Are you a sucker for a good excuse? Are excuses accepted as legitimate tactics in your group? If so, you are vulnerable to exploitation, and your organization will produce less value and lower profits as a result. Excuses are destructive to the efforts of people working together to generate something of value. This is true whether regardless of the nature of the organization’s business. Here, we will look at the effects of offering or tolerating excuses on the results of such endeavors. We’ll look at the antidotes for excuses, a culture of responsibility, and consider the requirements for creating and sustaining such a culture.
The Nature of Excuses
Excuses suck! They suck the confidence out of teams. They suck the energy out of shared efforts. Finally, they suck the value out of human enterprise. When people work together to create value, they count on each other to do what’s required to get the job done. When the value expected or promised by one is not delivered, there is a choice. What comes next, an excuse or an explanation, can determine the likelihood of eventual success? An explanation can start people back onto the road to success. An explanation seeks to account for what happened or what didn’t. An explanation looks to make the reasons for what happened clear and understandable. In that way, a failure becomes an opportunity to learn a chance to succeed. For many people, however their response to falling short of their goals is to make an excuse. The excuse may or may not be dressed up as an explanation, but fundamentally an excuse is very different than an explanation. An excuse is a plea in defense of some action or behavior. Its goal is to obtain a release from an obligation or duty. Excuses aren’t interested in solving the root causes for the behavioral shortfall. They are designed to protect the individual who isn’t delivering. Like termites eating away at the internal structure of a building, excuses undermine the efforts to fulfill the organization’s promises of value.
The Value Chain
Any organization operating with the aim of generating value develops a reputation in its environment. This reputation is its brand. Implicit in its relationship with its customers or consumers is an understanding of what value the consumer will derive from using this company’s products over time. It’s this expectation that develops and it ensures customer loyalty and repeat business. These expectations are the promise of the brand. The consistent fulfillment of those expectations differentiates one entity from its competitors. Indeed, everyone who conducts any transaction in the company’s name, with each transaction, either builds or diminishes the company’s value to its customers. Helping the organization’s ability to deliver the value that its customers’ expect maintains and often increases its profitability over time.
Shortfalls in performance threaten the integrity of the company’s promises to its customer’s, both implicit and explicit. As a result, they threaten profitability. It is an assault on profits that is hurtful under normal business conditions. In tough economic times, excuses are intolerable.
The Costs of Excuses
Making Excuses: (For worker-to-worker relations)
- Kill trust– The lesson is that people cannot be counted on to do what they commit to do. Excuses are really a request for a “free pass.” They tell others, “You can’t hold me responsible because (fill in the excuse).”
- Waste time – Excuses don’t lead to solutions; indeed, they often point the would-be problem solvers in the wrong direction. Not only is the original lead time squandered, but corrective action efforts have to be organized and employed.
- Delay solutions – There is a gap between when a deliverable was due and when the person falling short realizes that s/he won’t get it done. They often coast until the deadline comes and goes. Efforts to reach an alternative solution are on hold, the people waiting downstream for the deliverable are delayed, and the ultimate end user is frustrated.
- Ensure that rework is required – Things aren’t addressed once and completed. Time, effort, and materials are squandered. The opposite of a lean, efficient value production process occurs, costs increase while profits inevitably decrease.
- Blunt initiative – If excuses absolve me of the consequences of failure, then I am no longer incented to succeed. Thinking up excuses for failure becomes more sensible in the mind of the excuse-maker than doing the work to solve problems and find solutions.
Tolerating Excuses: For leader-to-follower relations
- Legitimizes failure – The simple fact that excuses are accepted means that failure is allowed, as long as one has a good excuse. People find that it takes less effort to generate a good excuse than to generate a good solution to a difficult situation. Once failure is legitimized, in this way, it becomes contagious and very hard to reverse.
- Creates a culture of blaming – In complex organizations, finding someone to blame for your shortfalls often creates enough confusion and uncertainty that no one is held accountable. People don’t address or solve relationship problems, because they are too valuable as future excuses.
- Invalidates personal responsibility – An excuse says, “It’s not my fault; someone or something else is responsible for my failure.” If this statement is accepted at face value, then the leader is certifying that the source of success lies beyond the control of the person supposed to be doing the work. It says that he or she doesn’t have it within his or her power to get the job done.
- Renders teamwork ineffective – When excuses absolve people of personal responsibility for their results, teamwork inevitably suffers. Since people can’t depend upon each other all the time, they wind up not feeling like they can count on each other at all, and so they don’t. The people most invested in the successful outcome will do most or all of the work and in a short period of time any semblance of teamwork goes away.
- Fosters a culture of cynicism – Nothing fosters cynicism in an organization faster than a lack of accountability. When particular people escape the natural consequences of their behavior, many organizational mores go out the window. Other people become skeptical and suspicious even when the “offender” hasn’t been sliding by on glib explanations. Who can know for sure? Trust withers as doubt and pessimism cascade through the organization.
- Weakens leadership – Finally, leadership is undermined in the eyes of the organization. Their power to inspire and motivate the workforce is diminished, often countered by sarcasm and scorn. It is as if leadership has issued a memo alerting the organization, as a whole, that the leadership team is simply not to be taken seriously
Under conditions such as these, it is impossible for profits not to shrink. Even if their products are unusually robust or hard to find elsewhere, profits will decline as the reputation of the organization declines in the marketplace.
The Antidote for Excuses
Excuses are insidious. They grow and spread like predatory weeds that grow in a garden without natural restraints on their growth. On occasion, social convention makes a particular excuse acceptable. You might forgive me an unusual shortfall upon the death of my grandmother or when an illness beyond my control that causes me to miss a deadline. But, when excuses work, even a little, they begin to grow, like weeds, through any crack in the concrete. “My dog ate my homework.” Where do you draw the line?
Rather than looking for the validity of any particular excuse, successful organizations institute and then nurture a culture of responsibility. The elements contributing to a culture of responsibility are as follows:
- Accept no excuses – People are being paid to handle whatever barriers arise and threaten expected performance. Therefore, when an excuse is in the making, a responsible person takes steps to solve the problem, recruit help or support, or find an alternative path to success.
- Set clear goals – Including establishing ownership for the goal by the person(s) expected to achieve it; help people to understand the benefits of success and the cost of falling short; specify timelines (not only for the finished product but for the necessary milestones on the path to success). Monitor progress.
- Expect rigorous planning – Confidence grows as those depending upon the responsible person (people) have a believable plan, robust enough to cope with possible barriers to success.
- Make it safe to learn from problems – Maintaining the appearance that if you are competent then you have nothing to learn is a poor strategy. If a person in your organization can’t ask for help, or additional support, then it is only a matter of time until an excuse is run up the flagpole to see who salutes.
- Celebrate – Celebrate the individuals or teams who overcome obstacles or accomplish difficult goals under difficult conditions.
Excuses are a bane to most organizations where people have come together to create value. Accepting excuses for performance shortfalls weakens the effectiveness of any organization, erodes trust and teamwork, and ultimately limits profitability. Ensuring those profits in tough economic times doesn’t require more cash expenditures, or new products or even more aggressive spending on advertising. While those things can help, the place to start is to simply institute a culture of responsibility. That step costs nothing more than attention and the commitment to do so.
© 2010 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.