In Polish there's a word Kunktatorstwo - trying to achieve own goals through delaying action, e.g. by making the opponent run out of time, making them tire out from keeping their defenses up, or believably failing to follow through an obligation, upon which they depended.

For example, you really hate your boss, who is the owner of the company and you want to destroy him even at cost of your own job (but not at cost of civil lawsuit for sabotaging the work). He's got a critical contract with a strict deadline, not meeting which would destroy his company. You perform your work in such a way that the deadline won't be met, but still your procrastination won't be provable - you perform at lowest still acceptable speed, you try solutions which you know are bound to fail (but you can claim you didn't and needed to test them), you waste time on analyses, meetings, questions, you perform a very thorough and solid (but lengthy) work where a much faster, simpler one would suffice, and generally secretly sabotage it in such a way that the final product would be at least acceptable if not for missing the deadline.

Unlike plain procrastination, which is usually subconscious, and undesired by the procrastinator, Kunktatorstwo is purposeful and malicious - it's not you who is being harmed by the delay.

Is there an english word or phrase to describe this kind of activity?

(both verbs and nouns are okay).

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    A sports metaphor might be running out the clock – Jim Mack Apr 1 '15 at 23:25
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    @JimMack: Running [someone] out of the clock? – SF. Apr 1 '15 at 23:30
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    "Stalling" and "sandbagging" both come to mind, but I'm not sure how well they fit your need. – Hurkyl Apr 2 '15 at 9:58
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    I never considered intentional procrastination as a form of passive-aggressive sabotage...TIL. – BrianH Apr 2 '15 at 16:40
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    Having read the other comments and answers to date, I would say that Hurkyl's "sandbagging" nails it for me. The perpetrator is pretending to have a lower level of competence or ability, in order to slow down progress without causing suspicion of malicious intent. – Jenn D. Apr 2 '15 at 21:13

12 Answers 12


I believe that strategy would generally be referred to as "delaying tactics".

Some comments mentioned "running out the clock", which is a sports metaphor from timed sports. I've heard it used as a metaphor in other arenas, although its most applicable when you know exactly how long you need to delay.

In the work arena specifically, there is a tactic called work-to-rule, where the employee gums up the works by following every single workplace rule to the letter.

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    The thing about "work to rule" and the related "go-slow" is that management are supposed to notice - they're forms of industrial action. – Chris H Apr 2 '15 at 16:08
  • @ChrisH - Mostly. Some people will just do that on their own for personal reasons. (eg: Ticked about not getting a promotion, they don't like you...) – T.E.D. Apr 2 '15 at 16:26
  • Running out the clock applies only to his first definition, not the other two. – Loren Pechtel Apr 2 '15 at 20:38

cunctation: delay, procrastinate

playing the Fabius Cunctator game

totally cognate with your Polish expression, surely exist in English too.

You Polish people think you are the only ones importing stuff from Latin? :-))

Kunktatorstwo surely is based on the Latin Cunctator, which is drawn from the agnomen of this famous historical character in old Rome

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (/ˈmæksɪməs/; c. 280 BC – 203 BC) was a Roman politician and general, who was born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He was a Roman Consul five times (233 BC, 228 BC, 215 BC, 214 BC and 209 BC) and was twice appointed Dictator, in 221 and again in 217 BC. He reached the office of Roman Censor in 230 BC. His agnomen Cunctator (cognate to the English noun cunctation) means "delayer" in Latin, and refers to his tactics in deploying the troops during the Second Punic War. He is widely regarded as the father of guerrilla warfare due to his, at the time, novel strategy of targeting enemy supply lines in light of being largely outnumbered.1 His cognomen Verrucosus means "warty", a reference to a wart above his upper lip.2

Wikipedia - Fabius Maximus

As to the name:

cunc·ta·tion noun \ˌkəŋ(k)-ˈtā-shən\ plural -s : delay, procrastination


Latin cunctation-, cunctatio, from cunctatus (past participle of cunctari to hesitate) + -ion-, -io -ion — more at 1hang

First Known Use: 1585

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

As to the expression, it was commonly used by Churchill (and his son, writing here his biography), and certainly known, e.g., by all those Oxford & Cambridge-educated British people, so strong in Antiquity.

Winston S. Churchill - Page 865 Randolph S. Churchill - 1969

I have always been in favour of this Fabius Cunctator game as simple, obvious, safe and practical; and I am still.

Now that I've presented you something that is totally cognate with your Polish word, I'll challenge you to be fair and adopt them :-))

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    The word is probably more accurate, but I'm afraid most of my readers wouldn't recognize it. – SF. Apr 2 '15 at 11:35

I'm surprised no one has mentioned 'filibuster'. Although it usually refers to a legislative assembly, I've heard it used in other contexts and it seems like a clear choice to me:


an action such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly while not technically contravening the required procedures.

Definition from google.

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    I love it! I have just the context to use it in -- thank you!! (Please don't remove this -- this is the first time I have ever thanked anyone, and I won't make a habit of it.) – aparente001 Apr 2 '15 at 19:14
  • It's similar, but very overt - no believable pretense of "excusable procrastination"; merely one by the book - taking time allowed by regulations but definitely exceeding time allowed by common sense. – SF. Apr 3 '15 at 12:47

Passive aggression:

Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.


From Psychology Today:

Passive-aggression is frustrating to its targets, since it's not as easily identifiable—or unacceptable—as, say, socking someone in the jaw would be.

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    Passive aggression takes countless different forms. Malicious procrastination is merely one of many, so the expression is too broad for this situation. – SF. Apr 2 '15 at 16:51
  • "delaying tactics" are just another form of passive aggressive (sabotage). Seemed like @SF. was asking for a classification, not a synonym. – Mazura Apr 3 '15 at 4:09

I think you mean "work-to-rule"

  • Work-to-rule is an industrial action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract, and precisely follow safety or other regulations in order to cause a slowdown, rather than to serve their purposes. Such an action is considered less disruptive than a strike or lockout; and just obeying the rules is less susceptible to disciplinary action. Wikipedia
  • work-to-rule "a job action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of a workplace in order to cause a slowdown." TFD


To delay a request or command, to drag one's feet, to stall, to obstruct, to drag out a process.

It's pretty common here in the United States when talking about political activity: for example, an opposition party will slow-walk a political appointee or nomination as a way to impede the other party.


In politics, they have a tactic like this called Stonewalling.

While it doesn't involve actively performing any task in particular, it does involve wearing down your opponent through sheer obstinacy, and in particular refusing to respond to any correspondence they may try to initiate, providing only the least required response possible in order to slow their opponent down.

The term comes from the visual metaphor of trying to extract information from a stone wall - no matter how hard you try, it's impossible to make a stone wall budge.


My first thought when I saw this question was “throwing a monkey wrench in[to] the works” (or its Br.E. equivalent, “throwing a spanner in[to] the works”).  This is defined as

These are not restricted to procrastination / delaying, and they commonly refer to actions that are overt (obvious), e.g.,

When John suddenly refused to help us, he really threw a monkey wrench in the works. The Free Dictionary

but they can refer to actions that can slow progress and are not overtly malicious:

Everything was going along fine, until my boss threw a monkey wrench into the works by requiring that the Legal Department review every order for parts. WordReference Forums

  • 1
    This implies performing a negative action on the side of the affecting party, as opposed to avoiding action or delaying it and implies a critical damage to the plans (the wrench will destroy the mechanism). The counterpart in Polish, is "tossing sand into the works" which is much closer in meaning: the gears are still rolling but with much higher friction, the project's pace drops and the obstruction is not nearly as apparent - unlike the wrench's decisive action, these are minor, covert sabotages hindering but not stopping the progress. But it's still an action, not avoidance of action. – SF. Apr 2 '15 at 18:41
  • Well, you mentioned "try solutions which you know are bound to fail", which is not avoidance of action, either.  And requiring legal review is (arguably) not a negative action — it may protect the company against legal problems — and it would hinder progress without causing critical damage. – Scott Apr 2 '15 at 18:47
  • (I used this alongside with the "stalling tactic"; a crooked lawyer "tossed sand into the works of the investigation" performed by honest police, by planting false clues, bothering the investigators with unrelated requests, contaminating the evidence etc - they had to slow down due to his actions. Here the case is opposite: the honest parties demand action against a criminal and the corrupt police is doing everything in their power not to catch the criminal while still looking like they are doing their best. – SF. Apr 2 '15 at 18:50
  • Procrastination is not inactivity either; it's just performing substitute, unrelated or unhelpful activities. In this case it's avoidance of the right action, by doing something else to look like you're trying, while not trying for real. – SF. Apr 2 '15 at 18:54

If it's a group action, you could say "slowdown strike" or a "slowdown," "slow down," or "slow-down."

A phrase I like is "go through the motions." Somebody is pretending to cooperate but isn't really -- he's just going through the motions.


Dilly Dally would work here:

To move or act slowly, often on purpose, as if to avoid action

Dawdle would also be usable here, as a synonym of Dilly Dally

  • Dilly dally is nice. – aparente001 Apr 3 '15 at 3:41
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    Dilly dallying and dawdling definitely have the connotation of deliberate, but I think the malice is missing. You can dilly dally to avoid something you don't want to do without trying to sabotage someone else's plans. – Kelly Tessena Keck Apr 3 '15 at 11:51
  • Like lazy behavior for laziness' sake,.. – SF. Apr 3 '15 at 12:33
  • You're correct @KellyTessenaKeck, in that the phrase in itself doesn't bear any malicious connotation. Context however, would add that quality – kolossus Apr 3 '15 at 13:44
  • I believe that "dilly dally", "dawdle", and "procrastinate" are very close in meaning, if not identical.  The OP is already familiar with the word "procrastination"; using it multiple times in the question, which is asking for a word or phrase that inherently denotes malice, without needing to be supplemented by context. – Scott Apr 7 '15 at 18:35

In the union world I have heard this termed as "work slow-down".

Otherwise, "malicious compliance" is another form, but more-so as above in the work-at-rule examples.


Firstly, notice that the kind of revenge / sabotage you describe works not only upwards (subordinate against superior), but also downwards (superior against subordinate): The superior can simply arrange that the subordinate does not receive needed backup during arduous / dangerous assignments or situations. So, rather than use an existing expression that few people recognize, we could coin a phrase that is instantly understandable to almost everyone: to pull a Serpico on someone.

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