How to Succeed at "Insubordination"

Managers are trained on how to handle insubordination.Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote a wonderful HBR article using the Obama- McCrystal confrontation as a case study in managing insubordination. But leaders who want to really be in touch and constantly pushed to be their best, should have some employees who know the art of appropriate insubordination! But when is "insubordination" really appropriate? What about situations when you really believe your boss is wrong, perhaps even unethical? My last article was about managing upwards and part of managing upwards is being able to challenge ones boss without him or her feeling offended or attacked. Can one question or criticize ones boss in a way that isn't undermining of him or her? And more importantly, how do you as a leader train your team to challenge upwards in ways that can be heard and respected without them being accused of insubordination? How do you create an environment that encourages the vitally important function of upward questioning?

Upward questioning is the way a leader stays in touch and gets a real-time reading of the "temperature" on the ground. Questioning upwards is important not only in business but even in military and para-military organizations. In our work with law enforcement, for example, we emphasize the need for middle managers and even front line supervisors to feel safe enough to question upwards. In these workshops commanders have often told us of incidents where questioning someone of authority even in the midst of a tactical operation saved lives. They also give us examples of how when junior officers fear to question the wisdom of their superiors, it has lead to the unfortunate use of force that have sometimes resulted in injuries.

The most important question in the process of challenging upward is, "Why are we doing this?" Or, "Why are we doing this in this way?" These are the questions that lead to organizational redesign and to innovation. But the "why?" questions are also the most challenging to authority no matter how politely they are framed. Often destructive individuals will use the "why?" question as a way of distracting a manager or undermining their authority. Sometimes managers feel undermined by the "why?" question because they don't know the answer.

Here is a method from Lead by Greatness that you might find helpful in creating a framework that encourages constructive "why?" questioning, and helps you manage it:

Together with your team, make sure to create and articulate your own unique business philosophy that is aligned with your senior team's values. A business philosophy comprises two parts:

  1. Your purpose statement: purpose statement goes far deeper into the psyche of your primary customers than a conventional mission statement might do. It identifies some of their deepest intangible needs that you can satisfy with your offering.
  2. Your leadership brand: A leadership brand describes the character traits you need in your leaders to effectively deliver on the purpose statement.Your leadership brand informs your recruitment and development of leaders and will be the most important element in the architecture of your culture.

(In future articles we will describe the of business philosophy, purpose statement and leadership brand in more detail, and you will find the basic methodology to craft a business philosophy in Lead by GreatnessLapin International consultants are expertly trained in this methodology and can be of help to you.)

Once your business philosophy is adopted, articulated and communicated it frames any "why?" question that anyone may ask. You can encourage anyone to challenge you, but every challenge needs to reference the business philosophy. The template then for a challenge would be something like: "If xxx is our purpose, then why are we doing yyy?" Or, "If our leadership brand requires xxx of our leaders in order to deliver on our purpose, why are we allowing yyy behavior?" This cuts out sloppy thinking, eliminates people who are trying to use the "why?" question as a decoy, and makes sure that you as a leader are held to account to preserve and deliver on the business philosophy you and your team have designed.

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