IT Employment

Help employees break the perpetual excuse habit

Jay Rollins says IT leaders should encourage employees to stop using these career-stalling excuses; otherwise, they'll get noticed for all the wrong reasons.

Employees are always looking for ways to get noticed in the workplace and for tips about what could set them apart and put them on the fast track for promotion. But they should also be aware of what could get them noticed for the wrong reasons, such as being known for giving excuses. Here's advice you can offer employees who need to break the excuse doom cycle.

First, do not accept excuses from yourself. By following this straightforward yet difficult rule, you'll do things the right way, and this behavior will get noticed. A few tasks or minor responsibilities tend to grow exponentially because people who can be relied on to get the job done without a lot of management oversight are very rare. Before long, you'll be invited into the decision-making circle.

Second, do not fall back on the following common excuses:

Ownership transfer excuse

When you are assigned a task, you must keep the responsibility where it belongs. If you can't reach that person, find someone else to answer your question. Don't give up and say "Well, I sent him an e-mail," or "I left him a voicemail." Keep going until you get the information you need.

Bird dog excuse

The next excuse to overcome is the availability of some resource. For example, "I couldn't find the driver on the Web site." These types of discoveries are made in process. It's kind of like changing the oil in your car but forgetting the oil filter wrench. In these cases, be the bird dog. Don't stop until you find what you need. Find another Web site or call a friend or the manufacturer's support line until you get the driver. Too many times, the smallest roadblock will deter an employee from accomplishing his or her goal. Persistence is key.

Critical thinking excuse

Thinking through situations, especially where new technologies are involved, provides a lot of insight into areas of risk. These areas of risk can be considered unknowns that could potentially derail a task and generate the lack of critical thinking excuse.

I recently heard this type of excuse when a company was adopting a new touchscreen kiosk. The team looked at the obvious parts (such as the bracket that holds the unit to the wall, power requirements, and the software that works on the device), but they did not think through whether the USB card swipe device was compatible with the software. They did not discover this until they started rolling out the kiosks, causing delays and providing an excuse that was intended to deflect blame. The excuse may make the person giving the excuse feel like he or she is off the hook, but in reality, the job didn't get done. Thinking through all the interaction points of a system and identifying "risk" areas gives you the punch list of things to check and recheck. So, be sure to ask the right questions, such as:

  • What is new?
  • What software interacts with what is new?
  • What hardware interacts with what is new?
  • What person or people or role interacts with what is new?
  • How many risk areas are there given all these interactions with what is new?
  • Based on the number of risk areas, how long do I need to test this technology?
  • What does my test plan and verification checklist look like?
  • Did I overlook anything?
Timing excuse

This particular excuse is so good that it is used very often and to great effect, especially now that IT departments are asked to do more with less.

"I couldn't get to it today because of a crisis." There will always be crises. The CEO's e-mail box is corrupted; a disk drive in the SAN failed; the database server ran out of memory. When a crisis occurs (and it will), it may delay the task, but it should not prevent the task from being completed. Once you commit to a task, you need to see it through to the end; only the person who assigned you the task can release you from that burden. Communication and expectation setting come into play here, but be careful not to transfer ownership. It is easy to say to the person who gave you the task, "What do you want to do? Fix the crashed database or get your task done?" Of course, they will want the database crash addressed, but you just transferred ownership back to the task giver. In order to get the reputation and promotion you want, you need to earn the reputation that you'll get the job done no matter what is thrown at you.

As an old Navy senior chief once told me, "There are no excuses!" Once you do not accept excuses from yourself, you'll see that it is very easy not to accept excuses from others.

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25 comments
ExecLeaderCoach
ExecLeaderCoach

Excellent post, Jay, thanks. Of course, your leadership tip applies to all of us not just IT folks. I believe this is especially important for those of us who have positions/assignments where rejection is high (example: salespeople, change agents, etc.) In order to protect ourselves, we often place the "blame" on anything and everything else - otherwise, the rejection becomes personal. If we aren't careful, our attempt to make sure we can accept the rejection and move on to the next prospect without a heavy load will cause us to not recognize when we actually are the impediment to progress. Sage advice, Jay, thanks again.

swilsonw
swilsonw

Don't be idiotic. The time excuse - It's a fantasy that time is elastic if you just decide you can do both jobs, the original request and handle the new crisis. The only solution is to pull in more resources or work longer hours. Each has long term issues. Your thinking on this just puts off major problems and erodes morale. My mangers don't mind being told there are time issues so long as I identify solutions and impacts. They like to make those decisions. Manager who have a "don't bother me with excuses, I don't care how impossible it is - just get it done" approach are immature and probably got their management skills from watching James Kirk pushing Scotty to do heroic exploits - they confuse fiction with reality.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You first! You'll be doing an encourage employees to admit to their mistakes article next! Another behaviour with plenty of examples from our leaders. NOT FFS

jagostisi
jagostisi

While there's an element of truth here, this is written like a true consultant, of which I've seen many. There?s never a problem with the process, methodology, or proposed solution, the problem always lies in those who failed to execute it. For the record, I?m a thirty-five year survivor in the industry. Ownership Transfer Excuse ? excuse me, but the owner of a process or plan is the individual of group that obtains benefit from it. The example given is a case where that beneficiary has forsaken that ownership by inadequately participating in the solution/resolution. Expecting an IT manager or programmer to force the interaction of someone several levels above him on the corporate ladder is absurd. It?s also the abdication of responsibility on the part of the CIO who doesn?t want to be seen as the individual making waves. Bird Dog Excuse ? Here I agree too a much greater degree. When technical issues are a roadblock, it is IT?s responsibility to find the solutions and exhaust all resources in doing so. That said, some non-technical problems might be resolvable by IT, assuming they can obtain voluntary cooperation. To a large extent though, the owner/beneficiary must also recognize and assume his responsibility in resolving those issues. Critical Thinking Excuse ? yes this does occur. Do take into consideration though that regardless of how much time and effort are exhausted in planning, preparation and execution, there are still always going to be some things were not anticipated, evaluated incorrectly, or just plain wrong. Also evaluate your own contribution to the problem. When my people fail, I?ve failed. The first questions I ask is how did I contribute to the failure? What could or should I have done differently? What procedures and processes have you put in place to minimize this? Let?s stop pushing the blame down the ladder to someone who really can?t respond or defend himself. Timing Excuse ? I agree that emergencies should not permanently sidetrack projects/tasks but if that seems to occur, then you better step back and re-evaluate because you are most likely the person who is failing. A favorite (bad) management technique is to pile assignment on top of assignment, a failure/refusal to identify priorities and then turning a blind eye to it. Expecting everything to get done simply because you demand it is beyond foolish, it?s arrogant. It also speaks to someone who is interested in short-term results (that?s the only thing he really gets), reaps the reward and then usually tries to get out of town before having to answer for the impending disaster. If you?re one of those managers who wrings every last ounce out of an employee and discards him when he?s burned out, we have a significant difference in management philosophy.

Witchfinder
Witchfinder

...make sure you don't accept tasks or make promises you are unable to deliver upon. Managing customer and user expectations is a skill in itself, as is prioritisation. I'd say it's perfectly valid to ask stakeholders to prioritise tasks where conflicts occur - it's not commuting responsibility, it's making sure that their needs are addressed appropriately. The cavalier "I know best" attitude has pervaded IT for too long.

jrussell_fl
jrussell_fl

Excellent post, including the Critical thinking excuse - except I am stunned if the example used was an actual occurrence - how do you get to roll out when obviously what is being rolled out was not tested - ever?

Englebert
Englebert

There's a reason why your boss trusted you with that task. He has confidence in your abilities. Use the opportunity to shine, no matter the obstacles.

pmushimba
pmushimba

I think it's quite on the spot! Accept no excuse for oneself and always get the job done on time.

ShonnaK
ShonnaK

I was reflecting on some my own habits when reading this and noticed some areas of opportunity. Thanks again for this post!

Fishhonk
Fishhonk

The intent is understood and I agree that one should strive to complete what they have committed to or what is given to them. However, to ignore that there are only so many hours in a day throws off the balance of life! The old adage of being on your death bed and wishing you'd have working more seems to be appropriate reminder. I?ve worked for those whose priority in life is career and advancement, making it difficult to draw the line between an explanation and an excuse difficult to distinguish for them. After all when there is little or no common agreement on X hours in a day then no explanation of a situation is ever acceptable!

iangp
iangp

Outstanding! This will most certainly be going out to my entire team; both superiors and subordinates.

hsylves
hsylves

I especially like the perpetual crisis comment - I'm the BA on a major app here and I get these excuses ALL THE TIME. I don't buy any of them anymore. It's very discouraging when the client is breathing down my neck.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

It is not about heroics. That gets tiring. It is taking the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do outside of your job description. That is of course if you want promotions, more responsibility and more money. I have met a lot of "idiots" that have very successful careers because of this approach.

jck
jck

More holes than Swiss cheese. It's not so much sometimes about getting a project done, as it is the crisis means you can't get it done [b]on schedule[/b]. Too many bosses frown on you for having something slip schedule no matter what other matters required your attention. Of course, then management takes vacations while you're off working 50-70 hour weeks on the project they let schedule slip happen in and they expect you to make it up. Like you said...FFS.

jamesm
jamesm

I agree with you thoroughly. However, there is one additional point. Virtually every time I have been faced with the management attitude that this article characterizes, the work environment has been the type where blame assignment is more important than problem solving. Such environments are always "filled with excuses" because the lower level employees find the "excuses" to be one of their few workplace survival techniques. Perhaps the writer and those managers who agree with him need to examine their respective work environments and management styles. I'd be willing to bet that more than half of them need both a reality check and some interpersonal behavioral training. Let's try encouraging our employees and leading by example rather than using the management excuse of pointing the finger down the line.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Unfortunately it was an actual occurrence. Hubris got in the way of process...

beck.joycem
beck.joycem

Undoubtedly an excuse habit about crises when you work in a field, such as ours, in which resolving live problems is our bread and butter, will rapidly lead to a bad reputation. But the fault can so easily be with the employer. When a boss habitually demands that anything he wants must be done today, even if it's three days' work, then gets in a strop because you say you can't also solve a problem with his spreadsheet, an employee needs to resist, because that's just bullying.

john.a.wills
john.a.wills

...one should strive to complete what one has committed to or what is given to one. ...wishing you'd have worked more...

Tom-Tech
Tom-Tech

If I don't get a task done by 17:30 because I had to fix a crisis instead then that isn't an excuse, it's a fact. I have no doubt that if you work unpaid overtime as a matter of course your career will progress quicker within your current organisation, but if you're applying for a job at a different company it's less of an issue. Ultimately, it's a question of preference. My career is going fine so I go home at the time specified in my contract. No point earning all this money if I never have the time to spend it...

Nitin Jain
Nitin Jain

It really is easier said than done. At the end of the day, all of us are human. Even if I push myself to my physical limits, doesn't mean, all around me would want to do so as well. The baseline is, at times, to create a happy working environment, some of these things have to be overlooked, and some of the excuses accepted even when we as Managers know that the excuse is irrational and there were better solutions. Cheers!

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Face it, in your career you don't grow by not overcoming challenges. Imagine if your job was easy stuff that you can do in your sleep. You probably would be doing just that--sleeping. I need to be challenged and I like the adrenaline of being given a task that I have absolutely no clue on how to tackle at first.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

If you approach this article as a way to push blame down to the little guy, then the point was missed. There are people who are perfectly content with passing the buck and living in the worker role ad infinitum. For those who are not and want to climb the ladder quickly, this is a valid approach that has worked. But with everything, there are variable that can take it the other way. Dictator-like bosses who work employees to the burnout stage are not looking for rising stars, they are looking for people to do a task. Period. Not a win-win situation. However, even in this situation there is always a way to adapt and overcome the seemingly impossible. Many today just give up much too easily.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

I think the distinction here is if the boss habitually demands things like this, he/she is not leading, they are dictating. When they dictate, there is no room for an employee to take initiative and show what they can do outside of the box that this particular boss prescribes. The "in order to get ahead" focus of this post is to get noticed by the company. In order to get noticed, the boss needs to be the type that appreciates a situation and balances assigning work with a focus on seeing what you are capable of instead of trying to bury you in work. Truly understanding an employees capabilities requires that a supervisor places an employee in situations with known outcomes, but room to show initiative. Bottomline, if your boss is like what is described here, find ways to get noticed by others... like the boss's boss. Same techniques apply.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

It's a post on the web, not a dissertation...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

By the time I figured out what the poster was trying to say, I didn't care any more.