Some years ago, I wrote a piece for this newsletter about malicious compliance and how, as the King of Malicious Compliance, I learned to put the crown down. Something I read the other day reminded me of that piece (and some past behavior I’m not too proud of) and reinforced the importance of clear communication.

One of my favorite malicious compliance behaviors was rigid adherence to poorly worded policy memos. Following the Letter of the Law while intentionally violating its intent brought about an opportunity for me to rub someone’s nose in it (Words mean something!) without admitting I’d done something bad.

Don’t get me wrong, policies are necessary in any organization and writing them down keeps them from being WoMs (Word of Mouth). HR needs policies, Safety needs policies, Compliance needs policies, on-site medical personnel need policies – anywhere we need fundamental guidelines for decision making and a general action plan to guide behaviors to desired outcomes. And they should clearly communicate expectations.

But policy memos should NOT be used to correct bad behavior.

That’s called collective punishment, and in some situations is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Punishing the entire group because of the actions (or inaction) of the few is an egregious abuse of power and a damned poor example of leadership.

If one person accidentally messes in their pants, would you make everyone wear diapers? Lord, I hope not. That person would likely be the guest of honor at a blanket party, which would be bad in an office environment and besides, it’s illegal (and probably against some HR policy).

Real life example: twenty years ago, I inherited a high-performing organization and the 19 policy memos my predecessor had written, including (and I’m not kidding) a specified time limit for changing out of your workout gear into your regular office clothes. All of the memos were the result of one or a few people not adhering to commonly accepted professional behaviors (and hygiene standards), and they were all easy to maliciously comply with.

Flash forward to the present: I was recently a recipient of a new policy memo for a government organization I volunteer with. Its intent was to remind people of the professional behavior expectations for our new virtual meeting environment. Apparently, we needed the guidelines after much flailing during the first attempt at a leadership-only staff meeting and a larger group meeting with a couple dozen Microsoft Teams novices. As you might imagine, not everyone was in their home office looking their best.

First, the memo insisted that we all become proficient in video conferencing (ha!) and went on to establish a dress code and personal appearance standards. Like “no shorts, no chewing gum, no smoking, and no hats.” Really?? Two months without a barber and unless I either braid or bead my hair, the best thing I can do on camera is to wear a hat! In other words, a poorly worded policy memo with lofty expectations from a boss who was irritated by the motley crew’s laid-back appearance and lack of new computer skills.

And just like that, the King of Malicious Compliance made his appearance. With as much snarkasm as possible, the boss said, “I guess Kevin didn’t get the memo, to which I replied, “I did, and I’m not chewing gum, I’m not smoking, this isn’t a hat, and you have no idea what – if anything – I’m wearing below the waist.”

As leaders, why do we leave ourselves open to crap like that? Why don’t we:

  1. Address the behavior – individually if possible – but sweeping policy statements for the entire organization will leave most everybody wondering what put a burr in the boss’ saddle. And the offending individual(s) will likely miss the point entirely.
  2. Don’t hold people accountable for performance they’ve neither been trained or equipped for. We weren’t all born with a smart phone in our hand or a laptop in our backpack. Some of us have never even taken an online course, so cut us some slack and maybe make sure we even have a computer at home and a tutorial.
  3. Clear expectations are set through clear communications. We screw it up all the time because we take for granted that the receiver knows what we mean. (If there’s any doubt, ask your spouse.) Vaguely written communication is unfortunately the norm… crystal clear to the writer but clear as mud to the reader and best used as a cure for insomnia.
  4. Lastly (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), make sure the policies that were in place two months ago have been updated to reflect this dispersed working environment. Don’t assume that everyone knows what flexibility means… if common sense were actually common, more people would have it.

Everyone’s world has changed, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t unsettled. These are uncommon times that require leaders to step up their games and think differently about how they communicate and set expectations for their teams.

Maybe we should call it uncommon leadership?

It’s all up to you, leaders.