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Article: Leadership: Take Away Their Excuses Related Resources

Leadership: Take Away Their Excuses
by Wally Bock

Excuses. If you're responsible for the performance of a group, you've heard excuses.

Your job is to get rid of those excuses. With excuses gone, the real slackers stand out from the crowd. Then you can concentrate on rewarding and supporting your producers. You can zero in on the slackers and offer them the choice of repentance and reform or documentation and departure.

There are two kinds of excuses. Some excuses grow out of the way that you assign work. They're really communications problems. And they're your problems because you're the boss. You need to communicate effectively so that your subordinates know what you want done and when.

Excuse: "I didn't know what you wanted."

You think your subordinate understands what you want them to do. But it turns out wrong. What happened? How can you prevent it?

Give clear instructions. That's easy to say, but hard to do.

You'll give better instructions if you give them in more than one way. You can tell people. You can write things down. You can use diagrams or charts. You can act things out or demonstrate.

Check for understanding. Ask your subordinate to tell you or show you what you want them to do. Correct any misunderstandings. Check again.

Then follow up on the job to see how things are being done. Remember that lots of small, early course corrections are easier than later, larger course corrections.

Excuse: "I didn't know it was that important."

You give your subordinate an assignment. It seems that he or she understands what to do. But then they spend their time on other things. You wanted them to do a task right away. They did something else instead.

We're back to communications again. Part of your job as leader is to set priorities for your people. Tell them what tasks are most important.

When you give out an assignment, tell people when you want the job done. Be specific. "Friday at 5 PM" is better than simply "Friday."

If it's a complex task, set milestones. Here's how it might work for a simple report. You might want to see a list of key points for a report done by Friday. The outline should be done by Tuesday. Next Friday the rough draft should be done. And all of that leads up to the final report which is due in two weeks.

Before you're done with assigning the work, check to see that your subordinate understands what is wanted and when. Check to see if they think it's reasonable.

Then follow up on the job to gauge progress. Send reminders if you need to. Review work along the way if that's appropriate.

Communications problems are one thing that can generate excuses. You can improve things by giving better directions, checking for understanding and following up to check on performance.

But sometimes what sounds like an excuse is actually reason for non-performance that doesn't have anything to do with willingness to work. To find out you have to dig deeper.

Excuse/Reason: "I don't know how to do it."

If your subordinate doesn't know how to do a job, you can't hold them accountable for it. So it's important to determine ability as early as possible.

Pay attention to training. If you know that your subordinate should be able to complete a job, but can't, devote some time to preparing him or her.

I suggest to my clients that every job has a limited number, usually no more than six or seven, key jobs or assignments. You need to identify what those are and evaluate the competency of each of your people on each job.

Devote some of your management time to helping your subordinates develop their skills in the important jobs. In the long run this will pay off in greater peace of mind and less stress for you, not to mention higher morale and productivity for your team.

Sometimes people think they can do a job but can't. You can catch this early if you're following up on performance.

Sometimes people will seem like they've got the ability to perform, but just can't seem to do things right on the job. If you notice that an otherwise-effective worker is having performance problems in one area, the problem might be confidence. Help the subordinate take small steps, generating small wins to develop both skill and confidence.

Alas, sometimes you must wait until an assignment is complete before you realize that it's done wrong and lack of knowledge, skills or abilities is the reason. Then you must both solve the training problem and make sure the assignment gets done.

Training problems are just one kind of problem that often shows up as an excuse or reason. The other kind is a resource problem.

Excuse/Reason: "I knew what to do but I couldn't."

You can often head this one off when you give the initial instructions. You and your subordinate should answer the following questions.

Do we have enough time to do this? Ask that one again as "Do we have the time to do this, given the other things we have to do?" Do we have the people we need? Do we have the money we need?

No Excuses

Getting rid of excuses is great for people who want to perform but it sounds the death-knell for slackers. And it's hard work, the gritty kind of supervision-in-the-trenches work that doesn't have a whiff of glory about it. But if you do it and take away your people's excuses, you're on your way to developing a top-performing team.

About the Author

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale. He is the author of Performance Talk ( He writes the Three Star Leadership blog (, coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences.


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