Watch Out for These 3 Employee Excuses (They May Say More About You Than Them)

Mistakes happen. But if your staff is serving up these excuses on a regular basis, you’re in bigger trouble.

Excuses are like, er…opinions; everyone has one. OK, so that’s a much less graphic version of that cliché, but organizations that are full of excuses are also full of bigger problems.

No one has a perfect performance record, but having the accountability to accept mistakes and take ownership of rectifying them are the hallmarks of excellent employees. Within great companies, there is simply no room for excuses–on any side. I heard it said the other day that great leaders sometimes have explanations, but never excuses.

With that said, when an excuse appears, a concise explanation can serve as a powerful alignment of expectations and help create a culture of accountability. Here are three that I’ve heard along the way and how to keep the organization focused on the solution–not the problem.

1. “I didn’t know I was allowed to do that.”

I give a one-time pass for this excuse because it’s actually completely valid. Even if you have a general idea of a person’s background, you don’t really know the ins and outs of the past politics they’ve dealt with. It’s possible that they came from organizations that always told them to stay in their lanes and only contribute in a way that fit their narrow job description. This is less of an excuse and more of a light bulb moment for you and your employee.

In my company, we make it clear that no rules or job descriptions are written in stone. We empower our people to change anything at any time and tell them not to be afraid to try new things. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the only thing employees shouldn’t be “allowed” to do is assume that the answer is “no.” If you empower your employees along those lines, they should be open in admitting when they need help and quick to step in for a colleague who needs assistance.

The flip side of that is, once your employees know they’re given carte blanche to explore opportunities, they risk severely hurting their reputations by standing still. Nothing is more disappointing than watching someone go from boundary-pusher to excuse-maker. Allow for one “I didn’t know that was how it’s done around here,” then rid your people of that mindset for good.

2. “I didn’t know where to find the answer.”

Part of empowering employees is giving them license to ask as many questions as possible. It’s easy to identify great employees because they’re the ones who, when encountering a problem, ask themselves why it’s happening instead of just saying, “This sucks.”

The first step in problem solving is defining the problem. So, an employee who doesn’t know where to find the answer probably doesn’t know what they’re looking for in the first place.

You should never expect people to know how to solve every issue, every time. It’s to be expected that complex problems will require collaboration and teamwork within your organization. Encourage your teams to break down barriers in a pragmatic manner in order to get to the root cause. The answer will often lie in your process.

For example, I’ve often found that apathy attempts to cloak itself by citing information overload. I was hearing that there was simply too much information to weed through and new employees often got stuck, sometimes due to the daunting number of places where information was lurking.

Whatever the leading cause, your employees should always have somewhere, or someone, to help them find a solution. We implemented a knowledge base that has become the single stop for knowledge. And if the information isn’t present, there’s an option to ask the question directly in the platform, which routes it to pre-determined subject matter experts who can hop on the inquiry quickly.

By doing this, we’ve removed the excuse of not knowing.

3. “I just don’t work well with (insert co-worker here).”

Here’s one that will keep rearing its ugly head if the problem goes untreated. Conflict happens. I’m not saying everyone at your company needs to be best friends. In fact, I have found that high performers are sometimes the most difficult to work with.

But unless co-workers can arrive at a mutual understanding, they’ll constantly be on different pages. At best, the negative effects are limited to their productivity. At worst, it hobbles the entire company.

To help keep this parasitic mindset from spreading, it’s up to leadership to encourage individuals to work through their issues on their own. We actually encourage the use of a “safe word”–something that indicates the conversation is no longer productive for one of the parties and that a pattern interrupt is necessary.

There needs to be a collective mindset that encourages empathy and promotes the desire to understand the position of others. I firmly believe that everyone is doing their best, and working toward the best results, as they understand them. Therefore, if this is the assumption you are willing to make as well, every conflict arises out of someone’s inability to understand another party, not because of some malicious motivation.

As an employer, when this arises, you have the license to put performance on hold and focus on fostering this understanding. An extended afternoon away from the office can do wonders.

Unfortunately, many organizations allow friction to perpetuate because too much stuff needs to get done on the work calendar. Employees continue to get put on the same team without understanding each other’s processes, and as a result never find a workable middle ground. Don’t stunt the value each employee brings by sweeping discord under the rug. It will keep popping up again and again. And you shouldn’t have the patience to hear the same excuse more than once.

George Washington Carver said, “Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” Unlike failure, the only way to create success is through unflinching diligence and by creating a culture where there is simply no excuse for anything less.

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