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Habitual Handicapping

Excuse experts. Every workplace has them, it may even be you. “I didn’t get what I needed from accounting in time,” “The data itself was flawed,” or “I couldn’t help missing the meeting, the traffic was terrible!” These types of excuses are so common that most people dismiss them the minute they hear them.

For the excuse maker, beyond lowering expectations, using this behavior helps protect their self-image. According to psychologist Sean McCrea, self-handicappers significantly overestimate their abilities. When confronted with evidence to the contrary they immediately cite their excuse(s) as a rationale. If they continue to succeed despite their behavior, they become increasingly reliant upon it. “With success, expectations go up, and the behavior gets more extreme,” said Dr. Steven Berglas, author of Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout.

And according to Iowa State University researcher Dr. James C. McElroy, “If you do it often, observers attribute your performance to you, but begin to view [your behavior] as part of your disposition, i.e., you’re a whiner.” He found that the second time a person mentioned an excuse, others began to think poorly of them.

As a manager, keeping your team accountable is key to both your and your team’s success. Habitual excuse making is usually an unconscious ingrained behavior. Your staffer may not even recognize that they are self-sabotaging, much less understand the cost of the behavior. Therefore, your first step is to increase their awareness. It’s a delicate balance—you want to make them aware without making them defensive.

Approach them with curiosity, not judgment. It could sound something like, “Paul, I’ve noticed that you give a lot of rationale for missing deadlines. Why do you think that is?” You’re not there to psychoanalyze, you’re helping him to see his own behavior. If he starts rationalizing, cut him off and say something like, “Paul, all of those statements are about what you believe is being done to you. I certainly don’t think of you as a victim, so I’m puzzled by this habit of yours. I think there are very real consequences for you and I believe it’s worth it to really figure this out.”

If he’s resistant, end the conversation along the lines of, “OK, Paul, I thought you should be aware of what I’ve observed. I know if I’m picking up on it, others are too. I’ll continue giving you real time feedback and we’ll go from there.”

Then the next time he makes excuses, call him on it. “Paul, this is an example of what I was talking about last week.” Then be silent and let him talk. Let his rationale hang in the air so he can hear himself. Don’t engage. Just reiterate, “I really think this is becoming a big issue and I think it should be addressed.” Then move on. You’re going to do this on an ongoing basis until he starts to “get” it.

By not engaging in a dialogue regarding his rationalizations, you’re making it clear that it’s his problem to solve. You may have to be direct and say, “Paul, I’m happy to help you as you make adjustments. However, this is your problem to solve. I wanted to make sure you understood the ramifications of your behavior.”

In the short run this may seem like a lot of extra work. But once your staffer starts dropping the excuses and ponying up, not only will he take a lot less management oversight, it’ll remove an annoyance for others. And if he’s a manager himself, you’re making sure that his behavior isn’t emulated.

You are welcome to reprint this article as long as you include the following in its entirety: Reprinted from "Our Corporate Life®," a biweekly ezine featuring practical tips and tools for navigating the corporate world. © MMXVIII Our Corporate Life LLC All Rights Reserved. Subscribe at www.ourcorporatelife.com/subscribe

Amanda Mitchell is an executive coach and strategist specializing in helping senior executives deal with disruptive drama within their teams. An advertising agency veteran, she experienced first-hand the business implications of corporate drama both with her Fortune 500 clients and within the Manhattan ad agency she led. She founded Our Corporate Life (www.ourcorporatelife.com) to help executives solve the problems no one wants to deal with. She has been published in Bloomberg Businessweek, and quoted in Fast Company, CNBC.com, and Monster.com. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

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