In a fast paced world where ever more is demanded of leaders and the teams we manage, it is essential to exercise an inside out approach to problems and “yes i can” attitude to resolution. At the heart of this is the art of focusing our mind and resources on making progress, over wasting our energy and attention on creating excuses. In short: winners make progress and losers get lost in a mine-field of justifications for failure. However there are reasons why staff make excuses and great leaders need to understand why people feel the need to make excuses in order to be able to guide them alternatively to making progress.
Excuses are rationalizations we make to ourselves about people, events, and circumstances. They are invented reasons we create to defend our behavior, to postpone taking action or simply as a means of neglecting responsibility. Excuses are mainly a means of placing the blame of an internal problem on an external condition. Psychologists – indeed most people when analysing other people’s excuses -place excuse-making in the ‘self-handicapping’ category – that is, it’s a behavior that hinders our own performance and hampers our motivation. However we are all still prone to make them so it is not a good enough solution to demand staff don’t make them, we also need to understand why we feel the need to make excuses in the first place and then take action to address the conditions that cause the excuse making.
Nearly all excuses are triggered by an established bad habit which has at it’s root cause a fear of something. Broadly speaking the “fears” that cause us to make excuses, can be broken down into 5 common groups, indicated below:
Fear of failure and of making mistakes is probably the most common work place excuse. Often people prone to this type of excuse making pre-empt possible failures or mistakes by pointing out reasons why they might fail even before they start a project. Ultimately this type of “excuse” like most of the others is made as a sort of self preservation for our own sense of self or perhaps better said our ego. It protect us in the short term from the feelings of anxiety or shame that we would otherwise feel if we exposed ourselves to accepting our own failure and/or mistakes. It provides a sort of protective blanket around us that stops us going deeper into the reasons for our failure but doing so is like an emu putting its head in the sand, as the excuse prevents us from exposing ourselves to the learning process needed to get beyond our failure. For this reason, it is essential for a great manager to create a trust environment for their team, one where staff do not fear judgement on mistakes they make, rather they embrace them as an opportunity to learn.
According to level 2 of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, human beings by nature need to feel stability and security and this is why it is often instinctive for us to feel insecure by anything that rocks that stability. For some people this turns into a fear of change and of uncertainty in general and it is another common reason why staff make excuses. This type of excuse maker finds comfort in things remaining familiar and is generally opposed to change even before they understand what it would involve. Their mind often starts justifying why the change wouldn’t work for them, for colleagues or for the company before considering any of its merits. With this type of excuse maker, it helps to first explain and direct focus on the benefits of the change before letting them know what the actual change is. This simple tactic of focusing on the end results over what will be new helps the individual to feel more comfortable about the change. This end in mind focus fits nicely with objective mentality thinking and used together effectively can help team members who are prone to fear change and hence make excuses to focus on the bigger picture of why this change is needed and how it could give benefit.
Another common source of excuses are the ones we make to prevent ourselves feeling out of our comfort zone or to protect us from the discomforting feeling of embarassment. These self-limiting excuses are common in younger staff or those new to a position of greater responsibility and can be huge stiflers of natural potential because we use them to find justification to avoid being exposed to something we predefine we (or others) are not capable of or ready to do. These excuses are often linked to procrastination as well as: because we feel uncomfortable calling a certain client, we make the excuse to ourselves it can be done tomorrow even thought logic tells us that it should be done today. Likewise these excuses can be linked to conflict avoidance: because we feel awkward about talking to a staff member about a sensitive issue, we convince ourself it is in our and their interest to not do so, even though our gutt and brain is telling us this conflict needs open dialogue to be resolved. Where managers can help with this type of excuse is to work to give staff the confidence to believe in themselves and link progress to acting on their instincts. Likewise it is important to provide direct feedback if you suspect a staff member is using excuses to jusitfy their procrastination, conflict avoidance or delaying acting on doing something they deep down know they should do.
Another common source of excuses can be the fear one has of taking on responsibility or of being the source of solutions. This fear, like the fear of embarassment, can also be commonly used to self limit ourselves. For example someone who is more humble and less confident in expressing themselves than a more direct colleague, can convince themself that the more direct colleague is the more natural leader, even if that by itself is not a key part of peer leadership. More importantly, even if we did need to be more extroverted in presenting our arguments or inspiring others, we can use the excuse of saying “I am not that person” or “i don’t have the confidence” to convince ourselves that these personality characteristics can’t be changed, when in fact these skills can in part be learned and improvement is possible. A great manager’s role again in these cases is to get staff to believe in themselves and avoid allowing self-limiting attitudes from coming out. It is also important to spot self-limiting attitudes for what they are which is excuses, as without getting staff to recognise this a staff member can excuse never seeking to have more responsibility as being something they are not capable of doing, when in fact it more likely it is just something they are fearful of taking on.
The final type of fear is a “fear of success”. This fear is less common than the rest and often we are more sympathetic towards people who make this excuse than we are to other types, however ultimately it is an excuse like the rest. Common signs of this excuses are people who start to justify why they don’t need to achieve something in the midst of striving towards getting it, in these moments they are feeling doubt and maybe feel out of their depth and they find comfort in telling you why they never really wanted to achieve the thing in the first place but this doesnt mean it is true. Again a great leader will help their staff to get beyond this by addresing this doubt head on and reminding them of the reasons why the success did matter to them in the first place.
As a great leader it is essential to lead your team towards having an inside out and solution oriented mindset and in short making progress over making excuses. However insecurities and uncertainties are real and it would be foolish and insensitive manager who didn’t recognise they will often need to guide staff beyond these. This is why understanding the route cause of an excuse can help you provide the right support and get your team back focused on progress. Great leaders spot excuses and point out to staff they are making them then they guide them to get beyond making them, to instead see that progress is far more in their interest than excusing their lack of it. Great managers guide staff beyond their excuses and towards making progress.