Malicious compliance

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Malicious compliance (also known as malicious obedience) is the behavior of strictly following the orders of a superior despite knowing that compliance with the orders will have an unintended or negative result. It usually implies following an order in such a way that ignores or otherwise undermines the order's intent, but follows it to the letter.[1][2] A form of passive-aggressive behavior,[3] it is often associated with poor management-labor relationships, micromanagement, a generalized lack of confidence in leadership, and resistance to changes perceived as pointless, duplicative, dangerous, or otherwise undesirable. It is common in organizations with top-down management structures lacking morale, leadership or mutual trust. In U.S. law, this practice has been theorized as a form of uncivil obedience.[4][5]

Managers can avoid this by not making excessive, contradictory, or incomprehensible demands of employees.[6]

Malicious compliance was common in the Soviet Union's command economy; examples are used in the studies of behavior, management, and economics to hypothetically show differences between the Soviet command economy and a free market.[7][unreliable source?]


There is no universally agreed definition of malicious compliance. Among those ventured, a principle characteristic includes establishing 'malice' as a behavior "always meant in some way to damage, humiliate or threaten the established power structure, regardless of what level that may be".[3]

Fundamental to establishing malice is whether there is any financial or other remunerative incentive in acting contrary to good practice, as well as the likelihood of penalties and their severity for non-compliance, both of which mitigate the charge.

Another fundamental characteristic is that the malicious action can be taken without overt risk, as one is complying to the letter of a directive.[3] Nevertheless, repercussions may follow, often indirectly, whether from the supervisor, co-workers possibly burdened by the consequences of malicious obedience, or others higher in the management structure.[3]

The definition becomes grey when countering motivations are introduced, such as complying with what may be construed as a wrong-headed directive with the intention of drawing attention to the consequence, as to highlight an inefficient procedure or the managerial inadequacies of a superior.[3]

Some perceive malicious compliance as a tool for effecting change, such as social change,[8] or meeting goals, such as production quotas, even at the expense of efficiency and the organization.[9]

Other motivations include office politics, jealousy, revenge on a supervisor,[3][10] and simply "sticking it to" an organization one is unhappy with.[5]


Some possible examples of malicious compliance include:

  • A group of U.S. firefighters who were required for safety reasons to wear self-contained breathing apparatus against their will. In response, they merely wore the equipment on their backs but did not use it, complying with the letter of the mandate. This made their work less efficient than if they had not been wearing the equipment at all. A subsequent mandate required them to wear and use the gear.[11]
  • An artist resorting to "a conspicuous and hyperbolic compliance with established laws, rules, and mandates"[5] to strike back at what he perceived as an unfair tax code. Angry at being denied certain deductions on his tax returns, California artist Lowell Darling undertook a "series of creative endeavors exploiting uncivil obedience" intending to deconstruct the so-called hobby loss rule of the U.S. Tax Code. By employing fictional art projects and organizations, he "rigorously and ironically" fulfilled those factors said to indicate a profit-seeking intent. He later challenged electioneering norms and campaign finance rules in a mock run for governor.[5]
  • A project manager going along with a project, knowing it is impossible to complete. While the rest of their team knows the task is insurmountable, they cut corners to achieve some sort of result.[12]
  • Malicious compliance is common in production situations in which employees and middle management are measured based on meeting certain quotas or performance projections. Examples include:
    • Employees at a factory shipping product to customers too early so their inventory is reduced to meet a projection;[9]
    • Production plants refusing shipments of raw material at month-end so that monthly completion projections are met, even if doing so causes a negative impact on customer deliverables and overall production figures.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tom DeMarco, Tim Lister, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, p. 179, Addison-Wesley, 2013 ISBN 978-0-13-344073-7.
  2. ^ "U.S. Set To Begin Massive Military Exercises in Qatar", transcript, NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Dec 6, 2002, retrieved June 7, 2007, Malicious compliance is when your boss tells you to do something and you do it even though you know it's not going to have the desired result.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "What is malicious compliance?", John Staughton, ScienceABC,, January 22, 2022
  4. ^ Bulman-Pozen, Jessica; Pozen, David E. (2015). "Uncivil Obedience". Columbia Law Review. 115 (4): 809–872. ISSN 0010-1958. JSTOR 43387025.
  5. ^ a b c d Steinberg, Monica (2020-03-01). "Uncivil Obedience: Lowell Darling Follows the Law". American Art. 34 (1): 112–135. doi:10.1086/709417. ISSN 1073-9300. S2CID 218780624.
  6. ^ Cecilie Strømgaard Patscheider (8 August 2016). "Djøf: Lyv dig ud af spørgsmål om babyplaner og seksualitet til jobsamtalen". Politiken (in Danish).
  7. ^ Schug, Mark C (January 1, 1997). "From Plan to Market: Teaching Ideas for Social Studies, Economics, and Business Classes" (PDF). National Council on Economic Education. p. 2. Retrieved 18 October 2022.
  8. ^ "We can learn a lesson from Italy", Philadelphia Gay News, Jeremy Rodriguez, August 2, 2023
  9. ^ a b c Spitzer, Dean R. (2007). Transforming Performance Measurement Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success. American Management Association. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0-8144-0891-9.
  10. ^ "Learn the art of malicious compliance: doing exactly what you were asked, even when it's wrong", The Register, Mathew JC Powell, February 11, 2023
  11. ^ Gagliano, Mike; Phillips, Casey R.; Bernocco, Steve; Jose, Phillip (2008). Air Management for the Fire Service. Fire Engineering Books. ISBN 978-1-59370-129-1.
  12. ^ DeCarlo, Douglas (October 2010). EXtreme Project Management Using Leadership, Principles, and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility. Wiley. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-470-57367-9.