Sorry I’m Late, Traffic Was Terrible!
By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.
Have you ever been late to a meeting and blamed it on the traffic? I sure have! I’ve blamed my tardiness on the traffic, having the wrong time in my calendar, the wrong location, difficulty finding a parking place, I lost track of time, to name a few. The fact is, I should have departed sooner, confirmed the time, confirmed the location, planned for parking, kept track of time, etc. I should have been more diligent. Blaming the situation or another person for my lack of performance tells the other person or persons that they weren’t important enough for me to have behaved in a more responsible, more professional manner. Making excuses is hardly an effective leadership strategy.
There are also those who blame their character defects when they screw up. Their excuses sound like this: I’m always late; I always put things off to the last minute; I’m terrible at time management. These character flaws are used to excuse inexcusable behavior.
Direct reports and other organizational member do not utilize the quality of the excuse as a benchmark when evaluating leadership. Making excuses diminishes leadership effectiveness.
When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and simply state “I’m sorry.” That’s what effective leaders do.
Leadership: Excuses, Excuses
The buck stops here. President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk making this statement famous. “The buck stops here” is slang for passing responsibility on to someone else. The expression’s origin comes from the game of poker, where a marker indicated whose turn it was to deal. Back in the old days, a marker was usually a knife with a buckhorn handle. A player who did not want to deal could pass the “buck” to the next player. When someone makes an excuse, they are passing the buck. I’ve made excuses, you’ve made excuses, we’ve all made excuses. I’ve come up with some pretty lame excuses in my lifetime that I’ve felt pretty sheepish about. We all know making an excuse is never good form, so why do we do it? Research suggests that in some situations, it works!
Psychologist Christopher Barlett found that a simple excuse can alleviate bad feelings. On the other hand, repetitive excuse making can create a perception of laziness. Someone who repetitively deflects responsibility can lose the trust of others. One study indicates a loss of credibility after the second excuse. There are a few guidelines to excuse making that can improve effectiveness. Honesty is always the best policy. An excuse that comes across as manipulative or insincere has the potential to have ramifications worse than not saying anything. Excuses that express responsibility along with the reassurance that this scenario will never happen again will likely be accepted.
If you find yourself needing to make an excuse for you, someone else, or your organization, you can use “The ERROR Method,” a four step excuse making process. ERROR stands for Empathy, Responsibility, Reason and Offer Reassurance. Implementation goes like this:
EMPATHY: I hate that you (burden placed on person) because of me.
RESPONSIBILITY: I should have thought things out better,
REASON: but I got caught up in (reason for behavior).
OFFER REASSURANCE: Next time I’ll (preventative action).
EXAMPLE: I hate that you don’t like this article on leadership and making excuses because of me. I should have thought things out better, but I got caught up in trying to come up with a new idea with the pressure of creating a weekly article. Next time I’ll plan further in advance to come up with a more interesting topic.
As leaders we receive excuses from others and no matter how effective we are, make them ourselves. My goal is to help you be a more effective leader without excuses. Are you an effective leader? Could you be a more effective leader? What’s your excuse?