Insubordination At Work: 6 Crucial Questions (Quick Answers)

Insubordination at work is often not a single act, but an entire attitude.

Whatever the job, every employer expects a certain level of work ethic because work gets done well only when employees follow a chain of command. Acts of insubordination shatter that chain and break the smooth flow of the work.

Also, in today’s “Yes boss, we’ll do what you say (and take the blame if things go bad)!” work environment, even a single act of insubordination can cost you your job, or at least a promotion or fair appraisal.

Moreover, it appears there are some workers in every company who make a point of defying their bosses, consequences be doggoned. This willful refusal to follow instructions, insubordination at work, threatens the whole enterprise.

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Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. — Vladimir Nabokov


Defining Insubordination

Insubordination is a willful refusal to follow directions from a superior, senior, or boss. It means defying authority and disobeying their orders, though it can also refer to rude and disrespectful behavior. It is also referred to as noncompliance, disobedience, defiance, and rebelliousness.

• A subordinate is a person of lower rank or authority who must obey and respect their superior.
• An insubordinate is an employee who refuses to obey or respect the person in charge of them.

Now, let’s pick up and answer the 6 most commonly asked questions on insubordination:

1. What is considered insubordination in the workplace?

At work, insubordination is the intentional refusal to comply with a superior’s legal and ethical order. Such an act can disrespect a supervisor, decrease their administrative authority, and eventually harm the organization’s efficiency. It usually calls for disciplinary action, including suspension and termination.

An act of insubordination is not always predictable. Some “moron” always manages to find a reason to challenge a superior and refuse to perform as told, even if that superior is reputed as a dictator in having his orders obeyed.

Disobeying orders is always severely penalized in the military. At other places of work, however, the reprisal is typically milder, if you can call being fired milder.

2. Can a single act of insubordination create a bigger issue?

Yes, a single act of insubordination can lead to serious issues like termination and arrest. A rebellion against a boss can quickly devolve into a culture of distrust and nonconfidence. So, even a single act of insubordination at work is rarely condoned or overlooked; instead, it typically paves the way to termination.

One act of disobedience can temporarily undermine a superior’s authority, but the more concerning issue is that it can permanently damage a company’s culture of compliance and collaboration.

Therefore, a lone act of insubordination may make the company take drastic measures like a demotion, termination, blocking of severance benefits, and even arrest by legal authorities of the employee.

Furthermore, there can be a justifiable drama on the flip side too.

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The superior may be fired or asked to resign voluntarily to save face, shortly after the act of insubordination, especially if they are not in a very prominent position.

The termination of the superior typically occurs as a result of an inquiry revealing that they lacked the authority to get things done, were unrealistic in pushing their demands on the employee, or had misrepresented the employee’s stand.

Such a superior should be fired along with the worker because one defiant conduct may motivate other staff to follow suit, and soon lead to a disruptive mutiny in the department.

In fact, if a supervisor appears to have little power over those beneath, and there is a repetitive pattern of insubordinate behavior, they should be fired first. Otherwise, the organization’s overall stability and structure are jeopardized.

Most of us have heard of narcissistic bosses who take evil pleasure in giving out mountains of work on weekends. While these bosses try to grab a posse of fans, they also acquire a band of disgruntled staff. These superiors-juniors have a very intriguing equation going on:

  • From the superior’s viewpoint, even one act of insubordination breaks down the chain of command and disrupts the workflow. Therefore, it calls for strict disciplinary action, even if they had it hard to overlook their wounded ego.
  • From the insubordinate’s side, their action may seem perfectly justified since they only disobeyed a superior’s “unjust” orders, or were simply trying to innovate, not pare down their boss’s ego.

There is also a compassionate aspect to this. We miss seeing the human emotions at work behind the human at work.

In modern workplaces, corporations are frequently structured like bureaucracies. There are a humongous number of rules and regulations to guide the organization.

While the big fat rule book is there for a reason, it can often lead to a lack of attention to the staff’s real needs, like expectations of being understood and shown empathy, and this can lead to insubordination.

3. Is one’s yelling at the boss insubordination?

In most situations, raising one’s voice at a superior is insubordination. An employee shouting at their boss indicates they want to silence them. Yelling also indicates that the employee refuses to recognize their superior’s leadership and does not respect the authority of their position.

A person of authority must deal with yelling like any other act of workplace insubordination. Neglecting to respond to it may result in the contagiousness of the act, and soon, other employees may do the same.

Eventually, it works to damage the company culture and the structure of the organizational chain of command.

Abusive language at the workplace may be considered insubordination, which can be grounds for termination. However, many agree that workers using a few expletives or swear words should get some leniency and be let off with a warning.

In the author’s opinion, employees should not be allowed to insult or use abusive language against one another on the job. Of course, the use of derogatory language toward a person’s identity, gender, or race, should incur strict disciplinary action.

Yelling may be a natural reaction to months of working in a psychologically dangerous office environment, enduring the mean-spirited directives from toxic people.

Psychological safety is an emerging concept in workplace innovation. It speaks for a work environment where people feel safe opening up and being unguarded so that every expression of vulnerability is met with compassion. We can learn to increase Psychological Safety and build happier workplaces.

Strangely, silence can also be accounted for as insubordination and can lead to disciplinary action by the administration, and result in discharge from duty or removal from office.

4. How do you prove insubordination?

To prove insubordination:

  • The superior must establish that the employee carried out the act with full intention after being clearly and directly communicated by the superior.
  • Moreover, they had fully understood the request or order adequately and disobeyed it with full awareness of the possible consequences.

However, the above may not be held at small enterprises, like startups. The work climate at these places is vastly informal and friendly. People there do not feel restricted by the hierarchy while relating to even the top-most-level bosses.

The workers at these small organizations often walk into their manager’s offices and talk to them directly, without the bureaucratic red tape. It makes for a dynamic interchange of ideas and encourages open feedback between managers and employees.

However, the drawback of the informal work environment is that it is hard to set boundaries and establish clear rules of insubordination.

5. How to discipline an insubordinate employee?

Insubordinate employees can be incredibly frustrating for managers and business owners. They impede work, create conflict, and cost money.

Nobody likes having an insubordinate employee, but finding effective ways to discipline such staff can be tricky. Follow these tips to handle insubordination:

A) Handling Informal or Minor Insubordination

To get things done, bosses must rely on the people working under them. But how do you do that and still keep a good relationship with your employees?

Here are the five steps to handling informal insubordination in the workplace:

Step 1: Clarify expectations from the employee.

Be clear on what you want. Be clear on what you’re saying no to. If your employees aren’t familiar with the content, they may misunderstand and take it the wrong way. Make sure the employee understands the gravity of the situation.

Step 2: Be direct in your communication.

Be direct. If they’re not listening or listening very well, point out that this behavior isn’t acceptable. It’s crucial that the erring employee acknowledges their unacceptable behavior.

Step 3: Remain calm and composed.

Say it in a way that’s not aggressive or intimidating. If you say it curtly, they may feel like you’re attacking them and come back at you.

Step 4: Confirm they understand the instructions.

Make sure they understand exactly what you have asked them to do. If necessary, have them write or record (on their phone) what you want them to do.

Step 5: Appreciate and promote good behavior.

Once the employee meets your expectations, and you are satisfied with the work, appreciate them for their help. This prevents future chances of insubordination.

B) Handling Formal or Gross Insubordination

For the more serious breach of official orders, here is a practical procedure:

1. Do not take it personally.

First, whenever insubordination occurs, do not take it personally. It means the offending employee did not target you as a person, but your position in the company. It means the rebellious worker would have done it to anyone else in your position.

2. Do not lose your temper.

Second, do not lose your temper. The unexpected disobedience may take you surprised and make you angry or hurt. However, the best response is not to react immediately with aggression or break down.

3. Remove yourself from the situation.

Third, move away from the situation to some neutral or safe space. Insubordination can cause emotional overload. Moving away may be a necessary measure, especially for a female employee facing physically or emotionally threatening insubordination.

Once away, gather your thoughts and control your emotional surge. You may take help from a supportive colleague to figure out the situation better and plan your next steps.

4. Follow the 5-Step method – Establish, Communicate, Record, Plan, Implement.

Fourth, use the following 5-step method to discipline the insubordinate employee:

  • Step 1: Establish willful insubordination has occurred after the employee clearly understood the direct orders.
  • Step 2: Communicate the unacceptability of the disobedient act in a firm, professional, and empathetic tone.
  • Step 3: Record the event and bring it to the notice of the human-resource personnel and higher authorities.
  • Step 4: Plan a future course of action relating to the act and possibly further such acts, without feelings of retaliation.
  • Step 5: Devise and implement measures to prevent similar acts from the same or other workers.

6. Can you fire an employee for insubordination?

Some of the most obvious and legitimate cases where the insubordinate might be terminated from their job:

  1. Sexual harassment or sexual abuse
  2. Criminal acts as per the laws of the land
  3. Physical or emotional assault or persecution
  4. Demolishing office structures and equipment
  5. Repeated stonewalling (deliberate inaction)

Terminating the employee is often an extreme disciplinary action for insubordination. The firing of staff because of indiscipline or insubordination mostly depends on the seriousness and repetitiveness of the disobedience.

In some cases, the rank of employees vs. superiors played a factor; if the insubordinate employee was significantly lower in rank than the one they were insubordinate to, terminating the employee was more likely.

A staff insubordination issue is not worth the risk for legal practice, as it could cost the firm a lot of reputation and money. So, it is customary for a law firm to fire an insubordinate employee.

What are the most crucial questions on insubordination?

Some of the most pertinent issues around insubordination at work are:
• What is considered insubordination in the workplace?
• Can a single act of insubordination create a bigger issue?
• Is yelling at the boss considered insubordination?
• How do you prove insubordination?
• How do you discipline an employee for insubordination?
• Can you dismiss an employee for insubordination at work?

How to handle unintentional insubordination?

Sometimes, insubordination can be unintentional, and the employee does not realize they are committing one unless it is too late or until a coworker or the superior points it out.

In such rare situations, an inquiry into the insubordination incident may find that the act was indeed unintentional. The errant employee may not have read, or been told about, the organization’s exclusive policies on permissible behaviors and insubordinate behaviors.

In such cases, the insubordinate employee can still face disciplinary action if the investigation proves that they did not consider the policies important enough to read when they were asked to.

Final Words

Insubordination at work is noncompliance with a superior’s call to action. More than rebelliousness, it is defiance of authority. Whatever you read about insubordination was a summary of what the world thinks of it, that is, it is a negative and undesirable quality.

But what if someone turns the established knowledge on its head? What if a leading expert on the psychology of well-being, curiosity, mental flexibility, and social relationship, tells you otherwise?

Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, said in the movie “Wall Street” —

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. … Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

Somewhat similarly, Todd Kashdan, author of The Art of Insubordination, a brilliant book that intends to metamorphose the rebel in you, tells us —

It’s time to bring insubordination out of the darkness and infuse society with a healthy dose of nonconformity.

The book has been hailed by Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter and the author of The Power of Habit, as “the book that all virtuous rebels need.”

Of the many things, the book will teach you:

  • To embrace people who disagree openly and speak their minds.
  • To create alliances that increase strength, knowledge, and wisdom.
  • To cultivate curiosity, courage, and independent, critical thinking.

• • •

Following your passion isn’t always the bridge to reach where you want to be. What succeeds better is curiosity—find out more about how curiosity fuels success.

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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