Insubordination vs Caring About the System

Do I advocate insubordination?

Some of my Modern Management Made Easy technical reviewers wonder. And, when I looked at this definition of insubordination, I had to agree.

However, when I read that definition, I don't see any mutual problem-solving. I also don't see any mutual purpose or respect.

I don't see how that form of management makes sense these days.

I do challenge people directly. You might not have seen the framework from Radical Candor. The upper right quadrant is what Scott calls “Radical Candor,” where we both (people) care:

  • About the outcome
  • And the other person
  • And we both want the best for the situation.

To me, that looks a lot like congruence.

When we're congruent, we take ourselves, the other person and the context into account. We balance all three to find a way forward.

When my bosses told me to multitask and I asked them questions about what was most important and did they really want me to waste time switching tasks, was I insubordinate?

I am an eye-roller. I am sarcastic. I am sure I have not always been politic in my words. (Okay, I can guarantee that last part.)

And, my bosses never fired me for the way I discussed the problems at hand. They all realized I had the best intentions for the customers, my colleagues, and them. They realized I wanted the company to succeed.

Effects of Positional Power

Sometimes, my managers' bosses didn't feel the same way about my comments as my direct boss did.

Those people suffered from several problems—most of which was based on the system of rewards in the organization (part of the context):

  • Because of their power, they were “on the hook” to deliver something we could not deliver. (Think about multitasking and trying to do “all” of it.) Their bonuses depended on us delivering.  (See Courage Required.) Their bonuses did not depend on managing the project portfolio.
  • These otherwise nice people thought they were more important than other people in the organization. (Mostly because of their positional power and the reward system.)
  • If you'd asked these people, they would have said they respected the people who did the work of creating products. I would have disagreed.

At times, I have used my positional power. And, it's the weakest form of power. I have been much more successful when I used my influence, based on how other people see my competence and how other people see me as trustworthy.

We develop a shared goal when I was blunt, direct, and frank. And, possibly impolitic.

Shared Goal: The Best of a Difficult Situation

If we have a shared goal, is it insubordination?

I don't think so. We need ways to disagree with respect.

Should I frame my remarks better? Gotta say, I've tried that and had no results. I needed the sarcasm and eye-rolling to get the other person's attention.

Can we disagree so both of us see each other's perspectives? Of course.

When we both care about the outcome—a shared goal—and we treat each other with respect, we do not have insubordination. I will have to figure out how to write about this, especially for managers invested in positional power.

Thanks to my reviewers for making me think!

(And, if you're interested in exploring influence, please join me at the Influential Agile Leader. In 2020, it's in Boston, May 6-7.)

3 Replies to “Insubordination vs Caring About the System”

  1. I have a very direct manner. I like to joke, sort of, that its because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. In the culture I came from, do NOT beat around the bush. Anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

    I entered the workforce like this. It took 15 years until one of my bosses finally said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk.” I didn’t, and don’t, think I was being a jerk. It’s just that most people weren’t used to the kind of direct I can be, and they didn’t like it.

    Learning how to throw a drift that others can catch has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust. It took a long time for that to not feel wrong.

    There are still times when I lay it on the line. It catches everybody off guard when I do. Here’s the funny thing: now that I do it only when it really matters, people are more likely to listen to it. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

    Man, do I wish I could just be direct all the time still, however.

    1. Jim, I wonder if it’s other people’s lack of safety that make them think we’re leaving dead bodies behind. (I love that! Many people in HR or my bosses’ bosses used to say I didn’t suffer fools gladly.)

      I have a suspicion that because I am comfortable with my experience and want to get to a better outcome (and I think you are, too), that we are ready to say things other people aren’t ready to say. They think it. They can’t/won’t say it.

      I like that idea, “throw a drift that others can catch.” Nice.

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