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.