Managers should consider their own conduct.
Employee insubordination is often a reaction to abusive supervision and/or non-productive managers, according to two Harbert researchers.
Jeremy Mackey, assistant professor of management, and Katie Crawford, a doctoral candidate in management, co-authored “Insubordination: Validation of a Measure and an Examination of Insubordinate Responses to Unethical Supervisory Treatment,” and created a formal definition of insubordination within the business context. The article was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
Insubordination is disobedient behavior that intentionally exhibits a defiant refusal of authority. But why does it happen? “How supervisors treat their employees has a direct impact on whether or not employees decide to morally disengage and act out,” Crawford said. “Supervisors should consider the types of relationships they are building with their employees and determine if their employees can depend on them.”
The study predicted that employees who perceived their supervisors as abusive would engage in insubordination if they had poor relationships with those supervisors.
“We also predicted that employees modified their behavior if their supervisors were high performers,” Mackey said. “We found that employees engaged in consistently high levels of insubordination toward supervisors who were low performers.
“People are willing to tolerate bad bosses if they think their bosses can leverage their high levels of performance to provide resources and opportunities for their subordinates. However, employees tend to act out against bad bosses who have poor relationships with their subordinates.
“Insubordination is the willful violation of supervisory authority, which means that it is ultimately the employee’s responsibility. However, our findings also suggest that insubordinate employees likely believe their supervisors engage in even worse behavior, so there is typically a cycle of bad bosses and insubordinate employees retaliating against one another.”
Mackey hopes the study can be used to help identify employees who have poor relationships with supervisors and provide leadership the opportunity to intervene and assist. “Choosing leaders who can build positive relationships with their employees and training employees how to engage in constructive conflict likely are useful ways to deter insubordination,” he said.
Defining insubordination in the workplace context to help develop a measure for future research was another key takeaway from the article.
“Insubordination is a commonly used term in the workplace,” Crawford said. “We even see it being widely used in the age of COVID-19. Language is very important in both academic research and the workplace, so knowing what insubordination is and what it is not is critical when considering workplace policies and potential employee consequences.”
Mackey lauded Crawford’s work on the paper and said she “exemplifies the very best attributes of an aspiring professor.”