ALC English Journal Article Aug 2013

How To Work With People Who Make Excuses

QUESTION: “I have some people on my team who don’t get their jobs done, but they make excuses all the time. What can I do about this?”

ANSWER: I know how discouraging it can be to work in a group like that! Making excuses for poor performance makes people sound like helpless victims, and further reduces their professional power. The fact that you are the manager of this team means that you have both a responsibility and the authority to change this situation. Let’s explore what can be done!

Why Do People Make Excuses? One possibility is that they truly believe that someone else is responsible for what’s happened. But in my experience the two most common reasons are:

  • they fear being blamed for mistakes and failures.
  • they feel powerless to deliver the results required of them.

Avoid the “Blame Game”. Some workplaces have a habit of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong instead of searching for solutions. This destructive organizational behavior creates fear and reduces necessary risk-taking. If you want your people to take responsibility for the results that they produce you must never play the blame game! Instead, when expectations and reality don’t match, work collaboratively to discover and eliminate the causes of mistakes and failures.

But, Beware Bureaucracy! Don’t go to extremes when implementing corrective actions. Assuring that the same mistakes will never happen again isn’t always possible, nor is it wise.  Excessive rules and processes stifle creativity and needlessly slow everyday business processes. The pursuit of perfection is the enemy of experimentation. Instead of eliminating all possible future disappointments, develop a business culture that celebrates risk-taking and values learning from mistake-making.

Fish Can’t Climb Trees! Einstein supposedly said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Are your expectations for your people a match for their abilities? If not, you need to better align your people with the jobs that need to be done. And do your people have all of the tools and support that they need to succeed? Two of your most important responsibilities as a manager are to provide resources required and remove obstacles to success.

Make it safe for your people to openly share their reasons – what you are calling “excuses” – for disappointing you. View each excuse as an opportunity! It’s your chance to remove that reason from causing future disappointments. You might even want to put up a sign at your desk saying, “What’s making it difficult to get your job done? I’m in the business of eliminating excuses!” OK, it’s kind of a joke, but you get my point, right?

No matter what the cause, as their leader, you have the responsibility and the power to help your people eliminate their excuses and build their self-esteem. People who feel trusted, capable, and supported by their managers and teammates don’t make excuses. Starting today, imagine that you are in the business of finding and eliminating excuses. Start with your own “reasons” for not transforming this group into a cohesive, supportive, unstoppable team!

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