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What They Are and
What to Do About Them.

   From High Performance Teamwork training course

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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 alone Smith?

Nearly all 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 phenomenon.

Step one is to equip yourself to eliminate your own complaints. Our complaints are sometimes self-generated, cloaked in habit and semi-automatic activity.

Self-generated Complaints
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 reach closure.

If any one of your logical reservations really does boil down to a fear—of losing, of embarrassment, of consequence, of rejection, or of reaction—the chances are excellent that you have just created a self-generated complaint.

Why? If you are motivated at all—and nearly all of us are—by 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 boss—the person who could actually use it—you 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 him—even subliminally—of a problem that bothers him, then he will think about it and he will talk about it.

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 first place!

But 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 isolated—from 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.

The Invitation
Certain 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 fears—we all have fears—but you have inadvertently encouraged it as a motivating factor on your team.

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 few.

Form vs. Substance
In the 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 Positive
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 accountability.

We need not victimize ourselves with our own excuses. When we are faced with a difficult situation within one of our teams—by definition a situation where our action or communication represents a potential gift but seems counter-balanced by a fear of consequence or reaction—we 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 Accountability
All 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 Problem?
Look carefully 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 success—the people you want to be working with—will respond with enthusiasm.
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