Malicious Compliance, I hate painting……. and filling in forms.

My lovely shed, defaced

This week has been all about malicious compliance: filling in my tax return before the £100 fine; ‘helping’ my kids with home work (work out who is least willing and compliant here); completing my expenses form before the deadline; working out why some people are resistant to tagging for document management; and painting a room before the new carpet arrives on Monday.  I hate painting, possibly more than the form filling.

My participation in painting is the perfect example of malicious compliance. I have to do it because…….. I think I should (lots of psychological stuff going on there); it’s too late, too much hassle and too expensive to get someone else in to do it; and above all my wife is telling me I must do it. Oh, and just to add a bit of spice (added complication), the kids will participate as it will be an excellent bonding opportunity. Great, I can’t wait.

This is how it transpires, good intentions to start, plenty of good natured banter, and even some painting. Boredom creeps in and malicious acts emerge. Son number one ends up with paint flecks on the back of his head, son number two has a stripe of paint daubed across his face (Adam Ant / Braveheart style) and son number three resorts to hand painting the walls. Somehow the dog gets a glossy new coat (of gloss paint), I lose my cool, shout my head off and everyone disappears. Version two of this is a shockingly poor attempt at painting which rewards the kids with a dispirited thanks from me and the afternoon off them to play X-Box.

Whichever scenario, same outcome; painting is completed by me and my wife, both deep in grudging, possibly malicious compliance, ‘reworking’ some of the earlier efforts.

Malicious compliance doesn’t get much coverage on Wikipedia, but here goes:  ‘the behavior of a person who intentionally inflicts harm by strictly following the orders of management or following legal compulsions, knowing that compliance with the orders will cause a loss of some form resulting in damage to the manager’s business or reputation, or a loss to an employee or subordinate. In effect, it is a form of sabotage used to harm leadership or used by leadership to harm subordinates. A specific form of industrial action that utilizes this is work to rule’. There are some striking similarities here with the spot the meeting saboteur post from a while back.

I think my painting experiences are a good parallel of what happens with compliance based activities in the rest of life. My form filling was at the very best grudgingly compliant. The bottom line is that it’s really hard to get anything worthwhile out of people when you have to force them to do it. Persuasion and engagement are everything. I addition I’m sure that my personal dislike of painting is picked up by the kids so it’s hardly a surprise that they don’t want to play along. I think I probably need to overcome my painting issues before I have any chance of inspiring others.

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Making people comply with requests never gets the best results, much better if they want to do it.
  2. Grudging or malicious compliance could well leave you with a worse situation than no compliance at all (over-painting previous work confirms this).
  3. If you are not fully committed to the mission yourself, it’s unlikely to troops will fall in behind you.

Thanks to Andrew, fellow dad at Under 16s rugby, who alerted me to the idea of malicious compliance.

The picture I’ve used here is one of my own. The back of my lovely shed, defaced by son number three and my nieces, gloss paint too.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

9 Responses

  1. I love the way you link your personal life to big issues in the workplace in these short, superbly focussed posts – will you do a blog writing course with me please?

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