4 Leadership Strategies to Eliminate Excuse-Making

Accountability for results is a perennial challenge for business leaders worldwide. It’s costly and frustrating––not only for shareholders and leaders, but also for top-performing employees who see underperformance in others tolerated and often rewarded.

Excuse-making is a common symptom of low accountability. But beware: the excuses I’m referring to aren’t always obvious like the adult version of “the dog ate my homework.” In many cases, your team’s excuses are subtle, and even plausible, which is why it’s so important to distinguish them from more legitimate rationale.

Although there’s a fine line between rationale and an excuse, effective leaders know the difference.

Note too that any organization is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s wise to contemplate not only your own behaviors which, whether you realize it or not, you model for your employees, but also the behaviors you tolerate in others. After all, behaviors you model and tolerate become accepted cultural norms and, if that includes excuse-making and low accountability, then it’s quite likely, dear reader, that you are the root cause!

“There’s a fine line between rationale and an excuse. Effective leaders know the difference.”

With that in mind, let’s embark on our exploration of four leadership strategies to eliminate excuse-making in your firm, starting with the most vital element: you.

Lead by Example

Accountability must start with you.

Consider the following series of questions that highlight the slippery slope of leadership behaviors I’ve seen lead to excuse-making and low organizational accountability:

Do you arrive and start meetings on time? Meet your commitments to others? Honor every one of your firm’s Core Values consistently? Accomplish your own projects and tasks on time? Identify and consider risks with potential to delay or derail commitments and business results? Follow your own policies and rules? Communicate both good and bad news transparently and without delay? Make excuses for your shortcomings?

Here’s a leadership reality: all eyes and ears in your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized, and evaluated as your managers and employees look for clues as to how they should behave. The most effective leaders I’ve coached consistently lead by example and walk their own talk; that is, they answer all the above questions “yes,” all the time.

If you’re not sure whether you make excuses or truly lead by example, ask a trusted member of your team, a forum mate, or an outside professional or coach for candid feedback on whether or not you are inadvertently modeling a culture you don’t want.

If you find that you have an issue when it comes to excuses or other accountable behaviors, eliminate it as soon as possible. Why? Every shift in your organization—big or small—begins with your commitment to change yourself first! Once you’ve addressed your own behavior, you can more objectively evaluate the rest of your team, beginning with senior leadership.

“Every shift in your organization—big or small—begins with your commitment to change yourself first!”

Low accountability often masks a significant problem: that one or more members of your management team may not be the right person for their role. That is, they can’t or won’t exhibit the leadership and accountability behaviors required to pull your business forward.

This can be difficult to recognize and acknowledge, potentially leading you to the excuse-making behaviors we’re aiming to eliminate! There is no end to the justifications as to why everyone on your team is “100 percent right” for their role. Trust me, I’ve heard them all.

Before you begin listing your excuses on their behalf, consider these two realities.

1.     Your emotional attachment to longstanding members of your team interferes with your ability to objectively evaluate their performance and fit; and

2.     A whopping 85 percent of the leadership teams I’ve coached had at least one member turnover within the first twelve months of my engagement because the person wasn’t right for that seat.

If you have a people problem—and the odds are that you do—you have to be honest with yourself and make the switch. The wrong people in the wrong seats aren’t capable of helping you improve your organization’s accountability. The best question to ask yourself in this regard is “Would I enthusiastically rehire every member of my leadership team?” Of course, the key word here is “enthusiastically.”

If not, it’s time to stop making your excuses, lead by example, and act.

Separate Decisions from Actions

I’ve found that the ease of justifying and excusing inaction varies in direct proportion to the degree of complexity perceived in the task. In other words, people make more excuses when taking action feels challenging!

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean by this: 

Most leaders have, at least once, employed a high performing employee who is toxic to their culture. You know the individual needs to be sent packing, but since they bring some value to the business—like relationships or certain know-how, you fear two things: loss and retribution. Let’s say your problem employee is in customer service. You worry about how much revenue or customer satisfaction you’ll lose without them, and perhaps whether they’ll take some of your best clients with them. You might also worry that they’ll move to a competitor or recruit some of your other staff to join them. 

In situations like these, the details of how and whenHow should I let them go? and When should I let them go?—typically dominate and delay the decision-making process. These complexities are masked, however, by the rationale (excuses) that you manufacture to justify why firing them isn’t a good idea! As a result, the hard questions remain unaddressed and your culture (and employees) continue to suffer at the hands of a toxic colleague.

What’s a well-intentioned leader to do?

For thorny or complex situations, isolate the elements of your decision and start with the what—determine the right action to take without regard to how or when to act.

Once the commitment to right action is made (the what), then and only then determine the actions that must be executed (the how) and the timeline on which to act (the when). This approach increases the probability you’ll get the job done––and leaves less room for excuses.

Increase Accountability 

I’m a fan of simple leadership frameworks that create structure and work reliably over time. Meeting rhythms, prioritization, and the decision-making model above are examples of frameworks I use with my clients to great effect. Accountability is another one.

Do you use a framework to create accountability on your team? Most leaders don’t. They wing it, which is why accountability––and the corresponding excuses—are an ongoing headache for so many organizations.

This is a struggle for every leader I have ever coached! How do you let go, while ensuring that others will fulfill their part of the bargain––to your standards, no less? You deploy the building blocks of accountability.

“Do you use a framework to create accountability on your team? Most leaders don’t. They wing it, which is why accountability––and the corresponding excuses—are an ongoing headache for so many organizations.”

My excuse-busting accountability framework contains the following three elements:

1.     Believe in them. This is crucial. If you don’t truly believe someone can accomplish the task or project you’re requesting, they won’t either. On the flipside, if you show them you have high expectations—that you know they can meet—those expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ensure the following message comes through loud and clear, repetitively over time: I believe in you.

2.     Give them the why behind your request. Tell them why the task you’re assigning matters to the business and to you personally. Divulging your personal stake in the outcome further enhances the perceived importance of what you’re asking them to do. You’re essentially communicating: This is important to me.

3.     Demonstrate that you’re paying attention. After expressing how much their progress and results matter to you, be sure to follow up on a regular rhythm. Checking in reinforces the importance of their work and your expectation that they’ll achieve the agreed-upon goal. You’re telling them: I’m watching.

Early in my career I worked for a manager who was exceptional at creating accountability in others. She employed a particularly effective “drive by” technique to demonstrate that she was paying attention. As we passed each other in the hallway, she would smile at me and say something like, “You’re going to get that report to me by the end of business today, right?” I could only reply with a confident “of course,” before hustling back to my desk to ensure it was done before I went home that evening. I knew she was watching!

With these core elements in place, your team will have more clarity regarding your expectations and why their work matters. Excuses will disappear, and accountability––and results––will follow.

For a deeper dive into creating a culture of accountability, you’ll find my monograph on the topic here.

Focus on Next Action

Excuse-makers often deploy a shield of complexity to justify their inaction and/or lack of results. They say things like, “the devil is in the details,” or “we can’t proceed until X happens,” or “until [key person’s name] is free, we can’t move this forward.” People who use excuses like these are abdicating responsibility to control their actions and results.

The antidote to these excuses is to focus on next action.

Ask them one of the following:

·        “What can you do? What specifically is the next step here?”

·        “If you could imagine another solution to advance this, what would it be?”

·        “How can you eliminate that as an obstacle to proceeding?”

Then, patiently and quietly wait for—and expect—the answer. When they provide it, follow up with one more question: “By when?”

By forcing specificity and a clear, time-bound next action, you’ll neutralize the effects of the shield of complexity, force them to be accountable for their actions, and spur them to move forward.


George Washington Carver said, “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” 

As we’ve uncovered, excuse-making is a habit derived from loose accountability. On the other hand, crisp accountability starts and ends with you, the leader: your own behaviors and what you tolerate in others.

“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
– George Washington Carver

With that in mind, here’s a recap of the four leadership strategies to eliminate excuse-making in your organization:

·        Lead by Example

·        Separate Decisions from Actions

·        Increase Accountability

·        Focus on Next Action

Breaking your own excuse-making habit first equips you with the credibility and clarity to help others do the same, improving productivity––and profitability––in the long run. Best of all, you can start right now.

After all, there’s no legitimate excuse not to!


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