Tips for Dealing with Purposely Perplexed Employees

Purposeful perplexity is a form of laziness found in some employees who possess the capacity to think and reason yet feign a state of confusion to avoid putting forth the effort to solve their own problems. The purpose behind the perplexity could be innocent and resolvable,  like a fear of failure,  low confidence, or lack of motivation. Or, it could be more sinister, like willful exploitation of the leader and the organization.

As a leader, you may be frustrated by the apparent inability of employees, even experienced ones, to perform certain responsibilities. For example:

  • Understanding a task even after given careful directions
  • Working autonomously at a consistent pace
  • Independently determining next steps after completing a given task
  • Failing to track and make others aware of the status of a project
  • Procrastinating by prioritizing non-important tasks

Purposeful perplexity is especially maddening because it occurs in employees who are perfectly capable of doing the job, but resist the effort required to activate their full potential. And, no, purposeful perplexity is not limited to a particular generation.

Here are six ways to diagnose and deal with purposely perplexed employees:

1. Evaluate Sincerity

Make sure the person’s confusion is not due to a deficiency in your own leadership techniques. Try relating the same topic or task in different ways using different examples or analogies to explain the concept or requirement. Ask questions to check for understanding (or lack thereof). See if others of similar ability are confused by the same topic.

The sincerely stumped employee will put forth significant effort. Thus, a certain deception — lack of sincerity — accompanies the purposely perplexed employee’s confusion.

2. Observe Effort

The connection between initiative and intelligence cannot be understated. Natural intelligence is a gift, but the brain is an organ that behaves more like a muscle than a computer.

With time and perseverance, most employees of average intelligence will eventually figure things out. Even those who lack the skills or knowledge to overcome confusion don’t usually fail for want of trying. If an employee isn’t willing to put forth effort, it’s possible that they simply don’t care to. Communicate the importance of the task and the consequences to both the individual and the business if that task cannot be completed.

3. Test Understanding

When faced with a complex problem, some employees retreat instead of doing the hard work of thinking through and coming up with solutions because it is, well, hard! It’s possible that the employee does not yet fully understand the basics of the situation, and therefore is overwhelmed by the work that it would take to get up to speed. Employees who have mastered the basics, on the other hand, are eager to discuss specifics about the issues they are facing, and their attempts to work through potential solutions reflect sound problem solving.

Meet with the perplexed employee frequently and quiz them on topics that are critical to their success. Define a plan for them so they can see the light of getting their job knowledge back to where it should be. If they resist this training, it may be an internal struggle that is blocking their understanding of the basics.

4. Assess the Quality of Questions

There is a marked difference in the kinds of questions asked by a lazy employee versus an employee committed to learning. Lazy employees tend to make statements defending their perplexed position to get off the hook. By contrast, committed learners seek knowledge, understanding and proficiency through direct engagement and probing questions.

Note-taking is one telltale difference between a purposely perplexed employee and one who is truly seeking to learn. Learners eagerly capture the details to remember and apply later; purposely perplexed employees wait idly, hoping for the punchline and missing the point. Purposely perplexed employees may also try to feign effort by asking questions that you’ve already answered or they have the tools to answer for themselves.

5. Challenge Perplexity

Purposely perplexed employees will appear disoriented by your questions. Be direct, and if you are able, mask your annoyance by trying to inspire. Look for how these employees respond to your challenge: do they disengage or dive back into the fray?

Purposely perplexed employees are content to stagnate and seek your sympathy to divert attention from their lack of energy. Your frustration works to their advantage, so don’t let their dullness derail you. Stay calm and ignore wounded or vacant looks as they seek to escape your path of inquiry.

6. Evaluate Problem Solving Techniques

Some employees are naturally smart but have ceased to develop their reasoning skills. They want to be spoon-fed the answer without having to dig deeper into the details.

Purposely perplexed employees lack a drive for acquiring subject matter mastery. Don’t give them answers or allow them to borrow the answers from compliant colleagues. Instead, equip them with your choice of framework for effectively solving problems and make them find the answers.

It is important to reveal this charade before it goes too far and begins harming your business. If you fall for the purposely perplexed employee’s game, he or she is taking advantage of you. Purposeful perplexity is a deliberate attempt by some employees to force others to do the thinking they should be doing for themselves. Don’t let laziness masquerading as confusion leave you frustrated and over-worked. Ignore the impulse to question your own competence and leadership ability. Attack the root of the problem by practicing some of the techniques above.