to conform to the instructions, then the manager must evaluate who is the dogmatic party. This is particularly true when a manager is dealing with a highly experienced technical person. In this case the manager may not fully understand the technical answers given to their questions and therefore they inappropriately instruct the technician into a course of action the technician knows to be wrong. The technician is unable to get the manager to understand the error in the instruction so they throw up their hands and say – “It’s not my problem, I will do what I am told”.

With thanks to Kailash Krishnan for his comments on the early draft.

14 thoughts on “MALICIOUS COMPLIANCE – THE SMILING SERPENT

  1. Hi,
    I recently discovered your articles and I am really enjoying them.
    You said a few things here that stuck with me. “those who are suffering change fatigue and need to resort to doing the minimum just to get by” wow! This is exactly how I felt. I went for a long time overworked and underpaid as I carried the weight of two full time positions for over a year in the pandemic and found myself just burnt out. I was so exhausted each night that many nights I cried myself to sleep. No job should ever be that heavy. Add to this, my job had no sense of direction. I had to create the processes I used only to have a coworker (who was chummy with the DM) regularly make changes to my processes and then I was directed to do my job ‘her way’ when she didn’t know anything about my work flow. After the 3rd time she did this in a year, I erupted. Yep, I was reprimanded. I slinked back to my desk. The words to Young Turks came into my mind “but there ain’t no use in talking is nobody’s listening”.
    I hit a wall. I didn’t have the energy to do anything but the bare minimum anymore. I sat silent in meetings when I knew the answer. I had zero desire to contribute my knowledge to my team which had become the “mean girls” group. The job I’d loved had become my toxic relationship. That was 8 months ago.
    I just started a new position in the company today; new department, new manager. My new manager has already streamlined his processes. So I’ll be working with clear processes, parameters and direction. Going over the processes today filled me with hope that I can regain my desire to start work each day.

    I read a lot of comments arguing that you don’t understand. Well, I disagree. I think you understand very clearly. Thank you for writing this. It’s helped me acknowledge and take ownership of my own MC behaviors and it will help me in the future to be more assertive so that hopefully I won’t get pushed to that point again.

    Like

    • Hi Ker66
      Thank you for your comments and your story. Wishing you all the best with your new position. As my dad always said… you can’t manage the past, you can only manage the future. Reading your comments I think you are well placed to just that. Good luck with the road ahead.

      Like

  2. If a project cannot complete in the allotted time with the allotted count of people there is something wrong with project planning, and the employee’s reaction to the public reprimand was absolutely understandable. He worked overtime (we don’t know if it even was paid) and got shouted at for this. A good project manager is capable to finish his project without relying on overtime (unless it is a real emergency).
    I would have gone a step further and publicly respond to the project manager that from now on I will comply with the working time per the book – and maybe more union and legal regulations. And present my previous time sheets to him later – in private.
    Your stance in the whole article is very one-sided – to prevent MC or nip it in the bud when it happens. But the basic question still is: *why* would the employee start to think about MC? Because he was treated poorly and micro-managed, and *that* needs to be addressed.
    So in fact this is usually not an employee problem but a leadership problem.

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    • Hi Tseeling.
      My article aside…MC is frequently expressed by a subordinate to senior as the subordinate is complying with the seniors direction. But there are examples where the senior exhibits MC and does exactly what the subordinates are asking, knowing it will impede the subordinates in time to come. The triggers and causes for MC can be poor leadership, poor management, entitlement, personality clashes etc. No matter, once MC manifests itself, it is up to the senior player to lead the actions to resolve it. Either through (giving and or receiving) mentoring, coaching, training, patience etc. But equally, the horse to water analogy applies. The junior has to be open to rebuilding the trust and relationship.

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  3. Garth, your conclusion fails to account for something very important.
    Some managers need to be removed, but the corporate leaders refuse to do it.
    People don’t quit companies; they quit managers.
    Usually, malicious compliance is not the result of one bad move by a manager.
    it’s the result of a long history of Abusive and often Illegal actions by a manager, in a company in which the managers bosses and HR systematically ignore employee complaints about the abuse.
    It’s not the result of one incident, but that last straw, that breaks the camels back.
    It’s not employee treachery. It’s a corporation that broke a value-for-value contract with the employees.
    I’ve been on both sides of this, manager and employee.
    The failure is, without doubt, management failure.

    Like

    • Hi Ron
      Thank you. Yes, I agree. It is a generally caused by the person with authority. In terms of the straw the broke the camels back, it gets interesting when the MC is exhibited by a group of people. That is undoubtedly the fault of the senior manager. When MC is from an individual, it’s less clear cut. The individual could (for example) exhibit MC because they were held back on a promotion they expected. Yes, the manager held them back, but perhaps because the manager could see they were not ready. My view – MC is frequently the result of bad management/leadership, but no universally so.

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  4. Your colleague has a crap manager. Praise in public, punish in private. If I’m working extra hard for you and your make me look the fool in front of everybody why should I work hard for you anymore? You obviously don’t value me…

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  5. Your opening example is a perfect example of malicious compliance. However, you veer off from the reason for it almost immediately and lay all the blame on the employee when it was the manager that was in the wrong.

    If an employee is grinding long hours and weekends trying to keep a project on schedule, the absolute last thing a manager should do is dress them down for showing up late one day without hearing the reason. To then reinforce that action by explicitly stating the project hours shows the manager doesn’t care about the employees extra contribution. They only care about the letter of the rules. So what incentive does the employee have to go above and beyond when it isn’t recognized? To keep their job? That’s a pretty low bar to set when jobs are pretty readily available. HR departments, companies, and managers need to focus on the WHY of the malicious compliance and should always look at the management instruction given to the employees first. The many stories of malicious compliance I have read have always started with a malicious ask of compliance by management.

    It’s best if companies remember that employees don’t quit companies, they quit managers.

    Like

    • Hi.
      To pick up on your comment ” The many stories of malicious compliance I have read have always started with a malicious ask of compliance by management” While I don’t agree with the phrase Malicious ask, I do agree that MC generally triggered by poor management or leadership and MC is exhibited by a junior towards a senior. Not always the case, but often (majority) the case.

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  6. Oh yes, let’s blame the *employee* for working short days, it’s just a phase. They’ll get over it and grow up.

    It’s fairly clear that you don’t understand how this works. If management isn’t recognizing your friend’s contribution in the form of long hours and instead only faults the employee for being late, then those long hours are now absolutely undeserved – especially if they are uncompensated. If your friend is exempt from overtime laws, well, then his supervisor is not recognizing his contribution to the project and deserves to see what it’s like to have that contribution removed. The failure is of leadership, full stop. Since the supervisor went to the reprimand instead of inquiring as to why the employee was late by a few hours (not even waiting for a pattern), the failure is directly there.

    By pinning this on an “immature” employee you have forgotten that the immature person was the *supervisor*.

    There’s a saying: “put your hand in a bowl of water, and then remove it; and see what impression you have left.” The saying forgets the turbulence involved with the removal of the hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Here’s a thought – instead of allowing “malicious compliance” to exist why not ensure you’re giving clear directions? And the workers should have some power, in my opinion the ability to commit acts of sabotage is just another tactic in the workers arsenal, similar to legal threats and intimidation by the employer. And most people practice sabotage in a way that not only allows themselves to be free from suspicion, but also allows the fellow employees to escape suspicion. For example a plumber may make a large hack with a power tool which is typically used by carpenters, or a hole in the pipe made by an electricians staple, in a pipe in a house before water is in the line and before drywall is up. Then when the house is finished and pipes are filled, a very expensive problem presents itself. Now the plumbers involved need only say “it looked fine when I left” and the Boss is on the hook for the screw-up. Thus, the workers plan to sink the company in its current iteration and leave en-mass for another or just setup a company of their own. It happens all the time.

    There is one sout ion to things like this- PAY YOUR WORKERS PROPERLY AND LISTEN TO THEM!

    ANY other ‘solution’ will just result in more sabotage.

    Like

    • Hi Mike
      Thank you for the comments. Listening to your staff is always the best strategy. Money however is generally only good for getting staff to work. An unhappy staff member will be unhappy no matter how much you pay them.
      I would not class sabotage as you describe it as malicious compliance. Malicious yes, compliance no.

      Like

  8. Let’s face it, if the employee does something wrong, then management can punish the worker for that fault.

    But if management does something wrong, what are the employee’s choices in punishing management? They can go up the chain of management or to HR. This might result in action from a healthy company – or it may backfire if the company is managed by the sorts of people who make the mistake you’ve used in your example.

    The employee could always start looking for another job. And this could also be seen as a malicious response since it will leave a hard-working team short handed. Projects may fail completely – especially on a team where 9-10 hour days are seen as “normal”.

    Or the employee can demonstrate that management has made a silly error by actually following their instructions.

    Your three remedies are missing one further remedy. An apology. This poor manager did the worst thing possible. You ALWAYS ALWAYS reprimand in private, and praise in public. Belittling an employee in front of his peers might be acceptable in Basic Training, but it is not any sort of “leadership” in the business world.

    Liked by 2 people

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