Do Your People Have Reasons or Just Make Excuses?

Successful people have reasons why they made a mistake or something went wrong. Less successful people make excuses.

When someone shows up late to a meeting or an event they have two choices, they can make an excuse or provide a reason. Let’s say you have an employee who is late for work. A less engaged employee might say, “The traffic was terrible and that’s why I was late.” At first glance that may appear to be a reason but it’s really just an excuse. 

An excuse makes a victim of the employee who was late and I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t the first time that employee was late and it certainly won’t be the last. An excuse has the undercurrent of “it’s not my fault, it’s not my responsibility and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it from happening again. 

The excuse says that if you as their leader try to hold them responsible for being on time it is YOU who are being unreasonable. YOU need to adjust your thinking and YOU need to be more flexible and understanding. After all, they can do nothing to control the traffic and blaming them is almost being abusive. 

It’s amazing to me how often that “shifting of responsibility” works. Many managers back off at that point and allow the tardiness to continue. Authentic Leaders know that if they do not hold their people accountable they are failing in one of the primary responsibilities of leadership. That is the responsibility of establishing accountability!

When the more engaged employee arrives late they provide a reason for being late. They may say, “The traffic was terrible and I failed to allow for that possibility. As a result I did not leave early enough and I was late. I will not make that mistake again.” 

Providing a reason for being late includes an acceptance of responsibility.  It includes a commitment to do whatever is required to be on time going forward. 

As a leader it is important that you understand the difference between an excuse and a reason. An excuse means nothing is likely to change. A reason means responsibility has been accepted and improvement will at least be attempted. 

Determining if you’ve been given an excuse or a reason requires that you listen intently to your people. You must focus on what’s being said and often, on how it’s being said. Failure to listen, truly listen, is the most common cause of poor coaching on the part of a leader. 

You can not help your people grow by accepting weak excuses. Excuses erase accountability and lead only to more excuses. Help your people understand the difference between an excuse and a reason. You’ll then be helping them be more successful for your organization and for themselves. 

3 thoughts on “Do Your People Have Reasons or Just Make Excuses?

  1. I’m more inclined to think that an excuse is a reason you’ve used more than once.

    To use your example: the traffic may be terrible because of an accident. It doesn’t create a lasting condition that will repeat the next day. Only if conditions repeat and the individual fails to adjust their behaviours to the new conditions foes the reason become an excuse.

    I tend to work by Ian Fleming’s guidelines: the James Bond novel “Goldfinger” opens with the line: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times must be enemy action.”

    1. I don’t recall who but someone much smarter than me once sad the first couple of mistakes might really be mistakes but the third time you make the same mistake it’s become a decision.

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