Leaders, Are You Listening for Explanations or Excuses?

Stop for a moment and consider the last time either you or one of your direct reports missed a deadline. What happened? It’s likely you were asked, or asked for, an explanation. When the explanation was given, how was it received? If it was not well received, do you feel that ANY explanation would have realistically been acceptable? When this point is reached, unfortunately, the only thing being heard is an excuse.

Most people inherently know the difference between an explanation and excuse. Subconsciously, however, we frequently confuse the two. When explaining an action or behavior, you’re making clear the cause or reason for that action or behavior. When making an excuse for an action or behavior, you’re maliciously trying to hide something and/or avoid any consequences. The subconscious confusion comes into play when our expectations become so high that no explanation is good enough so, by default, it is interpreted as an excuse. Or, when an explanation is either overused or seemingly unbelievable, it is also easily interpreted as an excuse.

One of the most well known excuses that we all grew up with was, “the dog ate my homework.” But imagine the child who spent hours finishing his homework assignment and then woke up in the morning only to find that Fido used it as a chew toy during the night. When he tells his teacher that his dog ate his homework, is that an explanation or an excuse? When he’s laughed at, called a liar, or punished, how will that make him feel both in the moment and in the future?

The very first post I ever did for this blog was entitled, Assume the Best Intentions. The gist of this piece was that in your daily interactions, you “give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best intentions.” People generally want and try to do well even when it may appear to you that their actions or behavior might not seem to support this. My challenge then is to apply this mentality whenever you are being offered an explanation for a behavior or action that you find displeasing. Listen with an open mind and with the intent to be influenced.

You’ll find that in most cases, an explanation is legitimate and valid. This then becomes an opportunity to flex your leadership skills. Hear the explanation and discover how you can support your direct report in accomplishing the task at hand. And when giving an explanation, do so with confidence and be prepared to share how you can be supported in accomplishing your task.

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  • Comments (3)
    • Lorrie Morris
    • June 8th, 2012

    The irony …this topic is a current issue in my workplace. I appreciate the timely advice.

  1. Reblogged this on AmandaAAnthony and commented:
    Haven’t we all been here at some point? Learning to change this behavior if you are the leader is vitally important to keeping happy work relationships. I once had a manager tell me that he felt whenever he gave feedback, he felt my responses were excuses. I told him I felt as long as I agreed with him, life was good. But should I challenge his opinion, he would immediately take this as an excuse. Bottom line: we had 2 conflicting communication styles. I like to clarify and resolve issues I see before proceeding in my work. As an ex-military guy, he likes deploying orders & immediate action and so discussing issues were better received as a follow up discussion. (Which is ironic, right?)
    Knowing how to communicate effectively with different styles is a critical skill in many if not all lines of work. With time and practice, we both became a little better at working together by addressing our communication style differences. Any thoughts?

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