Over in my weekly newsletter, I’ve been discussing a series of excuses you’ll often encounter with your employees (or with people in general). I have a whole series of ways in which people avoid accountability. If you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you’re missing out on exclusive content that doesn’t get published anywhere else. Today I’m discussing here how to spot when someone is taking things out of context in order to avoid being held accountable.
Excuse: Taking Out of Context
Manager: “I need you to get here on time to do your job properly.”
Employee: “So you’re saying that all I need to do to perform well is be on time?”
M: “No, I’m saying that’s an important part of it.”
E: “But because we’re talking about it, right now it’s the most important, right?
M: “Um, well no, it’s not the most important.”
E: “So you’re saying the most important parts of my job I’m doing well, then?”
This excuse takes past agreements or information and applies them out of context in an attempt to make a case for the acceptability of the behavior.
“I thought our work hours could be flexible!”
“A month ago the client said they loved my service.”
“You said you wanted me to make decisions on my own.”
There is, of course, usually truth to these references, but not enough to justify the behavior. This includes more immediate “twisting of words,” which is a common debate tactic.
In other cases, the excuse-maker may distort the conversation so as to react dramatically. In the above example, imagine line two as “Oh my God, are you firing me!?” which would likely cause an unwitting manager to soften their approach.
This deflection illustrates the excuse-maker is fundamentally uninterested in any reality that isn’t comfortable for them, and so distorts the facts. It takes cleverness to effectively use this strategy. By making fine, but distorted distinctions, the excuse-maker wears out the “opponent” and is hoping eventually they’ll give up and decide it’s not worth wading through the excuse-maker’s acrobatics. Unfortunately, when this happens, everyone loses.
When dealing with Taking Out of Context, therefore, you must prepare yourself for the exertion of critical thinking. Do not allow the excuse-maker to tire you out. See that this is part of the strategy, and without cutting the person off too early in a way that would make them feel unlistened to, nip the conversation in the bud and take control. Let’s continue the conversation above where the manager steps back out of the muddled quagmire and names the behavior using some open-ended questions.
Manager: Sigh “Do you see what’s happening here?”
Employee: “What do you mean?”
M: “Take a moment to consider the last couple minutes of our conversation, and tell me what you see.”
This is important, so as to minimize unnecessarily ‘telling’ the excuser what reality is, which can create more resistance.
E: “I’m not seeing it.”
M: “Okay, I believe you, but this is important. When I gave you feedback about your tardiness, what was your reaction?”
E: “I guess I got defensive.”
M: “You guess?”
Intellectual rigor is especially important when dealing with this. They’ve been using fine distinctions against you, and you need to show them you can play the game as well.
E: “I was defensive.”
M: “Good. So when you interpreted what I said to mean timeliness is the only important thing, was that true?”
This is an intentionally closed-ended question to force commitment to a “Yes” or “No.” This technique is commonly used by litigating attorneys to force witnesses into clarity.
E: “I guess not.”
M: “You guess?”
E: “No, that’s not what you meant.”
M: “Good. Not only was it not what I meant, it wasn’t what I said, either. So what happened?”
E: “There was a miscommunication?”
This is important to catch: a common way to abdicate responsibility by attempting to share or mutualize the issue.
M: “That implies that I had some contribution to it. Do you think that’s true?”
E: Squirming “Um, no.”
M: “Interesting isn’t it? I’d be willing to bet that you have a fair amount of unnecessary conflict and miscommunication in your life because this is a pattern of behavior for you that I notice. Any truth to that?”
This asserts both authority as someone who sees a bigger picture and relevance to make the issue personally meaningful and not just about appeasing the boss.
E: “People do sometimes tell me I don’t listen or overreact.”
M: “Yeah, that’s too bad. That must be difficult. But the good news is that I can help you with that, if you’ll let me. Is this a pattern you want to change?”
This frames the work issue in the self-interest of the employee to work on, again to minimize appeasement and authority projections.
E: “I’m just beginning to see it, but if it can help my relationships be smoother, then yes.”
M: “That’s a really good start; thanks for taking all of this in. So I’m going to be very rigorous with how you interpret things and your tendency to take things out of context. Sometimes it might be uncomfortable for you, so I want you to keep in mind that this is going to help you, okay?”
There’s an old coaching adage that says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It’s not absolute, of course, but true more often than not. Excusing behaviors are almost always patterns. Everyone has a quiver of their sharpest and most reliable avoidance strategies at the ready, so when you hear one it’s likely going to be one they’ve used before with proficiency and success. Their advantage, that they can use it easily, competently, and often, becomes yours: you can bet than any avoidance pattern of behavior is costing them, big time. Go gently, but firmly, and remember they may not know who they’d be without their weapon of choice.