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, and work gets done well only when employees follow a chain of command. However, people who defy their bosses, even when they are aware of the possible consequences, are a common workplace problem.
Even when a superior’s orders are clear, someone may find a reason to challenge them and refuse to perform as instructed. In the military, this disobeying of orders is always a punishable offense. At other places of work, the countermove is typically not so severe.Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. — Vladimir Nabokov Click To Tweet
We pick up and answer the 6 most common 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 ultimately damage the organization’s efficiency. It usually warrants disciplinary action, including suspension and termination.
What is the meaning of insubordination?
Insubordination means an act or behavior of refusing to obey authority. A few other terms for it are noncompliance, disobedience, defiance, and rebelliousness. It is sometimes used to mean rude and disrespectful behavior.
- A subordinate is a person of lower rank or authority than another who must obey and respect them.
- An insubordinate is an employee who refuses to obey or respect the person in charge over them.
- Insubordination is a willful refusal to obey orders from a superior, a senior, or a boss.
Psychological safety is an emerging concept that is closely related to workplace insubordination. It indicates a work environment where people feel safe opening up and being vulnerable so that every expression of vulnerability is met with compassion. Find out how to increase Psychological Safety for building happier workplaces.
2. Can a single act of insubordination create a bigger issue?
A single act of disobedience can undermine a superior’s authority, at least temporarily, and lead to bigger issues for the insubordinate employee, like a demotion, termination from the job, and even arrest by the legal authorities.
Furthermore, if the superior holds a high-level post, even they can be fired (along with the insubordinate staff). The company may work from the belief that if the boss lacks the authority to get things done, then they should rather be ousted from the organization.
In fact, if a superior appears to have little power to control people working under them, and there are frequent instances of insubordinate behavior, the whole stability and structure of an organization are jeopardized.
If we look at it from a superior’s angle, even one act of insubordination breaks down the chain of command and disrupts the workflow.
If we look at it from the insubordinate’s side, their action may seem justified since they showed disobedience to a superior’s “inordinate” orders.
Most of us have heard of narcissistic bosses who take evil pleasure in giving out mountains of work on weekends.
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 rulebook 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.
In today’s “yes, you can” business environment, even a single act of insubordination could cost you your job, or at least a promotion.
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. Repeated use of abusive language, especially toward a person’s identity, gender, or race, should incus strict disciplinary action.
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 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 discipline an insubordinate employee:
A) How To Handle Informal or Minor Insubordination At Work?
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: 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.
- Step 2: Be direct. If they’re not listening or listening very well, make it clear that this behavior isn’t acceptable.
- Step 3: 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: 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: 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) How To Handle Formal or Gross Insubordination At Work?
For the more serious breach of official orders, here is a practical procedure:
1. 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. Second, do not lose your temper. The unexpected disobedience may take you by surprise and make you angry or hurt. However, the best response is not to get overwhelmed with emotions and react immediately with aggression or breaking down.
3. Third, move away from the situation to some neutral or safe space. This might be a vital step for a woman employee who faces 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. 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: Plan a future course of action relating to the act and possibly further such acts, without feelings of retaliation.
- Step 4: Record the event and bring it to the notice of the human-resource personnel and higher authorities.
- Step 5: Devise and implement measures to prevent similar acts from the same or other workers.
5. How can one get fired for insubordination?
Some of the most obvious and legitimate cases where the insubordinate might be terminated from their job:
- Sexual harassment or sexual abuse
- Criminal acts as per the laws of the land
- Physical or emotional assault or persecution
- Demolishing office structures and equipment
- 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.
6. How to 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.
- also, 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.
How to handle unintentional insubordination?
In rare situations, an inquiry may find that the insubordination was unintentional. The errant employee may not have read the organization’s policies on acceptable and permissible 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.
Insubordination at work is non-compliance to 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
- the wisdom, and cultivate curiosity, courage, and independent, critical thinking in youth.
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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.
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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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