Is it Perfunctory of Desultory? It Pays to Know the Difference.

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Part of Emotional Intelligence is being able to label emotions and therefore attitudes,Is it Perfunctory of Desultory?  It Pays to Know the Difference. Articles and in the workplace, these lead to motivation and performance.

It’s important to understand the distinction between desultory, and perfunctory when dealing with an employee or colleague. Desultory is far more pervasive and permanent and probably has to do with the general atmosphere of the office, while anyone can do a single task in a perfunctory manner, if they dislike it, or are having an off day, or don’t feel good.

If you have a desultory work environment, you’re going to need to work on the culture and general atmosphere. If you have an employee doing a perfunctory job at a certain task, you need to correct for that situation only.

In essence, any person can lack motivation for a certain task, but when the attitude is desultory, no one is motivated.


Desultory - Desultory comes from the Latin desultorius which literally means a circus rider who leaps from horse to horse. Desultory means (1) marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose; (2) not connected with the main subject, and (3) disappointing in progress or performance (sluggish).

Perfunctory - Perfunctory is from the Latin perfunctorius meaning to accomplish or get through with. However in modern connotations, it has come to mean (1) characterized by routine or superficiality (mechanical); or (2) lacking in interest or enthusiasm.


No direction vs. No enthusiasm

Lack of leadership vs. Lack of supervision

Unclear goals vs. No motivation

Lack of clarity vs. Lack of energy


Albert approach the task in a perfunctory manner, answering the phone on the 4th or 5th ring at all, giving information reluctantly, and switching people to the wrong extension quite often.

The marketing department was desultory since the firing of their favorite manager. They weren't able to get the picture and didn't have adequate direction so, while they did their tasks well, they weren't making quotas and sales were falling far behind.

Key Point

A person can do a perfunctory job at a particular task and still be invested in the goal and project. If they are desultory, they aren't getting the whole picture at all, and likely to be perfunctory about everything, aimless and unmotivated. Any one can have an off day, but if desultory, every day is an off day.


It's important not to mistake temporary lack of enthusiasm for an atmosphere where no one knows what they're doing.

Emotions motivate us and it’s important to understand the emotions of others, and how to manage them. In order to do this, first you must understand your own emotions and be able to manage them. This is what Emotional Intelligence is all about.