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I was on one of the many  People/Business/HR forums I monitor  and came across a post asking how to deal with ‘insubordinate employees’. What a loaded question!

How could a Naked Leader not respond to that! Here is my little rant.Enjoy!

“Firstly – define insubordinate…  Just the use of this terminology indicates that the leader’s ego is engaged and not in a good way.

Far too many leaders get precious about feedback. If your people cannot be open and honest with you-even blunt-you have failed already.

One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (but is actually much older than that): To paraphrase it- “No-one can insult you without your permission.”

If you are an effective, emotionally mature leader (or human) it will be almost impossible to be offended by anyone. The fact that you feel offended or see their behaviour as ‘insubordinate’ means that you have made the transaction about you – not the problem at hand.

Here’s a clue from Naked Leadership®: Leadership is not about you it is about them…

The term insubordinate means literally that you perceive that they are no longer ‘subordinate to you’ i.e. they have dared to address you as an equal. This smacks of insecurity and arrogance.

What I suggest to all of my clients and seminar attendees is that if one of your employees walks up to you and says: “You suck!” Or words to that effect, rather than getting all upset, you simply reply: ”Thanks for the feedback. Can you explain in exactly what way I suck?”

This has two immediate effects: it reflects back to the person what they have just said and disarms them because they are expecting a fight and it allows you to question them further to find out the source of their discontent. No normal person takes this kind of extreme (and almost certainly job threatening) action without a very good reason.

A good leader practices mental Aikido. They move out of the way of the attack and assess their adversary.

It has been my experience over quite a few decades as a leader and as a coach that if we engage the complainers rather than reacting to them, we might find that they are the only people willing to tell us the truth. I stress to my clients that they seek out what we here call the ‘whingers’ and find out what is bothering them. It is rarely without justification.

The aviation industry long ago learned to decrease as much as possible, the ‘power gradient’ between the Captain and the rest of the crew. A power gradient builds mistrust, fear of speaking up and creates an inability to determine a problem before is has negative effects. It can directly lead to accidents with catastrophic results.

A leader must have the ability to take all manner of feedback and dispassionately evaluate it. We have to be open to the idea that we can be wrong.

So the question is: If you are easily offended by employee comments-should you really be a leader? I would suggest that the answer is no.

If you take the time to Ask Questions and Shut up and Listen (Naked Clue #2)® you may find that there is key information in their discontent.

As a leader you have to be the Coach and the Umpire. You have to be emotionally Disconnected from any situation in order to make good judgements.

If people can trust you enough to be honest, even brutally so, you have an opportunity to fix whatever is wrong before it spreads the damage – in effect: to get out in front of the challenge and focus on prevention.

In other words… to Lead….

Working with many organisations over the years, I have seen both effective and not so effective communication cultures.

This can stem from a number of causes.  Leaders will often take silence as a sign that everything is okay, rather than actively engaging their team in discussions.

On the other side, team members may not feel that they can be honest with their boss because there may be repercussions for them or that ‘nothing will ever change.’

This may has been sufficient in the past when many companies were monolithic and just ground along while employees stayed ‘for life’ but in the 21st century and in an incredibly competitive world, we cannot afford to have our best assets, (our people) communicating poorly with us or each-other.

These days change is a part of life but most humans don’t like it. It unsettles us and creates fear and if we do not have an open communication culture we will not see the problems before they occur.

So if we want to get the best willingly from our people, we need to ensure that we are supporting a culture of openness and that in turn will ensure that we are always aware of the health of our organisation.

Openness does not mean communication chaos or wishy-washy ‘mission statements’ but rather communication accountability.

As I relate in NAKED LEADERSHIP, while I was working in the US at Continental Airlines, the new CEO – apart from updating everyone in the company by voice mail once a week – announced that anyone could make an appointment to see him to speak honestly about how things were going, regardless of their role from baggage handler to senior manager. The same went for the VPs and Directors down the line and their team members. This in a company of over 50,000!

Once people realised that he was serious, it basically lowered the power gradient to zero and was one of the key factors in bringing the company from bankruptcy to consistent profitability while others struggled.

Of course I have heard the protest “But I would spend all day hearing people complain about trivia!” Actually that didn’t happen.

Because people knew they could see the CEO or VP directly it made them feel more comfortable in being honest with their manager and where necessary bringing up problems at that level. For the reluctant manager he or she knew that if they didn’t listen and if their behaviour didn’t align with our values, it could go all the way to the top very easily.

When you tie this in with a strong set of values – one of which is listening to feedback (NAKED LEADERSHIP – Naked Clue #2 Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen”) it is amazing how culture can transform and cope with most things.

With a workforce, we have a dynamic organism that can be deeply affected by misunderstandings, rumours, superficial disappointments and this leads to poor relationships.  In order to be able to anticipate or overcome problems within our organisations we need to be constantly asking questions and listening carefully to the answers.

From time to time I have assisted companies during negotiations with union representatives and quite often, the initial mood is of defensiveness on both sides. After listening to what appear to be the issues, I begin asking simple questions such as “What do you really need?” or “What is the real problem here?”“What are people really upset about?” – Drilling down it often turns out to be nothing to do with the stated issues. They are symptoms of a sense of ‘injustice done’ for both parties. The relationship had broken down through poor communication.

Had there been a lot more questioning and listening going on in the first place, the issue may not have arisen at all.

Of course to make this a success, leaders need to be able to take feedback without getting defensive and that takes practice. Lots of practice…

(See NAKED LEADERSHIP – the 7 Naked Clues for how to do this)

After listening and questioning, we must also remember that what we say to a team member carries with it the weight of our position. What we think may be a straightforward comment can have very negative consequences when interpreted from ‘below’. Having the emotional maturity to be mindful of the effect of our words by keeping the receiver in mind is critical to a successful relationship of any kind. This doesn’t mean apologising for feedback (or trying ‘good-bad-good’ which doesn’t work) because as a leader you are their coach but simply avoiding unintended gaffes.

If we begin to create an atmosphere (within or team and our company) where employees feel able to speak honestly without fear of censure, problems can be detected much earlier, ideas can be sought and a strong values-based culture can be built and that is a real competitive advantage. It will make change much easier to endure and the workforce more engaged in the process.

Finally, in order to underpin the sense of trust we want to build with our people so they will communicate and work with us willingly, we, as leaders, need to have the courage to speak up when we see things that are inappropriate, inequitable or unjust.

Having the courage to question inaccuracies, inequity, misrepresentations or unfair comment or action is a key element of good leadership. Part of our job is to ‘protect and serve’ our team members, so that they perform at their peak.

It can be uncomfortable for us questioning our boss or peers behaviour in order to right a wrong but it comes with the territory. Either you are a leader or you are not.

How you do it (Naked Clue # 6) is important but our career progress must never happen at the expense of justice. The value of integrity cannot be overstated. If you are consistently honest and fair, your reputation will follow you – as it will if you are not.