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        Faculty, Management, Research, Students

        Research: Employee insubordination often a reaction to abusive or non-productive supervisors

        June 18, 2020 By Joe McAdory

        All News


        Close-up of the dictionary entry for insubordinate that has been highlighted

        “How supervisors treat their employees has a direct impact on whether or not employees decide to morally disengage and act out. Supervisors should consider the types of relationships they are building with their employees and determine if their employees can depend on them.”

        The Harbert College is not only committed to producing research that advances the academy, extends business thought, and shapes best practice, but also enhancing PhD program offerings that produce high quality, research-focused, and practical academics who earn placements at peer and aspirant institutions.

        A new study revealed that employee insubordination is often a reaction to abusive supervision and/or non-productive managers.

        Assistant Professor of Management Jeremy Mackey, and Katie Alexander, a doctoral candidate in management at the Harbert College of Business, 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 recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

        Jeremy MackeyInsubordination is a disobedient behavior that intentionally exhibits a defiant refusal of authority. But why? “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 were abusive toward them 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.”

        As a result, the company suffers.

        Mackey hopes the study can be used to help identify employees who have poor relationships with supervisors and provide organizational leadership the opportunity to intervene and provide assistance. “Training employees in conflict management likely would help transform some insubordinate employee and abusive supervisory behaviors into constructive feedback,” he said.

        “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.”

        Katie AlexanderCrawford added that a key takeaway from the research was defining insubordination in the workplace context to help develop a measure for future research – a starting place for other scholars.

        “Insubordination is a commonly used term in the workplace,” she 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.”

        Crawford, an aspiring management professor, appreciates the opportunities that she and other PhD students have to work with full professors on impactful articles published in elite journals.

        “This has been critical for my growth as a scholar and future educator,” said Crawford, whose father, Wilton Crawford, is a 2001 Harbert College Executive MBA alum. “Preparing to be a business professor is an apprenticeship in many ways. There is not a text book or list of resources that tells you exactly what to do and what to expect with every research project. Every PhD student learns by doing.”

        Mackey lauded Crawford’s work on the paper and said she “exemplifies the very best attributes of an aspiring professor.”

        “Her outstanding record as a student in the MBA and PhD programs at Auburn, promising research program as a scholar, high-quality teaching in undergraduate classes, and service make her a meaningful contributor to the management department, Harbert College of Business, and Auburn University,” Mackey said. “Katie has accomplished all of this while serving as a role model to other PhD students in our department and exemplifying the very best attributes expected of members of the Auburn Family who follow the Auburn Creed.”