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Excuse or Explanation?

It's frustrating when expectations go unmet and explanations sound like another excuse. Let's use science to understand the motivation behind the behavior.

Manager: Why didn’t you complete that task?

Employee: Because… I ran out of time; I didn’t have enough information; I plan to have it done tomorrow; I didn’t know where to start; Why are you micromanaging me?

Manager: Stop making excuses and just finish it up (either said out loud, under their breath, or to HR).

We’ve all been involved in conversations like the above. It is no doubt frustrating when expectations go unmet and explanations sound like another excuse. However, asking people what they need or why something didn’t happen doesn’t mean you’re accepting excuses. Truly listening to the explanation can help you better engage with your team in order to help them be successful.

Turn the Tables

Let’s turn the tables around. Think of a time when someone asked you to do something and it didn’t go smoothly. Did you want to explain yourself? What went wrong or kept you from moving forward? Did you disagree with the directive? Were you missing information? Was the deadline unclear? Is it possible the person on the receiving end of those questions/reasons saw your explanation or delay as an excuse? 

Many of us have too much to do and not enough time, people or resources to do it. We hear the “excuses”, roll our eyes and wonder what happened to good ol’ common sense. I get it. I was a leader in corporate America and heard every excuse in the book. I also remember struggling in a role. I remember trying to ask questions or explain why I did something. I remember feeling like I wasn’t being heard. And when that happened, I either got more assertive or became frustrated and disengaged.

What People Need

It is human nature to want to be heard and to feel understood. As leaders, if we can pause and really listen, we can learn so much about what someone needs to be successful. 

Do they need: 

  • More information:
    • High S need for structure/plan/details
    • Low E need more data
    • High E need affirmation they’re on the right track
  • More time to complete:
    • High P need to plan the work/work the plan 
    • High S made too many commitments (sense of duty) and now are buried 
    • High E made too many commitments (please others) and now are buried

Often times, slight adjustments can be made help meet their needs. For example, can you share more information (high S), listen to them “think out loud” (high E), or give them time to research and think independently (low E)? 

When it’s Not Working

There are times, despite the best effort on the leader and employee, when what the person needs is not possible in the role. 

A misalignment of needs and strengths might sound like:

  •  A highly detailed person (high S) who needs to make more decisions without having all of the details
  • The highly assertive person (high A) who doesn’t want/can’t complete all of the details 
  • The highly extroverted person (high E) who can’t stand staring at a computer all day. 

While this explains the behavior, it doesn’t excuse it if it is critical and necessary in the role.  So now what? What strategies can be put into place to help the person be successful? Some possibilities may be:

  • Job re-balancing – shifting duties across the team to align better with the individuals strengths within the team
  • Job sharing – identify when certain duties can be handed off to someone else with those strengths
  • Role change – if they’re a good organization fit, are there other opportunities that would align better with their needs? Not to move a “problem”, but to re-position a team member for success.

Right Person, Right Role

In the end, knowing your authentic needs doesn’t give someone an excuse from being held accountable to the expectations. The question is, are you asking someone to stretch a little or are you trying to teach a duck to be a great sprinter? If you’re trying to get someone to operate drastically different than their natural self, you’ll probably hurt their little webbed feet and they’ll become frustrated and disengaged. 

The best leaders and organizations take time to know the needs of the role and the strengths/weaknesses of the employees before they hire them. This allows them to put strategies in place for supporting their weaknesses in a way that is realistic and helps lead to the long term success and engagement of the employee. 

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