Dealing With Chronically Ignorant People

February 12, 2012

I can’t think of a job I’ve held in my life where I did not work with at least one ignorant person. By ignorant I mean someone that is either unaware of or unconcerned with the negative effect their behavior has on the work environment. For whatever reason, these people ignore the feedback and other cues from the environment that testify to the fact that the things they say and do are counterproductive.

Ignorance is not the same as stupidity. The stupid person lacks the intellectual capacity to evaluate his or her behavior; the ignorant person simply chooses to disregard opportunities to learn and improve. Although they often believe otherwise, smart folks are not immune to ignorance.

We are all vulnerable to displays of episodic ignorance. The route to wisdom is more a winding road than a well-marked superhighway. Henry Cloud asserts that if you confront a wise person with the fact that they are currently meandering on the path of ignorance, they will ask for you for a map back to the right road and sincerely thank you for correcting them.

It’s the chronically ignorant folks at work that concern me, especially the intelligent fools. We know that their choices are not our responsibility, but their choices consistently affect our ability to perform the responsibilities we’ve been trusted with.

Ignoring the ignorant person avoids a confrontation, but it is also a subtle form of collusion with the very behavior we abhor. Benevolent confrontation is the right answer to ignorance, but it does not always work and sometimes blows up in your face.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t have some cheesy five-point list to offer as a guaranteed prescription for curing the chronically ignorant. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

How do you confront chronic ignorance in your workplace? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (28)

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  1. Great insights Bret. Some of the brightest people are sometimes also the most arrogant. Arrogance affects others in a counterproductive way. I have also tried “benevolent confrontation” (great phrase BTW) with less than perfect results. Often the only solution is to remove the person, no matter how bright or talented. Let us know if you find something better. Thanks.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think you hit a key point in arrogance, Chris. I wonder if arrogance makes you ignorant, or arrogance is a cover for ignorance. Probably both. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Great Post. If it were only as easy as removing the person, sometimes you have to remove yourself, as some of these people get into management positions and create totally toxic environments.

    If you find the cure you’ll make millions!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I don’t think removing the person is always the answer, Denise. I think sometimes we nurture a culture of ignorance, which means we share the blame. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    Denise Bevard Reply:

    I don’t think removing the peson is always the answer either, but sometimes is not a possibilty.

    As most things in life, we almost always share the responsibility.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Concur, Denise. Thanks! Bret

  3. Funny, I recently confronted a form of ignorance and it was extremely awkward because the person I was dealing with was very smart. The ignorance was holding me back from being able to do my own best work. To resolve the issue, I actually went around the person to upper management and framed the issue as a strategic business issue that needed attention as opposed to a bringing it up directly as a specific issue with the individual. The response was positive.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Good for you, Tiffany! When you say the response was positive, I assume you mean from upper management, not necessarily the ignorant person. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    Tiffany Brown Reply:

    Actually, all parties were positive about it. True to your statement: “if you confront a wise person with the fact that they are currently meandering on the path of ignorance, they will ask for you for a map back to the right road and sincerely thank you for correcting them.”

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Glad to hear that, Tiffany!

  4. Christian Theumer says:

    Sometimes ignorance manifests itself in a smart person due to a lack of job satisfaction or job challenge. I think it’s important to keep people engaged and not allow them to get too comfortable in their positions. Sometimes the best solution for the ignorant worker is to realign them and their work responsibilities through proper coaching and job evaluation.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Christian. I think you make a great point about how the work environment can impact behavior. I just don’t think anyone should be allowed to blame crappy behavior on a crappy job. If it’s broke, help fix it. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    Christian Theumer Reply:

    Agreed and I have definitely worked with the ignorant person who should take a long hard look in the mirror instead of blaming the working environment. It’s a shame that a negative attitude can be so contagious.

  5. Evergreen says:


    Wow! This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I am dealing with this issue at work and I look forward to finding a resolution.

    I work for the government and frankly there is no incentive for the ignorant person to change. What historically happens is the piranhas come at me with a million excuses to change my ways. Like, I should some how fabricate options to “go easy” on the person who has committed an unethical act.

    I feel like Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons in that I believe what I believe. I have been in the pressure cooker for over a week to “fix the problem.” I have chosen not to as I have no options to move forward with but I have offered to prepare the paperwork for signature for those higher above me. It has created a contentious environment. One senior official told me today (among other critiques) I would never advance beyond where I am because of my adherence to integrity and ethics. He even laughed at me when I said I didn’t need consequences to do the right thing.

    At this point it’s more of an ignorant environment which many people describe as “never able to change.” It truly stinks to be in an organization meant to do great things but never quite does anything.

    I will continue to review the comments here hoping someone will come forward with part or all of a solution. I greatly appreciate all the bright minds out there!


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Wow, Evergreen, as someone that currently works for state government I hear you! Don’t sacrifice your integrity or ethics for anyone. Hang in there, and thanks for sharing. Bret

  6. Leonie says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head in your description of the chronically ignorant and their impact in the workplace.

    The problem with dealing with the chronically ignorant is that there is little chance that they wake up to the reality of their impact because they don’t self-reflect and can’t take on board feedback they receive at work.

    The decent thing to do is to confront them about their behaviour. And the behaviour part is important because it can be changed if they so desire. But I wouldn’t bank on it.So you have to also find a way to work around them.

    I am a firm believer in taking on a task and asking for forgiveness later. You should never allow others to keep you from doing your best work. And you shouldn’t allow them to distract you either. If they want to stay in the dark, you shouldn’t invest much time and energy trying to illuminate them. You are better off putting all that effort into creating a positive impact in your organization through your own work.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Leonie. Your thoughts are exceptional, and just what I needed to hear today. Your second paragraph is unfortunately all too true. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  7. Mohsin Jaffer says:

    Great article – it is hardest when immediate management is ignorant and escalation to executive or leadership lacks support (in fact pushed back to follow immediate manager for example – I have been even told the immediate manager has absolute authority). I have experienced a lot of resistance especially when seen as breaking rank or going above my immediate manager when bullied and this is after attempting many many times.

    Recently I came across a word I loved to hear “Wilful Deniability’ recently as being the legal case for claim of ignorance by top level accountable people where they claimed ignorance to avoid any responsibility of actions by the company. There is a saying ‘the law does not protect the ignorant’ however it does not see to be so in real life – the law should not protect ignorance, it should encourage discovery of the truth – it should bring ignorance to light get it acknowledged and worked on to enable good outcomes and forgiven too. After all a great wise teacher once said “Forgive them for they do not know what they do” if and when ignorance is genuine and acknowledged of course not for those that take shelter in willful deniability not leading to the truth of the matter. The discovery of truth objectively about a matter sets everyone free after all …

  8. Joe Russo says:

    Interesting points, Dr. Bret, but I am left to wonder if sometimes the willfully ignorant are simply putting up defense after defense to mask their complete lack of security and sense of self-efficacy. I suppose we could see them as a challenge. But I agree with Denise, brooming them out the door might be the better medicine.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Very valid point, Joe. There are no easy answers to this; all I know is it drains energy that could go to much more productive things. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  9. Jon says:

    Hi Bret
    Interest airing of an age old issue.
    There is of course a dilemma here.
    The person complaining someone is ignorant may really have a problem with that person challenging their own entrenched values.
    I work in hospitality where my problem customers have been empowered by the ability to leave poor reviews thus damaging my business if i in anyway confront their short comings.
    I have had to learn that their is no point in challenging something that has already happened, but to try and close that door of possibility for the future.
    There is however the danger of the danger of over regulating human interaction, so the only real way forward it to carry the burden of their ignorance and not let it affect your own values.
    Those who are enlightened carry the heaviest burden.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jon. You make an excellent point very well. The hardest look is always the one in the mirror, but that is always transformational. Please do return to share more of your thoughts sometime. Bret

  10. Anon says:

    I don’t agree with this article’s definition of ignorance. This article defines ignorance as somebody who ignores the need to learn and improve in the work place. The reason I disagree is because the workplace is such an insignificant part of a person’s life that there exists no need to learn and improve the work place.
    Example 1:
    Bob works as an independent contractor with a company to produce sales for the company. Bob sees the job as putting food on the table but does not see the job as a career. Bob spends most of his time at home “learning” about education and furthering his value to the market place so he can get a better job. He spends less time devoted to his current job and goes to work to survive so he can eventually get a better job. People at his work place “according to your definition” would consider Bob to be ignorant since he doesn’t improve the workplace, yet Bob is actually the most open-minded of the entire work place since he is focusing on his future rather than a meaningless job.

    To re-iterate, your definition of ignorance is lacking. The real definition of ignorance is somebody who “lacks knowledge or information” and YOU are actually the one being ignorant by labeling your co-workers at ignorant because you don’t understand their full situation. They may be neglecting their duties at work because they are more focused towards a better future, which in reality, is more important than focusing on your job.

    Jim Rohn- “working hard at your job leads to a salary. Working hard on yourself leads to a fortune”


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Anon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  11. Jon Darby says:

    I’m not directly challenging your definition, but the analogy you use.
    I find this idea that you can compartmentalise knowledge/skill/effort etc. a bit of an oxymoron.
    You are an athlete training for weightlifting.
    You hold down a physical job on a building site, but try to avoid the physical work since you are focussing your efforts in the gymn.
    The two compliment each other, not just on the physical level, but on the attitude.
    As any elite athlete will tell you, at the top level, attitude is as important as training.
    My uncle started as a lowly apprentice in the aerospace industry and ended up as a company director.
    It is the attitude to learning and knowledge that trumps the mere knowledge.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jon. Well said. I also very much appreciate the respectful tone of your voice. Thanks for sharing. Bret

    Anon Reply:

    It’s great that your uncle “wanted” to work in the aerospace industry and that he did well, but it would be ignorant to assume that everyone is “always” working in the exact industry that they want to be in. What if your uncle was in his 20s doing labor for construction as his job while he was looking for a way to get into the aerospace industry? I don’t think he’d spend a lot of time trying to improve or learn about construction, I think he’d spend every hour of his construction work thinking about which aerospace jobs to knock on next and which steps to take to get to where he wants to get.
    But using this definition, his co-workers at the construction job would label him as “ignorant” just because he wanted to focus his learning towards a different industry which would inevitably become his future career.
    There are plenty of people who take jobs just to pay the bills while learning about opportunities to get into a different industry. That’s why they spend less time learning about their current job, and it doesn’t mean that they are ignorant, in fact it would be “ignorant” to assume them to be ignorant just because they do not have the same attitude towards the same job as you do. They could very well be working towards a much better future and you wouldn’t even know it because you are too busy labeling them as ignorant.

  12. Jon Darby says:

    Ahh but the point I was making was that to ignore the now on the assumption that the tomorrow will be better is to stunt the learning experience available in everything we do.
    It also demeans our current efforts and allows us to make judgements not only of ourselves, but those around us doing the same job….a sure way to close our minds to way out of ignorance.