Most of us learned early in life to avoid confusion, or at least not to admit to it, even when it was painfully obvious that we did not know what to do. Later, as the problems got more complex and harder to solve on your own, you looked to your elders for clarification and direction. Most of the time they understood and offered their wise council or sage advice—but not always. Sometimes, instead of getting help, you were ignored or told to go away.
Worse yet, you were criticized for not paying attention or ridiculed for asking dumb questions. On these occasions your self-confidence took a big hit. You came away feeling belittled and embarrassed—more confused than before. Such harsh treatment is not forgotten.
Given this all-too-common background, it is no wonder that so many people become dysfunctional when they get confused. Yet in order to minimize dysfunction, leaders must force themselves, and their followers to enter a state of confusion.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines confusion as, “the state of disarray; disorder; perplexity of the mind; or embarrassment.” Given that definition, you might be wondering why you would intentionally create such a state. There is a very good reason—when people are confused, they are susceptible to redirection and open to new information. If you can do this in a constructive manner, think of the possible benefits.
As you begin to work with people, who are in a confused state of mind, remember you may be dealing with deeply set feelings, perceptions, and fears—including your own. Most people can keep their apprehensions in check as long as they are in control. But, when faced with uncertainty, it gets harder for them to contain their anxiety.
Fearful that their inadequacies will be exposed, they seldom ask questions or seek clarification. This provides an opportunity to create a safe learning environment where people can admit to being confused without fear of recrimination. What a great opportunity to relieve their anxiety and discomfort.
First, you will need to redefine confusion—give it a positive connotation. When used independently con means “to study carefully” and fusion means, “blending together.” In this context con-fusion takes on a more constructive meaning: to study or learn together. A loose interpretation might be the joining of thoughts, or what Mr. Spock on Star Trek called a “mind meld.” After an encounter with Spock, people were no longer confused, but enlightened by their exposure to his superior intellect.
You can accomplish the same thing by blending together the thinking power in your team. Rather than reveal their confusion, some people prefer to withdraw. They want their little corner of the world to remain as is—predictable, definable, and under control. New things and new people are not to their liking. They also have narrow comfort zones and are easily confounded by uncertainty. When employees receive conflicting directions they get anxious about failure. As being right becomes more difficult, it seems safer to wait and do nothing rather than risk being wrong.
Showing your followers how to work their way through a state of confusion will beef up their competence. And, when next faced with ambiguity or inconsistency, instead of getting flustered, or waiting for someone to guide them, they will be willing to admit their confusion and seek clarification.
As a result, their natural curiosity will be maintained, and their self-confidence sustained. Although some will still get confused from time to time, thanks to your efforts they will know what to do about it. Truly this is good news. It means that all of your followers will understand what you are trying to accomplish and eagerly join in because it makes sense and it feels natural to them.