Leadership or Insubordination?

manscoldingwomanMy boss towered over me as we stood side by side in the elevator. At 6’4″ he looked down at me, cheeks flushed with anger, and said: “you are in big trouble”.

We had just left the boardroom and his proposal had been tabled for further discussion. I took a deep breath and stared at my feet trying to keep it together. It was early in my career and I didn’t say a word for fear I would burst into tears. It was the longest elevator ride of my life and we only had to travel two floors!

He went immediately into his office and closed the door. When I left 2 hours later he was still on the phone. I expected I might be fired the next day.

As I tossed and turned that night I replayed the meeting in my head over and over searching for what I could have done differently.

Yet I kept coming to the same conclusion. My question was valid and I asked it because everything inside of me told me we were about to make a bad decision for the company.

Essentially what I had done that my boss was so upset about was ask a question he did not want asked because it pointed to the a gaping hole in his proposal. While I had briefly seen the proposal ahead of time, the hole in it did not get clear to me until during the meeting.

I pondered whether I should have waited and raised it with him one on one after the meeting.

In the moment, however, with my wide eyed, naive optimism, I sincerely thought the point was to make the best possible decision. Clearly I had a lot to learn about office politics. Even though I was trying to do the right thing, it seemed I had done it all wrong.

The next day I was delivering a training session at another location. Relieved I might enjoy a brief “stay of execution”, I arrived early to get things ready.

The CIO came by the training room and asked if he could see me in his office for a few minutes. He escorted me in and closed the door. Once again I was shaking inside thinking he, too, was furious with me.

He stood there for yet another seemingly endless moment looking me right in the eye. And then a huge smile broke out on his face as he reached forward to shake my hand.

He thanked me for what I had done in the meeting the day before. Turns out I asked questions that provoked a conversation that was a long time in coming. I had unwittingly disrupted the usual rubber stamping of my bosses proposals to the CFO. Anyone else asking the question would have been dismissed because it would have been coming from “they who could not be trusted”.

For the first time in my career the cost of an “us” vs. “them” dynamic was crystal clear and I was now caught in the middle.

Depending on who you asked, I had either committed an act of leadership or an act of insubordination.

From the point of view of the CIO I had provided leadership by asking tough questions that led to an intelligent conversation about the topic at hand.

From the point of view of my boss I had been insubordinate because I didn’t wait until after the meeting to ask my questions privately and undermined his position.

Now before I share the rest of the story, I’d like to hear from you – what do you think it was: Leadership or insubordination?

To be continued…

Image credit: iofoto / 123RF Stock Photo

  • Samantha says:

    In a truly collaborative environment where the needs of the many take precedence over the needs of the few (aka…egos) it is considered to be leadership.

    In a command and control culture, it is considered to be insubordination. This is where the needs of the few (meaning, the needs of the ego..or saving face) supersedes your needs, or what is in the best interests of the organization.

    It’s one thing to have a general understanding of trust where people make every best effort to have each others backs and to not intentionally make others look bad, etc. Yet if this was truly a collaborative environment, then you giving your honest opinion would not have been a threat to anyone else. It would be understood that it is not a negative reflection against any single person. It is simply based on what is best for the project/organization in that moment.

    Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in the workplace. Interesting post Susan!

    • Excellent observation Samantha that the difference in interpretation lies in the context of the culture. There is no doubt I was working in a command and control culture, at least that was the culture my boss believed in.

  • Rachel Magee says:

    Leadership. The best leaders I have worked with create the conditions and set the workplace norms for this type of collaboration to be of high value to a team and organization success. What is the purpose of creating a board or a team of any kind if differing opinions are considered insubordination? (I am also the naive optimist who struggles to navigate office politics 🙂 ).

    • Always nice to meet a fellow “naive, optimist”! This experience taught me a lot about the kind of environment I wanted to work in and the type of person I wanted to work for. I have fortunately worked for some outstanding leaders who created the collaborative environment I thrived in even where the overall culture was more command and control in nature.

  • Ben says:

    Great post.

    I think I would have waited, so well done for having guts. However, if the culture is right, it shouldn’t matter where or when the questions are asked.

    I think whether your question was insubordination or leadership is irrelevant – I think the real issue is how to deal with the culture and politics that were highlighted by the reaction to your question. That’s more important!

    And it’s good that this culture has been exposed.

    • Thanks Ben. It was most certainly an instructive experience about the culture and interpersonal dynamics I had to contend with in my new job. I had unwittingly stepped on a bit of a land mine. Yet while the culture was definitely more one of command and control it had pockets of collaboration as I was soon to discover. In this case I had not violated a cultural rule as much as I had violated the “rules” my boss expected me to play by. How I know that is because he was the only person who was upset.

  • J. M. Stuart says:

    Insubordination requires intent on your part. There are many ways that this could have been approached, and there are consequences and benefits for all of them. From what you have revealed there was an unhealthy culture at your workplace that led to sub-optimal decision making. If the CIO is an honest political player and your assessments are correct, you will probably be OK and put some sharper tools in your kit at the same time.

    • Excellent point – intent matters here. My only intent was to contribute to a good decision for the company. The CIO did in fact turn out to be a man of high integrity and someone with whom I developed a strong relationship as a result of speaking up that day.

      It was such a long time ago but it was one of those experiences that taught me much about myself, where I worked and the kind of people I wanted to work with and for in the future.

      Thanks for your comment J. M.

  • William Powell says:

    Love the premise of this post Susan. I wrote a similar post that focused on how often times initiative is more of a benevolent rebellion than it is insubordination. A “boss” may feel threatened, but a leader will welcome difficult questions.

  • Mohamed Yusuf says:

    From my 11 years experience I can tell you that you are really lucky since you are working with such respectfull CIO, but in the mean time take care this could be appreciated by the CIO coz there are hidden problems between him and ur direct Manager and then u can consider urself as just a tool..!

    And concerning what happened it is a purely leadership only if you did not touch any of the critical topics or subjects that could effect the whole organization or even its reputation and only if there was no spare time to highlight ur comments directly with ur Manager right before the meeting even if u will pass ur idea to him to be proposed by him under his name as a way of transparency for example especially when proposing his plan, then gaps (which is urs) and then ur organization ability to remedy.
    Mohamed Yusuf.

    • You make some great points Mohamed. As I was about to learn the rift between my boss and the CIO was bigger than I had realized. It was possible that I would become a “tool” in their war.

      To your point about not touching critical topics to the organization – I think the important thing there is to be aware of what those are to begin with so you don’t inadvertently cause harm.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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  • Tom Rhodez says:

    I have to agree with Samantha. The answer is dependent on the environment and culture of your organization. I have never been one for office politics and have spoken out for what I believed was right. Too me that is leadership. In some cases however it has been deemed insubordination. Companies that see great questions and collaboration as insubordination are missing great opportunity for growth. Great post and very thought provoking.

    • Thanks for weighing in with your perspective Tom. The answer does depend on the culture of the organization, as well as the belief system of people involved. I would venture to say that whenever we are speaking up about anything that challenges tightly help beliefs or strongly held opinions by those who have power over us we risk being perceived as insubordinate. Essentially it is in those moments that we are coming face to face with the status quo. Whether we affect change in the status quo depends on whether we can bring not only the courage to act, but the wisdom to act in ways that will ultimately cause change for the sake of a better future.

  • Dr Chales Motzko says:

    Depends on the internal culture. Of course the old saw of: “Never surprise the boss!” Is advise to ponder in this type of situation. Given the small amount of information, then:

    – If the culture is to protect the organization – then Leadership

    – If the culture is to protect the boss – then Insubordination

    • “Never surprise the boss” can be good advice Chales, although I think the context of that advice is extremely important. All too often that advice is given as a warning for how to not get into trouble. If the context is fear for either the boss or employee then speaking up is probably going to be futile at best and will get you fired at worst. With the bosses I have respected, I naturally have followed this advice, not because I feared the consequences, but because I trusted their motives and knew their commitments well enough to want to follow their lead and support them.

  • Karin Hurt says:

    Ahhhh, a cliff hanger… cool. I have mixed emotions on this one. I have made almost that identical mistake (it also involved a long elevator ride after… my in a midtown manhattan skyrise.) It too worked out fine…. but the lesson I took away was that I should have given the exec the benefit of my thoughts offline first. Not in the context of that meeting. It depends… (but that’s another post 😉

    • Glad to hear I am in good company Karin! At the time I didn’t think there was time to give my feedback offline because it looked the decision to go forward was about to be made. And in hindsight I realized that was by design – I was simply a pawn in the play for rubber stamping. Giving the benefit of the doubt and having the back of the people I work with and for are my natural way to approach my working relationships. Among the many things I learned from this was that among the most important career decisions we must make is not just the job we choose, but choosing the people we will work for and the culture we will work in.

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