McLeod column: How to avoid making excuses

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 31, 2012

We’ve all heard (and given) our share of excuses.”My computer crashed, I got stuck in traffic, no one told me I was supposed to do it, the dog ate my homework.”
It’s frustrating to encounter in others, but we’re often guilty ourselves, “I was sooo busy, my travel schedule has been crazy,” blah, blah.
Only we don’t call them excuses, we call them reasons.
One of my executive coaching clients recently experienced an excuse-making situation with their team. Every member of the team had been tasked with documenting the procedures for their department. They had one month to complete it. At the end of the month, only half the people had it done. The other half had plenty of good “reasons” for why they hadn’t done the assignment.
“Our department’s been swamped.”
“The other department didn’t send the paperwork.”
“We didn’t know what you wanted.”
“Why do we even need this in the first place?”
These four common patterns of excuse-making. They may be legitimate, but when people use them after they’ve missed the deadline, they come across as excuses, lame ones at that.
Here are the four common excuse-making patterns and how to avoid them.

Time and condition excuses
I live in Atlanta where it’s always acceptable to claim tardiness due to traffic. It’s taken me 10 years to realize: traffic is a constant, I need to plan for it. Being late due to a routine rush hour isn’t the traffic’s fault; it’s mine.
Before agreeing to a deadline, look at the external factors that will affect your ability to meet it. Come up with a plan to manage the conditions or renegotiate the deadline. Complaining about conditions you knew about in advance is just whining.

Claiming lack of skill or knowledge
In the aforementioned client example, several members of the team didn’t know how to document procedures; they’d never been trained. They had every right to ask for help. But instead, they looked at a difficult task, shrugged their shoulders and gave up.
Author Brené Brown says, “Asking for help is a power move.” Excuse-makers claim helplessness. Successful people ask questions in advance so they can get the job done.

Shifting blame
“It’s not my fault.” It’s the most commonly uttered excuse in boardrooms and 8th grade classes alike. Whether it’s exectives claiming they can’t control market conditions or a 14-year-old claiming her teacher wasn’t clear about the assignment.
The only way to nip it in the bud is to STOP IT. Stop doing it and stop accepting it.
Questioning validity
Someone promises to have it to you by Friday. Friday comes, they don’t have it. Instead they have all kinds of rationalizations for why it’s not important, why they sholdn;t have been asked, or why being late won’t harm the project. It’s an insidious, clever, and often subconscious way to shift blame.
Does anyone want to be known as an excuse-maker?

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant and best-selling author of The Triangle of Truth, A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders. She has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal .
Web site:
Lisa’s Blog: How Smart People Can Get Better At Everything