People in despair act on their frustrations in inventive ways. Malicious compliance is one of them. It is a warning sign that leadership is failing.
Driving Despair In
A manufacturing facility was running at breakneck speed. Consequently, leaders delayed some maintenance to keep up the production schedule. The leaders maintained production and lowered maintenance costs. So, the process continued. Habitability in the plant deteriorated. The operating staff hated the conditions. Conditions injured some staff. Morale fell as production increased. Mistakes occurred more frequently . The leaders instituted a “zero tolerance” or “verbatim compliance” policy with respect to procedures.
Acting Out in Despair
The crew had enough. During the next plant start, the staff encountered an error in the procedures. Four pumps (A, B, C, and D) required venting before putting them into operation. The procedure provided directions for venting the A pump. At the end of the steps, it simply said, “Repeat steps 1 through 13”. It did not specify on which pump to repeat the steps. So, the crew vented the A pump for the entire shift. They would not violate the verbatim compliance directive. Production for that shift was lost. The crew was nowhere closer to getting the plant started than at the beginning of the shift.
Of course, everyone in the crew knew what the procedure was intended to do. They were faced with a choice. The staff had no authority to change the procedure. They faced with severe penalties for not following procedures verbatim. So, they accepted the situation and kept venting the A pump.
Impact of Despair
When the leaders ordered the crew to vent the other pumps and proceed with startup, the crew refused. They cited the “verbatim compliance” policy and the “zero tolerance” policy for failing to follow the procedures. The leaders realized they were in a bind. They had created the despair and discontent. The leaders ignored the needs of the crew and pushed for more production. They instituted a “zero tolerance” policy which left the crew with no room to apply reasonable judgment. The crew refused to deviate from the policies. In order to change the procedures, high-level managers had to meet, issue a new policy, conduct training on the new policy, etc. Eventually, the leaders agreed to fix the maintenance issue affecting crew safety. They also agreed to abolish the “verbatim compliance” policy. Amazingly (or perhaps not so amazingly) production recovered and the process moved on.
The “malicious compliance” strategy succeeded in the short term. Maintenance done and production resumed. However, there was a period of lack of production that was permanently lost. In the long term, mistrust between the management and the crew lingered. When cooperative problem solving disappears from your organization, malicious compliance will emerge. It will require time and effort to restore trust and drive despair out. But, there will be unrecoverable losses along the way.