Do you know what insubordination is? Do you think your managers do?

It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? Such hierarchical language, hinting at dominance and submission. It all seems so out of place for today’s workforce. “You are my subordinate, I am your superior. You must act submissively, or I shall charge you with insubordination.”

Except that’s not what it means.

Insubordination is the act of refusing to carry out a manager’s reasonable order.

That’s not the same as an employee challenging a manager, or even speaking harshly to one. That’s not an employee trying to clarify a request or understand its intent. That’s not an employee raising concerns about their safety if they carry out an order or questioning its ethical or legal implications.

And yet there’s a good chance many of your managers think any of those things could be considered insubordination.

It’s part of our top-down history. Managers give orders, workers carry them out. If that’s the way you see your workforce, then insubordination is an essential part of keeping employees in their places. But if you want a workforce that cares about the company and is engaged in driving the business forward, the threat of insubordination is holding you back.

You want employees to think, not just act, and that means you want them to feel they can talk to their managers about the business, about opportunities they see or problems they may be able to solve. You want them to have the best interests of the company at heart, not simply put in their time and collect their paycheck.

But in the hands of a bad manager, insubordination can hang over employees’ heads like an axe waiting to fall the moment they appear to step out of line. Insecure managers can use the threat of insubordination to shut down communication. They can make it feel dangerous for employees to offer feedback or make suggestions that could improve the business.

Insubordination enables bad managers to get away with autocratic behavior that crushes employees’ sense of belonging.

So, let’s get rid of it.

We don’t need a special, misunderstood term for an employee who fails to perform. We already have ways of describing that, and of dealing with it.

If an employee has behavior problems, we can deal with that too.

Can you think of a time when an employee has refused to carry out a task for no good reason? Like anyone, employees can forget. They can disagree that an order is reasonable. They may think it dangerous, unwise, illegal, or bad for business, but is that insubordination? Or is that an employee who has a valid point or needs more context?

If you can’t think of an instance when an employee has refused to carry out an order for no reason, then you can’t think of a time when an accusation of insubordination would have been appropriate.

So seriously, let’s get rid of insubordination. And let’s do it clearly and loudly so employees know this outdated concept can no longer be used against them.


To learn more about how to be a successful manager, read Don’t Be a Dick Manager: The Down & Dirty Guide to Management. It’s the management training you never got, available on Kindle and in paperback from The audiobook is available from AmazonAudible and iTunes.

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