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Coaching Leadership

Making excuses

I don’t know of any other talent that comes naturally to all human beings as making excuses. It’s something that we pick up; maybe from our parents, who picked it up from theirs, and so on. I don’t know the genesis of how we came about mastering this art, but there are simply no excuses for making excuses, not just at the workplace but in life.

I once read this:

“Making excuses: We do this both bluntly (by blaming our failings on the traffic, or the secretary, or something else outside ourselves) and subtly (with self-deprecating comments about our inherent tendency to be late, or to procrastinate, or to lose our temper, that sends the message, “That’s just the way I am”).”

Neither of “excuses” categories — blunt or subtle — will do you any good. The blunt ones are hard to get away. People can sense that you’re a dick and won’t ever agree that you were at fault. Instead, you will be happy to throw someone else under the bus.

The blunt, “dog ate my homework” excuse sounds something like this: “I’m very sorry I missed our lunch date. My assistant had it marked down for the wrong day on my calendar.”

Translation: “You see, it’s not that I forgot the lunch date. It’s not that I don’t regard you as so important that lunch with you is the unchangeable, non-negotiable highlight of my day. It’s just that my assistant is inept. Blame my assistant, not me.”

The problem with this type of excuse is that we rarely get away with it — and it’s hardly an effective leadership strategy. After countless 360-degree feedback summaries, I understand what qualities direct reports respect and don’t respect in their leaders. I have never seen feedback that said, “I think you are a great leader because I love the quality of your excuses,” or, “I thought you screwed up, but you changed my mind after you made that excuse.”

The more subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some genetic characteristic that’s lodged in our brains. We talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.

You’ve undoubtedly heard these excuses. Maybe you’ve even used a few of them: “I’m impatient.” “I always put things off until the last minute.” “I’ve always had a quick temper.”

Habitually, these expositional statements are followed by saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am.”

It’s incredible how often I hear otherwise brilliant; successful people make willfully self-deprecating comments about themselves. It’s a subtle art because, in effect, they’re stereotyping themselves and using that to excuse otherwise inexcusable behaviour.

Our personal stereotyping frequently comes from stories or preconceived notions about ourselves that have been preserved and repeated for years, sometimes going back as far as childhood. These stories may have little or no basis. But they imprint themselves in our minds and establish low expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m just no good at …” ask yourself, “Why not?”

That doesn’t just refer to our aptitudes at mathematics or mechanics, but our day-to-day behaviours as well. We excuse our tardiness because we’ve been running late all our lives, and our family, friends and colleagues let us get away with it. These aren’t genetic flaws. We weren’t born this way, and we don’t have to be this way.

If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose.