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Before you coach your teams and employees to avoid making excuses, you’ll need to take a key step: help them understand what this means. The definition of “excuse” isn’t always clear to novice and entry-level employees, and while you want them to take responsibility for their mistakes and flubs, you also want them to understand how to do this—and why. If an employee shows up late because their car broke down, simply stating “my car broke down” when asked isn’t an egregious offense. But if your sales rep comes to a meeting unprepared and loses a contract, they should know better than to blame someone else, fate, the stars or the weather to keep that blame from landing where it belongs: on themselves.

The first is a simple statement of fact (one that should be shared only if requested). The second suggests weaknesses in integrity and personal responsibility. To help your employees recognize the difference between an excuse (not good) and an examination and explanation of what went wrong (not as bad and sometimes helpful), keep these tips in mind.

When things go wrong, take cool-headed action.

Your employee has disappointed you or made an unfortunately mistake. You’re not happy. Mistakes are expensive and embarrassing, and you now have a mess to clean up, one that could have been avoided. But before you say or do anything, stop and think. This isn’t about you. And as bad as things seem right now, this moment presents an opportunity for coaching, learning and process improvement—on your part as well as that of your employee. Stay cool and calm so you can leverage this situation and turn a disaster into a win.

Accept explanations, but reject excuses.

What’s the difference between these two statements? The first: “I’m sorry. I wasn’t prepared. Next time I’ll be sure to set aside time for research several days prior to the client meeting.” And the second: “I tried to prepare, but I had to spend too much time on another account and I just couldn’t fit this onto my plate.” Make sure your employee understands why the first works and the second doesn’t. Explanations lead to feedback and growth. Excuses lead to nothing.

Recognize coded requests for help.

“I failed because I didn’t have the resources I needed” isn’t always an excuse. Sometimes it’s a request for teamwork or managerial support. Before you get annoyed with your employee’s excuse, make sure the failure isn’t landing on your own shoulders. Could you have provided better direction, clearer instructions, more time or better tools? While you’re coaching your employee to take responsibility, make sure you’re setting an example and doing the same.

For more on how to cultivate a culture of personal responsibility among your direct reports, turn to the Milwaukee staffing and management team at Extension.

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