Was That Insubordination or Just Attitude?

Insubordination is variously defined as the “willful failure to obey a supervisor’s lawful orders; refusal to obey some order which a superior officer is entitled to give and is entitled to have obeyed; intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable order; or more simply—disobedience to authority.”

Mutiny on the Bounty by Pascal, Flickr

But simply having a bad attitude at work doesn’t necessarily qualify as insubordination. Insolence, for example, is often inaccurately labeled insubordination. According to Sacha Morrisset of Stewart McKelvey:

“Insolence refers to derisive, abusive or contemptuous language, generally directed at a superior. Insubordination refers to the intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders. While insolence can amount to insubordination, the two terms aren’t synonymous, but the two types of behaviour often occur together.”[1]

When you manage people, isolated instances of defiance and back-chat come with the territory. Everyone has an occasional bad day and blurts out something that should have stayed as “inside voice.” On the other hand, if insolence and insubordination are common behavior in your workplace, then something is wrong.

What Drives Insubordination?

When an employee exhibits an obstructive or uncooperative pattern of behavior, or a widespread pattern of insolence and insubordination is identified in a department, it’s time to do a little digging for underlying causes. Here are a few circumstances that might lead to insubordination. The first two are calculated and deliberate while the second two are triggered by external pressures and may be reactionary and quite unintentional.

Ambition and Personal Agendas

If refusing to obey a supervisor’s order will help an employee reach a personal goal, she may choose to act in favor of her own ambition rather than following orders. Similarly, if complying with a supervisor’s demand puts the brakes on an underlying personal agenda, an employee may prefer the risk of non-compliance.

Testing Boundaries

Some people never grow out of their need to test limits and claim power in a relationship. Exhibiting insolence and refusing to take directions are ways of testing just how much they can get away with and how much control they can exert in a situation where they are not naturally in a position of control.

Excessive Stress

Whether personal or work-related, excessive stress can cause people to lash out. When an individual becomes uncharacteristically insolent or insubordinate, he may be temporarily overwhelmed by the job or personal challenges. In a case like this a supervisor might offer support, coaching or a referral to HR for additional resources in order to help the employee get past a rough patch.

Toxic Workplace

When obstructive behavior is endemic in an organization or a department, there’s a good chance that systemic problems exist in the work environment. When employees find working conditions to be intolerable, they will eventually rebel. This type of toxic environment might result from unfair management practices, excessive bullying by co-workers that goes unaddressed or consistent job demands that are impossible to satisfy. Unlike a shipboard pirate mutiny, in today’s workplace it seldom makes sense to force the whole crew to walk the plank when they collectively react to untenable conditions.

Handling Insubordination at Work

One of the most effective ways of dealing with insubordination is through prevention. Here are some actions you can take to reduce the incidents of obstructive behavior, including:

Review job descriptions: Make sure that employees understand their roles and agree that the work load is reasonable.  Listen to and incorporate employee feedback regarding workload and time constraints.

Build relationships:  Take the time to build effective working relationships with employees that foster an atmosphere of mutual respect. Be approachable and address issues promptly before they escalate. Support employees informal communication network to help foster strong co-worker relationships.

Communicate well and often: Good communication at all levels helps build trust. Make expectations clear and provide written communication when necessary to support those expectations.  Stay connected so minor disturbances come to your attention before they become major blowouts.

Offer training: Helping managers and employees improve their interpersonal communication and conflict management skills will ensure that more disagreements are handled constructively before they foment and trigger rebellion.

If it’s too late for prevention and an employee has already engaged in insubordinate behavior, first consider the circumstance surrounding the behavior.

  1. Was the order direct, clear and unambiguous?
  2. Was a published policy or work rule violated?
  3. Did the employee recognize that a rule was broken?
  4. Was the employee aware of the consequences?
  5. Is the policy or rule itself the problem?[2]

If all mitigating circumstances have been considered and it’s determined that discipline is required, Penn Behavioural Health Corporate Services offers the following guidelines for imposing disciplinary action:

  • Carefully document the facts and chronology of the insubordinate behavior.
  • Inform the employee that that he/she has engaged in specific conduct that is unacceptable (stating the exact nature of the conduct).
  • Outline the conduct that is expected (if appropriate, referring to the specific policy or rule of conduct).
  • Explain that the improper conduct must stop.
  • Discuss the negative consequences that will occur if the employee fails to change the unacceptable behavior.
  • Mention the positive consequences of changing the improper behavior.
  • Explore reasons for the unacceptable behavior and developing an action plan for changing the behavior. Both employee and manager should sign the plan.
  • Document all instances of unacceptable behavior and all counseling or warnings given.
  • Stay calm when confronting the employee, especially if the insubordination is chronic.
  • Base the confrontation on job performance only and not allowing personal feelings, comments or observations to get in the way of the counseling or disciplinary action.
  • Assure that the employee knows exactly what you are saying. Don’t allow any room for confusion or possible misunderstanding. Ask the employee to paraphrase the discussion and document same.
  • Don’t make value or personal judgments.
  • Limit discussion and action to the behavior or incident in question.
  • Ensure that any action taken is consistent with policies, guidelines and/or past actions taken with other employees in similar circumstances.
  • Ensure the employee is made aware of the consequences of insubordinate behavior on both continued employment and future references.

Whatever the reason for insolence and insubordination in the workplace, it can’t be ignored. Turning a blind eye to this type of behavior undermines management’s authority and erodes the morale of everyone else. Restorative action must be taken whether that means termination, discipline, support or systemic changes.


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[1]Sacha Morisset, Stewart McKelvey It’s all in the attitude: insolence & insubordination. http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=3d3bf834-01d8-42f5-88c1-9aa19fe73212


[2] Adapted from Handling Insubordination at Work. Penn Medicine. Management Assistance Program.http://www.pennbehavioralhealth.org/documents/handling_insubordination_at_work.pdf

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