I was the King of Malicious Compliance, and I wore the crown proudly.

Not familiar with the term malicious compliance? It’s a kind of organizational sabotage where the goal is often to get the boss fired.

Thankfully, I’ve been deposed from my throne, but here are some examples:

  • I’ve been known to rigidly comply with an order from my boss in a way I knew would cause him embarrassment. (Ask me about my M&M watch sometime.)
  • Knowing I had the correct answer, I might deliberately withhold my contribution in a discussion unless asked a direct question.
  • I could strictly adhere to mandatory office hours – just the arrival and departure times, of course – while spending the intervening hours in decidedly unproductive ways.
  • I might even do something I knew was counterproductive, just so I could say, “But you told me to do it.”

And I was pretty effective, because malicious compliance is contagious.

At the time, I freely admitted I wasn’t the best follower, and I blamed it on poor leadership. After all, I deluded myself, if I had a decent leader instead of a marginal manager, I’d have been a better follower. Even so, I never understood why my bosses put up with my crap.

So, what do you do with a guy like me?

I know what you’re thinking: I’d have fired your ass in a heartbeat. And sometimes they tried.

Now, I won’t say all organizations have someone like that, but many do. We justify tolerating them for bizarre reasons like “he’s better than a vacancy,” or “she’s really good at what she does” (when she does it), or maybe “HR makes it so hard to get rid of people.” And we put up with their crap without noticing the negative effect they’re having on the organization.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Do not tolerate those kinds of behavior. Malicious compliance will spread through the organization like sick building syndrome!

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Take it from me, there’s a much better way, and I’m grateful someone made the effort with me (thanks, Mike): be a leader.

Leaders learn what motivates people – and what demotivates them. Get to know your folks. Find out what they like and don’t like about their jobs and what their aspirations are. When I felt like I was being treated like a person instead of a part in a machine, I responded.

Leaders don’t tolerate harmful behaviors. What you tolerate, you endorse. Address the behavior every time it occurs. Force the miscreant to acknowledge the behavior and its harmful effects. It was a hard conversation, but when I had to confront my own bad behavior, I stopped it.

Leaders seek inputs. Whether implementing a change to a process or a procedure, or developing a solution to a problem, listen to the people who will be affected – especially those who push back. If possible, let the hard heads play a significant role in the implementation; you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it goes. When others saw me get behind something I was originally against, it made a huge difference.

Leaders encourage intelligent disobedience. Your employees should feel empowered to speak up when they see something wrong instead of dogmatically adhering to the exact instruction. If they’re afraid to say something (or keep quiet out of spite), that’s on you, and you’re liable to be embarrassed by the result. Empowerment takes trust. I never set up someone who trusted me.

Leaders develop leaders. It’s one of your primary roles – and possibly your most important. Work to identify referent leadership on your staff, and put the effort into helping that person grow and improve, channeling their efforts to the benefit of the organization. I’m forever grateful to the mentors who saw something salvageable in me and made me a leader with a passion to pass the lessons along.

Look around for the royalty in your organization. Be intentional about your leadership, and give them a chance to respond. I never knew how heavy the crown was until I laid it down.

How about it, leaders?

You have the stick.

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