Malicious Compliance and Lessons from Garden Maintenance with my Kids.

My ideas about chopping logs don’t quite fit with how my kids saw it.
How not to motivate teenagers. Garden maintenance is not my day job; in fact it’s about as far away from ‘desk driving’, as it’s possible to travel.

These two areas do however have some interesting crossovers, where it might be possible (in theory) to transfer some learning.

Before I say anything it is probably worth mentioning that recently I’ve been extending my shed, and embarked on a few other activities. There was a bit of chicken ranching, messing around with the sewage tank, significant amounts of concrete and lots cutting up logs. Naively I thought this would be an opportunity to test my motivational skills and transfer employee engagement ideas into the world of teenage sons… like the complete idiot I am.

Malicious Compliance is worse than blank refusal.  I’d always imagined that my teenagers would be thrilled at the prospect of doing some building with me. Learning some of the skills I’d picked up from my own father, and creating something useful.

Using a bit of motivational ‘pull theory’ I tried the following approach:

  • Me, “kids, fancy having a go at chopping up logs with the chainsaw?”
  • Kids, “Nah…. we’re using double blade chainsaws to fight zombies on the X-box”

I could go on, but you get the drift. My initial ‘offer’ was then followed by a series of increasingly less polite requests until I eventually ‘lost it’, used coercion (blatant threats) and then switched off the house electricity power supply.

So, I got the help I needed. However it was possibly worse than struggling alone. The sullen half hearted shoveling of aggregate into a cement mixer and the limp attempts at hammering nails were pitiful. This was good old malicious compliance at its worst. But I know the game.

Some of this was a deliberate attempt to provoke me into criticising their efforts which would legitimise the option of them storming off in a “Dad is grumpy and really difficult to work with” rage. So not ‘loosing it’(again) and ‘solid encouragement’ were the order of the day, and it sort of achieved the objective.

Chainsaws don’t excite everyone. A useful lesson I learnt was, what excites and motivates me doesn’t necessarily do the same for other people, and not everyone loves chainsaws. A chainsaw in the hands of a resentful teenager probably isn’t a good idea either.  

When thinking about this in the context of work it did dawn on me that, not everyone loves those ‘hands on’ practical team building activities that sometimes happen. Painting the community hall, might not be something everyone enjoys, even if it is a fantastic thing to do.

People tend to be more committed to something they have chosen to do rather than forced to do, so it’s better to let them choose the activity.  Failing to do this will probably generate malicious compliance which just defeats the whole point of the exercise. Just saying in case you’ve got a team away day coming up and are thinking about a group activity.

Age and experience beats youth and enthusiasm. For round two of Garden Maintenance with the kids I did actually find something that interested one of them.  Driving 8ft posts into the ground for the chicken run with a 16lb sledgehammer.

Just the sort of thing a teenage gym monkey dreams about. Whacking a post with a 16lb lump of metal should be nothing for someone used to throwing around ten times that weight in the gym. My ‘pull theory’ was working, full engagement, excellent.

It all went wrong as it turned out. “Dad cheated “ and won the post sinking contest, by a mile, I am champion (of our back garden) with the sledgehammer.

Why did I succeed? Well it is apparently because “Dad’s had about 150 years of practice…..…and my hair was in my eyes”. Not strictly true, I did use a sledge hammer a fair bit in my youth and developed a little bit of expertise.  I might not as be as strong as the gym monkey but experience it seems does count.

The more you practice the better you get.  Mastering a skill is important, which usually means putting in the hours. Even something as apparently straightforward as using a sledgehammer requires skill.  A lesson that has parallels in the workplace.

Anyway we did finish a few jobs in the garden and rounded things off with a genuine campfire and cooked some burgers. During this I got the most astonishing request: ”Dad, can you move the fire closer to the house, I keep losing the WiFi signal on my phone”……..I despair.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Take care in what you pick for motivational activities at team building activities (not everyone loves a chainsaw).
  2. Better still, let people choose what they want to do. This should get better engagement and avoid malicious compliance.
  3. Age, experience and mastery of your tools will beat youth and enthusiasm, but I would say that wouldn’t I!

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:

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