For the sake of discussion I am going to use the term rule to include laws, codes, ordinances, ethics and social mores.
Our society operates with rules with the concept that rules are needed to prevent anarchy. Some rules are in the form of laws, while others are simply a matter of stated ethics or societal norms.
Not all of the rules are followed all of the time
An example of not all rules being followed is the speed with which we drive. I once asked a group of 150 people that I was making a presentation to, how many used the “5 mile per hour rule” over the posted limit when driving? About half of the group raised their hands. When I asked about the “10 mile per hour rule” nearly all of the rest of the group raised their hands. Most people speed a little, with the feeling that it is common knowledge that we won’t be stopped unless we go more than 10 mph over the speed limit.
Sometimes an organization is not even aware of rules that apply to them. The State of Ohio has a rule that you cannot have a frame on your rear license plate that covers the writing on the plate. (ORC 4503.21) Not only is this one ignored by most citizens, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, itself, sells these surrounds in their contracted offices, where you renew your license!
Some mores are followed, some are not
Society also creates some rules that we all follow without really thinking about it. Most of us call before we drop in on someone, and most of us offer at least a glass of water to visitors to our home. There are also some societal rules that thankfully are moving into oblivion, but I myself still have problems when I see a woman wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. That fashion rule may be silly, but my mother firmly complied with it.
Malicious compliance with rules
Simply following all of the rules that are in existence can make it impossible to accomplish anything. When I had training to work as a contractor at NASA, I was taught that NASA defined following all of the rules to the point that no work could get done as “malicious compliance.” We were working with another contractor on an out-of-doors sampling project and that contractor had a rule that if they heard thunder they had to stop work for a half hour. This made it nearly impossible to get work done on many summer days! A better rule might have involved thunder and lightning and a proximity calculation. However, with strict compliance to their thunder rule, many days of work ended early.
Some people use malicious compliance in order to oust a person who they do not want. During each political campaign, opponents like to look over the petitions that the other candidates have filed and find some simple clerical infraction that shows that the person must be removed from the contest. In some organizations, when people want to remove someone they start an “investigation.” You can almost always find something that the person has done wrong if you look at all of the rules.
Who decides which rules to follow?
So, one of the things that everyone has to do, both in our society and at work, is to make a decision about which rules they have to follow and which rules they can ignore. Most often in the workplace, the higher level employee is expected to be able to determine which rules to follow and which to ignore. I, as President of Haag Environmental Company could, for example, determine when I would remove steel toed boots as a requirement on a particular project site, but I would never allow a new technician to make that decision.
Rules can be used to help processes and work go more efficiently, and they can be used to completely stop work. It all depends on the intent of the person using them.