Insubordination: How Do Leaders Handle It?

Most organizations and teams are not pure democracies, in the end there is someone who is in charge. More often than we like to think this person in charge is asked to discipline a peer in cases of insubordination. Though we don’t like to think about it, insubordination does happen. Whether it is just the nature of a particular team member’s personality or someone just having a moment of rebellion how does a leader deal with insubordination adult to adult?

First and foremost having a standard in place with dealing with general and/or specific types of insubordination is key. In the corporate world this often comes in the form of an employee handbook—a document like this can be invaluable even for a very small business, that may be run more casually. It is far easier to have rules in place then to try to enforce something without precedent.

Some leaders, managers and bosses will accommodate successful team members who have rebellious personalities if they are getting the job done and fundamentally respect the leader, other team members and the organization. However, leaders should know that some team members may be annoyed or resentful by the accommodation style and leaders who use this style may loose their credibility with other team members if they are too loosey-goosey.

At the other end of the spectrum there is a strict leadership style in which decorum is of the upmost importance to the leader—sometimes to the point where any questioning of the leader is considered insubordination. Team members typically know exactly where the line is when this style is employed, however leaders will loose out on honest, critical feedback and may foster an atmosphere of fear and low morale.

While both these extreme styles have potential benefits and drawbacks, staying consistent is important. Inconsistent treatment of insubordination will inevitably lead to chaos, low morale and loss of respect. Playing favorites or allowing something on Tuesday, but then not on Thursday is a quick way to lay waste to any respect or credibility a leader as earned from her team.

Some believe the best way to handle insubordination, adult to adult, in a leader-to-team-member relationship is through immediate constructive criticism. Address the behavior politely, but firmly. Be as objective as possible about the transgression. While for many this will feel like the most uncomfortable and difficult option in the short term, in the long term this style may reap the most healthy team environment.

What People Value More: Autonomy vs. Prestige

A 2016 article from New York Magazine asks an interesting question about what people value more in a career – autonomy or prestige? Writer Melisa Dahl breaks down some interesting studies on the topic to get to the bottom of this question.

One study from the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers from three universities and three different countries tested more than 2,000 subjects and found that while it is true that people who start to gain power or prestige in their career want more of it, ultimately autonomy “quenches the desire for power.” The study stated that ultimately people prefer careers in which they able to do what they want, how they want.

In one experiment researchers asked people to imagine that the already had a career with a lot of freedom, but had an opportunity to make a career move that would grant them a high degree of influence. One in which they were managing a team of subordinates. he other half were asked to imagine the scenario the other way around: What if they already were managing a bunch of people but were offered the chance to trade that for more freedom?

People overwhelming chose freedom. Of those who were told to imagine they already had autonomy, a little less than three-fourths turned down the career move with more power and prestige. In the other group, in which participants were told to imagine they held a position of prestige, but were being offered a job with more autonomy well over half – around 65% – took the career path with more freedom.

Dahl notes that previous research reveals that power and prestige appeals to people when they think it will lead to autonomy, but once they realized being in charge involved a lot of extra responsibility and expectations in regards to subordinates, their interest faded quickly.
Dahl ends by telling readers that the new research does not account for compensation. She writes:

“Maybe a substantial bump in pay would make a difference here, and people would indeed be more willing to give up some of their autonomy in exchange for some cold, hard cash. Or maybe not — or maybe they would but would later regret the decision. These are questions for future research. For now, the overall message of this paper feels very true: Maybe all anyone really wants at work is to be left the alone.”

“It’s Not Personal, It’s Business”: Duncan Coombe, PhD, Disagrees.

In a 2016 article from the Harvard Business Review, Duncan Coombe, PhD in Organizational Behavior and Leadership, discusses his disagreement over this oft used cliché masquerading as sound business and leadership advice.

Coombe tells the story of a team leader who spent a lot of time and effort mentoring a team member only to suddenly loose the team member to a competing company, completely out of the blue. The conclusion the team lead comes to is that he shouldn’t take it personally.

In response Coombe writes:
“It’s a sentiment we have all often heard in work contexts: “Don’t take it personally” or “Hey, it’s not personal, it’s business.” I’ve heard it said about feedback, conflict, difficult conversations, restructuring, losing deals, collaboration, dealing with career ups and downs – all kinds of daily workplace issues.

And yet it’s an absurd idea.

Coombe posits that we spend a lot of time at work. That most of us will spend 40-50 years at work, yet the prevailing aphorism tells us we shouldn’t take it personally. Coombe discusses that, yes, not taking it personally can make difficult situations like the one he describes easier to handle, but that are benefits to “making our work, leadership, and followership personal.”

Coombe believes that the people who have made their work personal are the one’s who we consider to be inspired, energized and successful. While those who depersonalize their work are likely not those who we’ve enjoyed working with. Coombe suggest we take a look at our own anecdotal experiences and judge for ourselves.

He goes on to write that, “this is not just about nuanced language and personal psychology; it is also about real business results.” Coombe makes a direct, positive connection between engagement and business performance. He asks, “What is engagement if not “taking it personally”?” He also notes that “Not taking it personally” is at the center of many corporate ethics scandals. That “mindless notion” that “It’s not personal, it’s business” allows business people and leaders to disengage from their responsibilities as guardians of our planet and protectors of their employees, customers and communities.

Though Coombe does warn that one still needs to manage their boundaries – that one should not attach so much of their self-worth to their work that they become psychologically vulnerable to where every mistake and mishap damages one’s self-worth. Finding a balance is key.

Coombe ends by writing:
“Yes, if you take work personally, you will get hurt along the way. You will be disappointed, be let down, and sometimes wonder if it is worth it. But just like that other great mystery of life – being in love – what really is the alternative? To not love at all so as to never be heartbroken? Surely not. To not take it personally so as to never be disappointed? Surely not.

For your own sake, and for the people who work with you, this is your life. Take it – all of it – personally.”