Malicious Compliance, Pushing the Rules or Passive Resistance? plus #getnakedandgotowork

Obviously I wore socks, I'm not an Anarchist!
Obviously I wore socks, I’m not an Anarchist
#getnakedandgotowork is a the end – feel free to scroll down.

Back in my school days I was reported for wearing ‘subversive trousers’.

The trousers had been cunningly tailored (by my sister) and were transformed from a dull pair of standard grey school trousers, into the tightest fitting trousers I’ve ever worn (with the exception of Lycra cycling leggings – but we won’t go there). Matched up with a pair of pointy shoes, I was cool and I was compliant.

The only part of school uniform rules that specified ‘width’ was an attempt to reduce the size of flares (this was late 1970’s/ early 1980’s). There was nothing about minimum size. This fact was confirmed by the House Master, much to the irritation of the Senior Prefect, who’d complained about my revolutionary act of wearing ‘subversive trousers’.

Being Cool or Pushing The Boundaries? To be honest I’ve no recollection of wanting to push the rule boundaries back then, I just wanted to look cool and impress someone from the Girls School (my wife as it happens).

What the incident did wake me up to was the idea of resisting authority and how some people challenge the rules. Thinking back, there were many things that I did as a teenager that were completely within the rules, but had consequences that the rule writers definitely hadn’t intended – like the 6th Form Bar ‘two pint’ limit, that works fine… if it’s not two pints of sherry.

Anyway, where do pushing the rules, passive resistance and malicious compliance all fit together? And, why should anyone care?

Pushing the Rules: We’ve all been teenagers (or have probably met some), so I’m guessing you’ll know what ‘pushing the rules’ is all about? If you don’t….. I’d suggest some involvement.

If you’ve got a clever idea for some ‘rules’ on how people should behave (for their own good, or others), ask a bunch of teenagers to ‘critically review’ your proposals, and don’t get upset by the response.

Passive Resistance: this is a fascinating subject that has been part of human behaviour for 1000’s of years. The basic idea is that you refuse to comply with the rules imposed by authority by using passive or non-violent methods (you can read more here). The campaign led by Gandhi to oppose British rule of India is a famous example.

One of my favourites is the Singing Revolution that took place in the Baltic States during the late 1980’s. Hundreds of thousands of people gathering to peacefully sing protest songs eventually led to independence from the Soviet Union, and there’s even a film of it.

Malicious Compliance: This is an interesting/curious way to behave;

  • Basically you follow the rules or instructions, to the absolute letter,
  • However, many rules and instructions will have a flaw,
  • Something the ‘rule writers’ didn’t quite anticipate,
  • You exploit this flaw and do something that has a negative consequence,
  • When the person in authority experiences the negative consequence, you don’t get punished because you were only ‘following orders/complying with the rules’.

The full definition:

IMG_5669Lots of the examples of malicious compliance seem to originate with people’s military experience or school life. Hierarchical institutions where people in charge sometimes enforce petty rules over their subordinates.

A frequently quoted example is two soldiers being told to ‘paint the whole room white’ by a petty superior. They do in fact ‘paint the whole room white’; including light fittings, Windows, desks and chairs. This act of malicious compliance is difficult to punish as the offenders were only ‘doing what they were told’, to the letter.

If you are interested in malicious compliance I’d recommend looking at the following; The Good Soldier Švejk and Tales From Tech Support on Reddit.

The Good Soldier Švejk is a character created by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek and describes his experiences during the First World War, fighting for the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Švejk basically manages to frustrate the military rules by behaviour that his superiors cannot prove is deliberate. The idea of ‘dumb insolence’ fits nicely alongside malicious compliance and the word ‘Švejk’ has entered the vocabulary to describe that sort of behaviour. Thank you to Jon Beech (@_jonb) who pointed me in the direction of Švejk.

Tales From Tech Support (TFTS). If you’ve ever been involved in a skirmish with someone from an IT department, TFTS  on Reddit  gives you an insight into life on the other end of the phone. It also provides a warning about the terrifying consequences of being rude to Tech Support, that’s all I’m saying…

Malicious compliance pops up frequently in the TFTS world on Reddit. Here’s a link to an example which talks about ‘blind ticketing machines’. I’ve no idea what it means, I’m just worried by the sinister comment at the end, ‘malicious compliance is the best compliance’. Beware!

‘Mordac the Preventer of Information Services’ from Dilbert explains malicious compliance far more clearly.


Why should anyone care about Malicious Compliance etc? We live in a world where institutions tend to impose rules on people to get them to do ‘the right thing’. These rules are probably well-intentioned, logical, equality compliance assessed and future proofed. You might even be a ‘rule writer’.

I would argue however that no rule is perfect, and there will be flaws. When you throw into the equation the idea that people are capable of malicious compliance, this could lead to some unforeseen, interesting and potentially damaging consequences.

If you need to have rules, I’d suggest you develop them with the people who might be most effective at undermining them, possibly teenagers (in my subversive trouser based experience).

If you are wondering about #getnakedandgotowork…. that’s at the end (it’s like click bait round here at the moment)

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Written rules are unlikely to be perfect. There will always be flaws.
  2. People (some) have a tendency to push the boundaries of rules, which exposes the flaws.
  3. Developing rules with the people who are subject to them might generate a better result (co-design, co-development or co-production if you like)

#getnakedandgotowork. I know this seems unlikely, but it does appear to be true. A bit like the worst ever ‘dress down friday’. Anyway what happened was the President of Belarus getting his words mixed up in a speech about the country needing to embrace technology and work harder.

Apparently President Alexander Lukashenko (61) urged the people of Belarus to “get undressed and work until you sweat”. And that’s just what the people did. They also recorded their naked working in pictures they posted to social media with the #getnakedandgotowork hashtag.

I guess that’s a fairly mild example of malicious compliance, you can read more about it in this Evening Standard article. Nothing more exciting than a picture of the President mopping his fevered brow from me…

work until you sweat…..
work until you sweat…..

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:

5 Responses

  1. Mike Palmer

    A very timely reminder why we should not think in terms of compliance when we consider how to use the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act to help us behave more responsibly towards future generations.

  2. […] Er bod llawer o’r camau cychwynnol hyn i newid ymddygiad wedi cael llwyddiant ysgubol, mae yna gyfres wahanol o faterion yn ymwneud â heriau Deddf Llesiant Cenedlaethau’r Dyfodol, er enghraifft y cynnydd mewn Diabetes Math 2. Mae angen i’r dulliau fod yn fwy cynnil ac yn fwy seiliedig ar ddeall lle mae pobl yn gogwyddo tuag at newid. Os nad yw pobl yn gogwyddo tuag at newid, gall unrhyw fenter i newid ymddygiad wynebu gwrthwynebiad llawn neu bethau fel cydymffurfio maleisus gyda chanlyniadau anfwriadol. (Ysgrifennais am hyn o’r blaen). […]

  3. […] Whilst many of these behaviour change initiates have had huge success, there are a different set of issues around may of the WFG Act challenges, for example the growth in Type 2 Diabetes. The approaches need to be more subtle and based more upon understanding were people are ‘disposed to change’. If people aren’t ‘disposed to change’, any initiative to change behaviour can run into full resistance or things like malicious compliance with unintended consequences. (I’ve written about this previously). […]

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