Ben Franklin may have been right when he said, "He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else." But Franklin's adage is cold comfort to managers whose employees always seem to have an excuse for failing to meet expectations. Luckily, there are strategies to help managers turn repeat excuse-makers into productive team members, before giving up on them completely.
Make sure to give clear direction. If your employee often says he couldn't get the project done because the assignment wasn't clear, you may be dealing with someone who—at least for the moment—needs more detailed directives than your other team members. It's also possible that your directions were, in fact, unclear. Break down long assignments into smaller tasks, and review them carefully with the employee, giving pointers on the most efficient approach.
Be involved. The employee might not fully understand the expectations and duties of her position. Or she may lack the confidence to take the initiative and tackle obstacles independently. Micromanaging gets a bad rep, but sometimes weaker members of your team need closer oversight than others. Schedule status updates with the employee, during which you can help address roadblocks on projects as they arise and guide the employee to next steps. Daily "standing meetings,"—brief, informal gatherings where team members stand and talk about problems encountered or tasks completed—can be useful for this purpose.
Even if your excuse-maker is really just shirking responsibility, these regular check-ins will show her you're paying attention. They'll also allow you to keep tabs on the project, so you won't get a nasty surprise at deadline. Which leads us to our next point …
Demand a "heads up." Emphasize that you need to know in advance when the employee suspects an assignment won't be finished on time. Tell the employee that armed with advance notice, you can do your job as manager—bringing in extra help, getting hold of needed materials--whatever is necessary to get the project done.
Explain the consequences. Give the employee the motivation to perform by pointing out the ramifications of his missed deadlines or incomplete work. Convey the message that repeated failures to complete projects on time and as expected will impact the employee's performance review.
You can couch this in a positive way as well, by pointing out that meeting deadlines with quality work paves the way for recognition and advancement in the company.
Also make sure the employee understands the wider negative effects of missed deadlines--on the team, department, company and client.
Don't let it slide. If you make a habit of accepting excuses, you're enabling the behavior, which will likely continue. Failing to deal with the situation head-on is also unfair to employees who do pull their weight, and who may become excuse-makers themselves. After all, why should they pick up the slack for a slacker?
So keep track of your troublesome employee's excuses, and put them under a spotlight. The next time the employee blames traffic for being late to work, point out how many times he has used that excuse in the past week, month, or quarter. If the employee blames someone else for a missed deadline, call or email that person—in the employee's presence—to get the other side of the story.
Finally, try turning the tables on the employee. Ask the excuse-maker to figure a way out of the hole she has dug, for you and anyone else affected by the incomplete work. The visuals aren't ready for tomorrow's client presentation? You're out of supplies, but the supply contract hasn't been finalized? How does the employee propose to deal with the situation? This strategy forces the employee to take responsibility for her lax attitude. She may not be able to come up with a workable solution, but the exercise should help her understand how important it is to the company that she do her job well.
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