I appreciate the interesting comments and suggestions in response to my last post on different levels of felt accountability. Readers may recall that I proposed -- from best to worst - that a team or organization can be characterized as having people who feel everything from authorship. mutual obligation, indifference, and mutual contempt. I have especially been thinking about this comment from Justdriven, which builds on a prior comments by AnnieL:
"Regarding your first question, I think AnneL may have identified a fifth category between mutual obligation and indifference which would be fear driven box checking. This would be the case where individuals follow procedures out of a fear of retribution rather than an endorsement of said procedures. This would seem to be what the pilot experienced. This stage would be a slippery slope that takes you from mutual obligation to indifference and then contempt."
I am taken with "fear driven box-checking" as it seems to be both a symptom and a cause, where people who feel powerless have no ability -- and thus no obligation -- to help make things go well because the system makes it impossible regardless of how good their intentions might be. This comment also got me thinking about how, in some systems, people can zoom past indifference and move to mutual contempt by following the rules exactly as a way to fight back against a bad system or boss -- especially when there are bad standing rules or orders for a given challenge. "Working to rule" is a classic labor slow down tactic, and there is some sweet revenge and irony when you get back at company or person that you don't like by following their instructions to the letter.
More broadly, I have been interested in the notion of "malicious compliance" for a long time. In Chapter 6 of Good Boss, Bad Boss I wrote about how it is sometimes used to get back at a bad or incompetent boss, or in the example below, by bosses to shield their people from a lousy boss up the chain of command:
I know bosses who employ the opposite strategy to undermine and drive out incompetent superiors. One called it “malicious compliance,” following idiotic orders from on high exactly to the letter, thereby assuring the work would suck. This is a risky strategy, of course, but I once had a detailed conversation with a manager at an electronics firm whose team built an ugly and cumbersome product prototype. After it was savaged by the CEO, the manager carefully explained (and documented) that his team had done exactly as the VP of Engineering ordered, and although he voiced early and adamant objections to the VP, he gave up because “it was like talking to a brick wall.” So this manager and his team decided ‘Let’s give him exactly what he wants, so we just said “yes sir” and followed his lousy orders precisely.’ The VP of engineering lost his job as a result. Again, this is a dangerous and destructive strategy, and I would advise any boss to only use it as a last resort.
I would be curious to hear of other examples of malicious compliance -- and if you have any ideas of how to create conditions so it won't happen. Its is one of this sick but fascinating elements of organizational life.