Insubordination definition

Insubordination occurs when someone explicitly or implicitly, but always consciously, disobeys the orders or wishes of a superior. It is commonly used to describe instances in the military where junior personnel actively disobey superior officers. For insubordination to occur, the superior officer must have the remit and authority to compel the lower-ranked individual to act.

In the workplace, insubordination is a reason for dismissal, although the term has fallen out of favour as authoritarian leadership styles and hierarchies based on rank become less common and less important. Actual instances of insubordination are rare due to workplace structures that increasingly permit free dialogue and give greater weight to the views of less senior employees.

Another reason instances of insubordination are rare in the workplace is because increasing autonomy has meant that superior staff tend to provide guiding principles or overarching rules to subordinates designed to act as a litmus test when making decisions. Because there are no formal orders given regularly, it would be very hard to prove that insubordination had occurred. Professionals are also trained to advance the interests of their employee – although the principal-agent problem can still cause issues.

Insubordination in the military can be a form of protest – in the workplace this will commonly present as workplace deviance, counterproductive work behaviours or workplace incivility.

Effective superior-subordinate communication can help reduce the potential for insubordination.