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What Is Insubordination and How to Handle It?

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When an employee doesn’t follow instructions, skirts around their assigned duties, or has a terrible attitude, it can be difficult for any team leader to manage. Not to mention, this type of behavior is toxic to team dynamics as it drags down team morale, cohesion, productivity, and ultimately performance.

Depending on the severity of the behavior of the employee, you may have a situation called insubordination. To help you determine if this is what you are dealing with, let’s recap some of the basics of insubordination.


What is Insubordination?

Our insubordination definition is any outright refusal to follow through on a reasonable order by an employee’s direct leader or another leader with seniority. This includes not following a policy or procedure outlined by the organization they work for or behaviors that are threatening or abusive.

Keep in mind that not all situations are equal. Insubordination can mean different things in the workplace. The severity of actions and what is considered insubordination falls on a spectrum and has a variety of consequences depending on the behavior demonstrated.


What Insubordination Is Not

There are times you may think you have a situation where an employee is being insubordinate, however, for a variety of reasons that may not be the case. According to Monkhouse Law, an employment law firm, here are some examples of situations that are not insubordination:

  • The directions were unclear or misunderstood which resulted in the employee not being able to follow through on the order
  • The order was outside the scope of the employee’s outlined contractual duties
  • The request was unethical, illegal, or unsafe
  • The order was given by someone who does not have authority

If you're a first-time supervisor or manager, then you need to read this guide!


What Should You Do When Insubordination Happens?

One of the most challenging times as a team leader comes when dealing with difficult situations, such as insubordination. No matter how many preventative measures you or your organization may have taken or policies that are in place, insubordination can happen since you can’t control the behaviors of others.

As mentioned earlier, insubordination falls on a spectrum that can have a variety of consequences depending on the severity. In situations where it is less severe and more common, such as the insubordination example below of a refusal to perform an order, there are 4 steps you should follow.

  1. Evaluate the situation
    In the scenario of a refusal to perform an order, it is best to evaluate your role as the leader. Was the order you gave clear? Was the employee aware that they were receiving a direct order? Or could your delivery have been misinterpreted as a suggestion? If so, this is not insubordination and you should take responsibility for your actions or contributions to the outcome.

  2. Remain calm and have a one-on-one conversation with the employee
    Having a conversation with the employee right away is the best next step. Set up a one-on-one meeting to hear their perspective, clear up any misunderstandings, and if it was purely a misunderstanding, ask them for honest and constructive feedback on your delivery so it does not happen again in the future.

  3. Take further action if needed
    At this point, if you identify that the situation was indeed a refusal to perform an order or duty, it is best to end the conversation there and bring the matter to your human resources team. From there they will advise you on the next steps and consequences for this situation which could range from documentation of their employee file, a written or verbal warning, or termination.

  4. Reflect and do what you can to reduce the chances of a recurrence
    Taking the time to evaluate how the situation could have been avoided is a valuable step to mitigate it happening in the future. This practice is commonly referred to as a post-mortem or retrospective. It is a chance to dig deeper into why things happened the way they did and brainstorm solutions. In the case of insubordination, ask questions like, are there new policies that need to be outlined in the employee handbook? Is training or a workshop needed for employees? Would taking part in a leadership development program that develops the skills you need to speak with clarity and delegate effectively help avoid another instance like this from happening again?

Conclusion: Insubordination Isn’t Easy but It’s an Inevitable Part of Leadership

Leading a team isn’t easy, especially when insubordination occurs. If you don’t want your insubordinate employees to derail your team’s morale and performance, then as difficult as it may be, it is best to immediately take the four steps outlined in this article and then, if necessary, loop in your human resources department.

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