No one likes to hear
excuses. The very word makes most of us tired, for we all know at bottom that
excuses are reasons for failure. But are they?
Robert has agreed to produce some
software analysis by Friday noon. By 4 p.m. on Friday you haven't heard and you
track him down. Robert is abject, but he has the most logical excuses. For
starters, the library was closed for painting all day Wednesday. In addition
Smith failed to supply Robert his required input by Thursday. Mentally
scratching your head, you try to sooth your rising frustration with the
undeniable logic of these excuses. After all, who can control maintenance let
excuses are immaculately logical. Nevertheless, every excuse list contains
representative of each of the two kinds of excuses: those that contain blame
and those that invite accountability. With understanding and alertness, you can
convert the former to the latter and eventually minimize the blame-excuse
Step one is
to equip yourself to eliminate your own complaints. Our complaints are
sometimes self-generated, cloaked in habit and semi-automatic
Imagine for a moment that you have an
opinion which differs substantively from your bosses' on an important new
enterprise. You feel that if you could just get this opinion across it might
make a significant contribution to the team effort. As you consider delivering
the opinion, however, a series of "sensible" reservations crowd through your
mind. After all, you tell yourself accurately, the boss is pretty busy. Then
too he isn't the greatest listener, especially when he might end up being
wrong. Maybe, you think, you should have voiced your difference sooner, and
broaching the subject now might get you labeled a complainer. Anyway, the boss
hates controversy and usually in the end is right anyway, so why rock the boat?
Remember the last time you tried it?
And so, with these logical reservations
seemingly building on their own, you do not fully communicate to the boss to
one of your logical reservations really does boil down to a fearof
losing, of embarrassment, of consequence, of rejection, or of reactionthe
chances are excellent that you have just created a self-generated
Why? If you
are motivated at alland nearly all of us areby your original desire
to contribute to success, then you still care about your opinion and its
potential positive effect. Your reasons for not communicating fully, no
mater how logical or how right, do not impact the fact that you still
care. None of us can wish away the emotion of wanting to
contribute with the logic of why we can't.
At this point you clearly have a choice:
you can burn out your care about the endeavor or you can communicate, knowing
that it may or may not be accepted. Since your "logic" is preventing you from
communicating it to the bossthe person who could actually use ityou
will be tempted to communicate your opinion (or problem, or question, or
complaint, or suggestion) to someone else, who may be a better listener but,
who chances are, cannot act on the input. Thus starts the "coffee-room
complaint buzz," stemming from the excellent intention to contribute but gone
awry through the motivation of the fear of losing.
Your coffee-room listener may
inadvertently perpetuate the buzz. He has heard about a problem that he
probably cannot solve but that he can think and talk about. If that problem, or
his understanding of it reminds himeven subliminallyof a problem
that bothers him, then he will think about it and he will talk about
In the meantime, the
original project's success is in unnecessary and escalating jeopardy: of course
it can't work, we never had the right (fill in the uncommunicated input) in the
Boss Really Doesn't Listen
I agree. This muck and the resulting
expenses and excuses really wasn't made by one person alone. Our business teams
(and our family teams) contain lots of people who get themselves
isolatedfrom true opinion and therefore from reality. How do we do it?
Better yet, how do we know whether we are doing it?
Fortunately, we are all equipped with an
intuition which, when we pause to use it consciously, can answer these
questions for us. You doubtless have had the feeling at certain times that the
people interacting with you are not telling you what they really think. If you
followed up immediately, then you know your intuition was accurate. If you
didn't, then you found out later, when the cost became visible enough (and
large enough) and when the excuses became irritating enough.
But what you may not know is that
despite your good intentions, you actually invited these people to not
level with you.
projected images invite people to silence or to indirect dramatization of
problems. Images are the products of how we think we should impress people.
Images are trouble only when they become automatic or unconscious,
self-generated by habit. Automatically projected images cannot possibly
represent you, for how you feel is constantly changing through out your day.
Yet often in our business lives automatic images are the rule. If, for
instance, you automatically project a "very busy" image, then people, and
particularly your reports, are invited to perceive that you are too busy to
hear about a small problem. Well intended though they probably are, these
people now have a logical reason to wait until the problem gets big enough to
warrant your attention. These people are invited to pick their fear of
reaction or consequence as the operating principle in certain instances of
relating to you. You haven't created their fearswe all have
fearsbut you have inadvertently encouraged it as a motivating factor on
The same is
true for any automatically projected image: too busy (nobody is always
that busy), always right (draws conclusions before the information is in), too
decisive (never unsure), too important (don't mix with the "common folks"),
self-sufficient (never needs help), always argumentative (eventually people
just won't bother), the nice guy (never says no), the territory builder
(appears to choose "me" over "us"), the ultra-conservative (it's working, don't
rock the boat), and so forth.
Them and Us
Isolation breeds resource waste and
polarity. When the boss (or any team member) begins to become isolated he can
confide only in someone he feels is in the same boat (also busy, also under
pressure, etc.). That creates the first clique in the team. The second clique
is down in the coffee room, buzzing away. And so, the team can develop the
"them and us" syndrome: labor vs. management, marketing vs. engineering, sales
vs. support, creative vs. business, or home vs. field, to name a
meantime, real solutions are delayed as small problems get dramatized rather
than communicated directly to potential sources of solution. When the problems
eventually do become costly enough to become visible to enough team members,
some solutions will be generated. But too often these are form solutions
(more employees, fewer employees, more reports, more meetings, more
reorganization, etc.) to what are really substance or people challenges.
Since the dynamics between people are often not recognized and changed, the
form solutions are at best temporary and at worst simply mask the truth. And of
course our immaculately logical excuse machinery continues to produce lists
that grow in length and ingenuity.
When Excuses Are
Can we make a
rule, then, and say that excuses are always negative? Of course not. In fact,
with a little understanding and skill, one can convert any excuse to future
not victimize ourselves with our own excuses. When we are faced with a
difficult situation within one of our teamsby definition a situation
where our action or communication represents a potential gift but seems
counter-balanced by a fear of consequence or reactionwe do have a choice.
Personal discomfort (muck) stems only from our failure to recognize that we are
not choiceless (the same as powerless). We can choose the fear as our operating
principle, knowing that this will likely result in self-generated complaints,
more personal muck, undue time and money cost, and potential team polarity. An
attendant cost is a reinforcement of the fear mechanism for future challenging
situations Or, we can choose the alternative: have our fears and proceed
anyway. This takes courage, and it takes tact. But the results are an
overwhelming attraction for most of us: maximum contribution effort, minimal
waste and maximum team success. And the more often you pick the desire to win
over the fear of losing, the more power you take back from the automatic
reservation mechanisms we all have built over the years.
Turning Excuses Into
excuses offered to you can be converted to accountability. The first step is to
create the patience to hear your partner out. During this process, notice any
tendency you have toward interruption but do now allow this tendency to
compromise your intent. Create genuine active interest in this person and in
what and how he is communicating, whether you actually like or believe it or
not. Remember,, you goal is to create success together, not be a psychologist
or a disciplinarian. Ask for input, especially in terms of events rather
than reasons. The question "what happened?" is perfect for this purpose,
much more useful than "why?". Listen with your ear tuned toward correction of
results, not reprimand of people.
Have You Been Part Of The
and objectively to answer these questions: have you made your delegated
objectives recognizable enough (would you know it if you got it), have
you set frequent enough reporting points, have you been appearing
accessible enough, have you reviewed the assignment enough to assure (and get
feedback on) mutual understanding, have you set realistic objectives, plans,
and timelines for this particular person (group) at this time? If you see that
you have been participating, admit it. An apology even to your report only
establishes you are human. Immediately make a clearly visible demonstration of
correcting the situation. Next, decide together how your excuse-maker has been
participating in the problem and what he must do to ensure accountability in
the future. Look again: what is it that you want out of this endeavor? What is
it that your partner wants? How do you both win, together, to further the team,
the organization, and your customer?
The substance of this team is now set up
for mutual respect and future trust. While your actual objective problem is not
yet solved, at least your sense of partnership, the foundation for
objective success, is on the way to repair.
Now make a concrete plan that includes
all corrections. Immediately set a new timeline that includes frequent enough
reporting. Decide together how you can help without confusing the ownership of
the project. Review your agreements, decide on how you can celebrate success
together and, hopefully, thank each other for making the work place amore
pleasant experience for both of you.
With elimination of self-generated
excuses and conversion of excuses to accountability, your mutual endeavors can
nearly all be set up to eliminate gray areas, where nobody loses but nobody
wins either. When the opportunity for closure, or accountable completion,
doesn't exist, neither does the opportunity for success. Once you make this
simple change, people who are looking for successthe people you want to
be working withwill respond with enthusiasm.