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One Simple Question that Cuts Through Excuses (And Why You Probably Won’t Ask It)

Managers hear a lot of excuses. I know because they tell me. I also know the reason is because they make a lot of excuses, only they do it more subtly. One of my martial arts teachers once said to a group of black belts, “Watch the white belts very carefully. They make the same mistakes as you, but they don’t cover it up as well.”

It’s so easy for managers to think they’re more evolved than their employees that it’s practically cliché. When managers get together, they typically vent their frustration about employees. You know, because it’s all the employee’s fault.

  • “It’s so hard to find good people,” they say, as if there’s some elite group of “good people” hiding out somewhere.
  • “My people don’t listen,” they say, as if they’re already master communicators and outworked how they make themselves hard to hear.
  • “No one cares as much as I do,” they say, as if they know their people well enough to understand what inspires them.

The word excuse comes from the Latin ex causa, meaning “external cause.” While these manager complaints are not as obvious as “my dog ate my homework,” they’re all excuses.

When You Know It’s an Excuse

I recently brought to a manager’s attention that one of their employees was disengaged in my training. The employee told her manager that she feels uncomfortable speaking in large groups because she’s an introvert. The manager emailed me, saying, “I know she’s making an excuse, but is there a smaller group she could join?”

I challenged the manager in my reply: “If you know this is an excuse, why are you indulging it?”

They replied that they felt their role as manager was to “remove obstacles,” which is something managers are supposed to do. That’s a good intention, for sure, but what else was going on? 

The manager unconsciously avoided steering the employee into discomfort to find the real reason why the employee was disengaged: fear, confusion, overwhelm, misunderstanding of why they’re there, etc. The real reason is on the inside, not the outside. That’s why I call it an “incuse.”

Instead, the manager added an excuse to the existing one, and gave it more life when instead it needed to be challenged on the spot. In psychology, this is called “enabling.” It makes people like you, because you help them feel good about staying exactly where they are.

This is how managers take “good people” and make them perform poorly. That’s what human beings do when they’re not challenged. When comfort is more important than truth, it’s nearly impossible to improve. 

Excuses Are Opportunities

In management, excuses are immense opportunities to lead people to a deeper understanding of themselves.

“But I don’t want to be a therapist,” managers will often retort when I say this. I know. You had no idea what you were getting into. I’m sorry no one told you, but this isn’t therapy. It’s mentoring. 

If you want excuses to go away, two things have to happen. 

  1. First, you have to look at the excuses you make and get to the bottom of them. 
  2. Second, you have to call your people on their excuses, every time, in the moment.

That’s likely going to be uncomfortable at first, but anything worth doing usually is. 

Okay, so maybe you’re convinced that turning excuses into incuses is worth doing. How do you do it? Where do you begin? 

It’s a skill that takes time to learn, but you can start by asking a simple question: “What’s the real issue here for you?” 

And then be silent until they answer. Repeat if necessary. 

Here’s the catch: you don’t get to know what’s going to happen. They might have a powerful breakthrough. They might cry or get angry. They might quit on the spot. Real leadership forges into the unknown, seeking truth even when it’s uncomfortable. This is why most people don’t do it. 

What would be possible for you without excuses?

The article above was originally posted on Forbes.

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