How to Distinguish Explanations from Excuses

Have you ever worked with someone who always seems to have a reason for not completing their work?  At first, you listen to their explanations, and they seem reasonable.  However, when it happens multiple times every week, you start to become jaded and feel that everything they say is just an excuse.

This is the corporate version of crying wolf – soon it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish whether what you’re hearing is an excuse or a legitimate explanation. Good Project Managers, however, have experience in understanding these nuances, which is very helpful in executing project management work.

Webster defines “excuse” (noun) as “something offered as justification or as grounds for being excused (removed from blame)”, and “explanation” as “something that explains (to show the logical development or relationships of).”

In reality, however, how does one tell the difference between the two?

First – assuming best intent – be curious.

Ask what the person tried to do to still make the result happen as promised. 

If they are chronically late, for example: flat tire, ran out of gas, last minute family emergency, etc. – you can observe, “It seems that you are often late for our meetings.  What do you do to ensure that you arrive on time?”

If they are not completing work on time, for example: system down, got an error message, did not have the right information/materials, instructions were confusing, etc. – you can observe, “It seems that you frequently encounter roadblocks to meeting your assignments. What troubleshooting do you do to get around these problems, what screen captures / pictures have you saved to share with those who can help you resolve it, and who did you ask about it?”

If the response is specific – concrete things the person does with examples of how they did it this time – then you are likely hearing a true explanation.  If the response is wishy washy, or “nothing,” or “I don’t know,” chances are that you are dealing with an excuse.

Second – assuming best intent – invite the person to be part of the solution. 

Ask them to speculate on how they could get around the issue to remove the roadblock.

In the example of being chronically late – “What could you do to ensure you are here 5 minutes early?”

In the example of not finishing work – “How could you create a documented trail of the issue so that it can be explained well to someone who could help you resolve it, and who might that be?”

Finally – hold them accountable.  

Ask them to own taking the next step in the solution, and tell them you’ll check in with them in 2 business days on it. 

After that, it’s your turn! 

Will you check in and keep moving towards the solution, or will you have your own excuse as to why not?