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Effective Leaders Focus on Outcomes Rather than Excuses

Nate Thompson /

One of the most common communication challenges leaders face is addressing a colleague, employee, or manager who has failed to meet expectations. An effective leader can transform this challenge into an opportunity by shifting the focus of the conversation away from the failure itself and toward outcomes and a path forward.

From being late to work to failing to finalize a report by a deadline, there is no end to the ways people may fall short of expectations. Most of the time, we try to address the issue by talking with the employee who disappointed us. Once we confront them, many employees provide an excuse, reason, or try to explain their intent. Focusing on any of these distracts from the original goal and usually produces no change to future behavior.  

Normally when employees fail to deliver intended results, they try to remedy the situation by providing an excuse, reason, or clarification of intent. An excuse is typically a “defense, justification, or alibi.” In my experience, an excuse is employed when employees are trying to absolve themselves of any culpability. They may also attempt to provide a reason—defined as an “explanation for the cause of an action or event”—for failing to meet our expectations. In this case, an employee continues to dwell on the clarification rather than assume responsibility for the consequences. Lastly, many employees will defend their intent—defined as a “desire, thought, or plan behind an action or behavior.” They will often explain that their intention was good by saying something like “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings” or “I had your best interest at heart.” As a result, they distances themselves from both the action itself and any responsibility for the outcome. In each of these scenarios, the conversation falls into an excuse/reason/intent cycle.

Usually, both parties—the one who did not follow through on their commitment and the one whose expectations were not met—walk away from this type of exchange feeling frustrated. The desired outcome is not attained; moreover, rather than focusing on reaching this outcome, the exchange remains in the excuse/reason/intent cycle. I encounter this scenario in every region of the world and am constantly asked the same question: how can we move beyond rationalizing and defending why a given failure or situation occurred in order to deal with the outcome—a consequence, effect, or result—and focus on the path forward?

Here’s the key to breaking the excuse cycle: shift the focus of the conversation away from the excuse and toward the original desired outcome. In a recent coaching engagement, I worked with a power plant manager on this issue. One of the technicians was late for his shift multiple times per week. His tardiness caused problems for his team. Every time the manager confronted this technician, he gave an excuse: traffic was bad that day, he had to drop his child off at school, he was doing a favor for a co-worker, etc. The manager grew very frustrated with the constant excuses and lack of resolution. In our coaching sessions, we discussed shifting the focus of these exchanges away from the technician’s excuses. The manager needed to articulate the desired result and align their expectations. Once the manager helped the technician understand why being on time was so important to his team’s morale, trust, and overall effectiveness, they were finally able to discuss a path forward. The manager worked with his technician to sort out all of the obstacles causing his tardiness and find solutions like leaving earlier to account for traffic, working out a carpool or other ride to get his child to school, etc. Incredibly, the technician’s behavior changed immediately. He no longer dwelled on excuses but instead on outcomes and the desired result. I believe most of us can identify with this simple example and attempt to address repeated failures to meet expectations differently by shifting the focal point of these exchanges.

As is the case with so many leadership-related situations, the ability to effectively pivot the focus of a discussion is heavily dependent on the relationship between the two parties. Incessant emphasis on outcomes can seem cruel and heartless on its own. After all, people provide an excuse, reason, or clarification of intent in an effort to remedy the damage that has been done. Attempting to dismiss someone’s excuse usually results in defensiveness. In order to successfully address outcomes, effective leaders must lay the groundwork ahead of time by building and maintaining strong, positive relationships with colleagues. Having a solid foundation and a relationship built on trust will increase the likelihood of a positive outcome, even when addressing a difficult situation where expectations were not met.

At the RBL Group, we truly believe in the concept of Results-Based Leadership—that effective leaders should not only develop the right attributes, but also deliver the right results. Communication and breaking out of the excuse cycle is vital to transforming a challenging situation into an opportunity for growth and to achieving desired outcomes. I welcome you to review some of our leadership development programs on our website and please contact us if you would like to learn more.