Excuse or Mishap? That All Depends

We all make excuses in one form or another. Some are subconscious; others deliberate. Some mask as “valid reasons,” while others are simply elaborate stories we tell to avoid facing the truth.

Some people are more prone to excuse-making than others. Reasons range from being overwhelmed to lacking personal accountability. But all excuses have something in common–they are the result of a missed mark or failure to execute successfully on a commitment. While the reasons we couldn’t or didn’t deliver vary, the outcome is always a missed mark.

How do we zap excuse-making in ourselves and others? How do we start hitting marks and delivering flawlessly without falling prey to excuses?

We start by figuring out what an excuse is and what a mishap or mistake is. The difference: A mishap, when corrected or addressed, is fixed permanently. An excuse, when addressed, tends to show up again and again, often masked as another “valid” reason for not following through.

If we are wearing our manager or leader hats and notice an excuse or mishap, we must first look to our personal effectiveness. Take a personal inventory to see if you’ve done everything in your power to facilitate a successful outcome (setting SMART goals, delegating check-ins and due dates, setting clear standards and expectations, communicating non-negotiables, etc.). If the previous steps have not been met, take personal accountably and clear up any confusion. If these steps have been flawlessly executed, chances are we’re looking at an excuse. No matter how clear you were, the response would still be an excuse.

Let’s take a look at some common mishaps vs. excuses. Remember, without additional context, some mishaps may look like excuses and vice versa. For the sake of this exercise, let’s select an option and see what follow-up question or strategy we may apply to zap excuses and correct mishaps.

Excuse or Mishap?

“I didn’t know you needed that.”

Most likely EXCUSE (can be a MISHAP). This is an interesting statement that managers hear often. If you, as a manager, failed to clarify what was needed, you may label it a mishap. Once corrected with crystal-clear standards and expectations applied to future assignments, this mishap would be eliminated. If, however, it’s an excuse, no matter how clearly you communicate the desired outcome, the answer (or a different version) is likely to appear. A great follow-up question to correct the mishap or zap future excuses would be, “The next time I assign something, and you are unclear about what I expect, how and when will you check in with me?”

“I’m on it!”
Most likely EXCUSE. I’d like to know what exactly they are “on.” Is it, “Oh crap, I just remembered, and I’ll start right now.” Or is it, “I’m almost done and have a strategic plan for finishing it”? A simple way to uncover the truth is to say, “Tell me more about where you are and what is left to be done.” It may be a good time to schedule a coaching session to check on how effectively they are balancing their workloads, prioritizing tasks, or delegating.

“Looks like I missed the mark. I’m sorry.”

EXCUSE. Unless this statement is followed with, “Here’s how I will make sure that doesn’t happen again,” it looks more like an excuse or passive-aggressive response. It demonstrates a level of awareness, but no call to action. It also shows no attempt at correcting or zapping future occurrences, which should be a red flag.

“You never set a deadline.” or “I didn’t know what time we were meeting.”

EXCUSE. Some of you may argue this point, and I stand firm that these are popular excuses (vs. mishaps). It’s not the sole responsibility of the manager to set a deadline. This is a joint effort. If you are a manager, make it an upfront agreement that if you don’t articulate a deadline, your team members should ask “By when?” Doing so will ensure deadlines are clearly articulated. If you want to create high-performing cultures, the first step is to coach the team to take personal accountability.

“The dog ate my homework.”

Let’s assume any version of this is a one-time MISHAP. It may be true that the dog ate the homework or the computer crashed, but we are nevertheless responsible for not having a back-up plan or cutting it too close to the deadline. One-off things happen to even the most responsible among us. A pattern of these responses is an excuse train that leads nowhere.

To correct mishaps and zap excuse-making, let’s take a closer look at how we, actively or inadvertently, make excuses or accept excuses from others.

  • Consider the areas of your life or work where you are more prone to make excuses. For example, maybe you overcommit or promise deliverables too close to deadlines, then make excuses for not delivering. Perhaps, you make excuses for not exercising, even though you’d like be more physically active. Most of us are prone to making excuses in certain situations.
  • Identify one area in which you’d like to create an “excuse-free zone.” For example, if you commit to delivering something by a certain date, you may say “When I commit to a deadline, I deliver on it, no matter what.” Or “I will work out every Tuesday morning, even if it’s only for five minutes.” These seemingly small action steps can add up to powerful habits that zap excuse-making for good.
  • Identify an area in which you are prone to accept excuses from others. Ask yourself, “What’s holding me back from confronting or zapping this excuse?” Maybe you don’t want to be seen as confrontational or a “mean boss” or “difficult coworker.” Reprogram yourself by using powerful nonconfrontational open-ended questions instead. If someone doesn’t deliver on a deadline say, “What got in your way? How can you prioritize differently to deliver on time in the future?” That way, you help them reflect. As their manager, you can coach them to take positive future action steps.

Zapping excuse-making is a disciplined practice, and it starts with us personally. If we don’t fall prey to excuses ourselves, we feel more comfortable holding others accountable. Be kind to yourself and others. Set up an “excuse-free zone” and challenge one another to be impeccable in one area at a time.

Very few people NEVER make excuses. Most of us use more than are good for us. Zapping one here and there adds up to a high-accountability culture and an impeccable personal commitment.