Insubordination @ Work: 5 Things To Know (Explained Quickly)

Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. — Vladimir Nabokov Click To Tweet

Insubordination is a willful refusal to obey orders from a boss. More than rebelliousness, it is defiance of authority. In the military, disobeying an order is always a punishable offense.

Whatever the job, the employer always expects a certain level of work ethic. But even when the message is obvious and clear, sometimes that ethic breaks down. Insubordination at work is non-compliance to a manager’s call to action.

Sometimes, it can be unintentional. You may not have read the appropriate policies regarding what behaviors are acceptable. Or, maybe you decided the office policies weren’t worth reading!

After you read through this post, discover a book that’s a recipe for a rebellion based on cutting-edge science!

We pick up and answer the 5 most common questions on the topic.

1. What is considered insubordination in the workplace?

At work, insubordination is intentional refusal to comply with one’s superior’s legal and ethical order.

Such an act disrespects a supervisor, decreases their administrative authority, and ultimately damages the organization’s efficiency. It usually warrants disciplinary action, including suspension and termination.

Look at it from a superior’s angle. When you have no power to control people working under you, you risk dismantling the stability and structure of an organization’s workflow. Even if you hold an elevated position but lack the authority to get things done, the company would rather have you out.

Now, look at it from the flipside. In the modern workplace, corporations often work as though they are structured like a bureaucracy. There are a lot of rules and regulations to guide the organization. While the rulebook is there for a reason, it can often lead to a lack of attention to the people’s real needs and therefore lead to insubordination.


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

In most situations, raising one’s voice at a supervisor or manager is insubordination. An employee yelling at their boss indicates they do not respect the authority of the position held by their boss and refuses their leadership status.

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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.

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.

3. How to discipline an insubordinate employee?

How do you deal with workplace insubordination?

A) 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:

  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.
  2. Be direct. If they’re not listening or listening very well, make it clear that this behavior isn’t acceptable.
  3. Say it in a way that’s not aggressive or intimidating. If you say it in a curt way, they may feel like you’re attacking them and come back at you.
  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.
  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) Formal or Major Insubordination

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fourth, use the following 5-step method to discipline the insubordinate employee:
    1. Establish wilful insubordination has occurred after the employee clearly understood the direct orders.
    2. Communicate the unacceptability of the disobedient act in a firm, professional, and empathetic tone.
    3. Plan a future course of action relating to the act and possibly further such acts, without avengement.
    4. Record the event and bring it to the notice of the human-resource personnel and higher authorities.
    5. Devise and implement measures to prevent similar acts from the same or other workers.
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4. How can one get fired for insubordination?

Disciplinary action for insubordination mostly depends on the seriousness and repetitiveness of the disobedience and, in some cases, the rank of employees vs superiors involved.

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)

5. 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.

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Final Words

Up until here, whatever you read about insubordination was a summary of what the world thinks of it: insubordination is a negative and undesirable quality.

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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.

✶ If you wish to grab the first chapter of the first book offering a comprehensive recipe for a rebellion that is practical and science-based, go here.

✶ Order the book here: The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.

• • •

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 popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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