Making Excuses That Actually Work

Author: Sue Shellenbarger

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Saying "No excuses!" is a popular way to show you won't dodge responsibility.

But when something beyond your control goes wrong, you may need to explain. So how do you make a legitimate excuse without sounding lame?

Certain types of excuses, used sparingly, can avert career damage, research shows. But hitting the right note requires some nuanced skills. For instance, it helps to give specific, truthful reasons for a mishap and show empathy for anyone who was harmed. Surprisingly, making an excuse in advance—when you think you just might perform poorly—can also lead others to be more forgiving.

Many bosses cringe at the mere mention of excuses. Marc Landsberg, founder and chief executive of Social Deviant, a Chicago social-media agency, says he cut ties with a former business partner at another agency because the person "spent 90% of the time discussing excuses as opposed to delivering the goods," he says. If employees make excuses, Mr. Landsberg redirects them: "Let's talk about how that happened and make sure it doesn't happen again."

When harm is done, colleagues naturally look for causes, says Anthony Cobb, an associate professor of management at Virginia Tech. "Left to our own devices, we look around and try to find someone to blame."

A detailed, factual excuse can fill the void—and is more likely to be accepted by victims than a vague explanation, according to a 2010 study of 173 college students co-written by Dr. Cobb and Francis Frey, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, Va.

Showing sincerity and empathy for the people harmed also tends to increase acceptance, says Ryan Fehr, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has studied apologies in the workplace.

Marty Finkle was frustrated when a new version of a sales-tracking software program his company uses didn't work. He stopped by the desk of the administrative manager who oversees the program, Stacy Carr, to ask about it, says Mr. Finkle, CEO at Scotwork North America, a negotiating-skills training and consulting company in Parsippany, N.J. Ms. Carr says she was frustrated, too, and had started working on a solution, but she was rushed with a more pressing responsibility. "I didn't have 100% brain power," Ms. Carr says. She told Mr. Finkle the problem was beyond her control. "I'm sorry, I can't help right now," she says.

Within minutes, Ms. Carr says, she realized, "I was short with him when I shouldn't have been." She went to his office, apologized for her short answer and explained that she had made several calls to the vendor and was near a solution. Mr. Finkle says he appreciated Ms. Carr's recognizing her mistake and giving him more details. "I respected her for that," he says.

Managers and colleagues can discourage lame excuses by stressing problem-solving over dodging blame, according to a 2012 study led by Donald E. Gibson, a professor of management at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Dr. Gibson's research shows colleagues are often more forgiving when they believe mistakes were caused by external factors or were otherwise beyond a co-worker's control. They are also likely to cut a co-worker some slack if they believe he or she didn't intend to cause harm.

Making excuses before a potentially poor performance can inspire sympathy, says Andrew DuBrin, professor emeritus of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. This tactic, called self-handicapping, pre-empts criticism, leading others to "let you off the hook" if you don't perform well, says Dr. DuBrin, author of a book on impression management in the workplace.

A salesman starting work in a new territory, for example, might avert the damage a failure would do to his reputation by explaining why he might not meet his quota, according to a study by James McElroy, a professor of management at Iowa State University, and J. Michael Crant, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame. The study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, aimed to test people's tolerance for multiple excuses given in advance.

In the study, 246 employees from 10 companies were asked to read various scenarios describing a salesman's assignment to a new territory and then complete a questionnaire. Those who read stories where the salesman expressed concern in advance to his boss about lack of contacts, rising competition and declining product demand reported more favorable impressions of his credibility.

Some study participants read accounts where the salesman's supervisor learned he had expressed similar concerns to two previous supervisors, and these participants regarded the salesman as less credible. "If you do it multiple times, you're seen as a whiner," Dr. McElroy says.

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