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How to Manage an Employee Who Always Makes Excuses

Source : Harvard Business Review - Liane Davey


Summary


If an employee repeatedly fails, one of the reasons is often that they don’t know what showing up would look like. It’s common for managers to shortchange upfront alignment conversations in the name of speed. But that haste can cost you, especially with an unreliable employee. An investment in alignment upfront enables good performance and also provides the framework to address poor performance if it persists. Your job as a manager is to create a process that acts as a performance scaffold to strengthen an employee’s alignment, capability, and motivation. This process should support the person from the moment you assign the task until the moment they deliver it. It should also negate their standard excuses. But of course, exactly which planks you need in that scaffold depends on the person’s specific shortcomings. Work through a process that sets them up for success and removes the potential. Then if the employee fails to deliver and falls back on the “but, but, but…,” you’ve got all the fodder you need for a performance management conversation.


How do you manage an employee who’s been delivering lackluster results and offering only excuses? Getting angry isn’t the right solution. And micromanaging only adds to your workload and teaches them you’ll be accountable, so they don’t have to be. So what are your options when you don’t trust someone to deliver?


The alternative is to switch from trusting the person to trusting the process.


Let’s consider why an employee might fail. This will provide clues about where a more robust process could remove excuses. First, they might have no idea what you’re expecting of them or what doing a good job requires. That’s an alignment issue. Second, they might lack the knowledge or skills to accomplish the task — a competence problem. Finally, they might lack the motivation to get over the line (or out of the gate). To be successful, an employee needs to understand what to do, know how to do it, and want to do it.


If an employee repeatedly fails, one or more of those foundational pillars are missing. Your job is to create a process that acts as a performance scaffold to strengthen their alignment, capability, and motivation. This process should support the person from the moment you assign the task until the moment they deliver it. It should also negate their standard excuses. But of course, exactly which planks you need in that scaffold depends on the person’s specific shortcomings.


Provide Clarity on the Objective


One of the reasons employees let you down is that they don’t know what showing up would look like. It’s common for managers to shortchange the upfront alignment conversations in the name of speed. But that haste can cost you, especially with an unreliable employee. An investment in alignment upfront enables good performance and also provides the framework to address poor performance if it persists.


Start by focusing on the purpose of the work. Establishing the objectives will leave little room for excuses about divergent perspectives, motives, or end goals. Starting with the purpose is also helpful if the person is not strategic and wouldn’t see the big picture or if they’re self-serving and prone to prioritizing their own success over that of the team. You’ll want to spell out what you’re trying to accomplish. Who is this for? How would the beneficiary define success? Where does this work fit with other initiatives or commitments? Answering these questions reduces the opportunity for the person to claim they didn’t know what you wanted.


Once you’re aligned on the purpose of the work, you can paint a picture of what good, bad, and unacceptable outcomes would look like. But unfortunately, this is another step managers commonly skip. I refer to it as the Valentine’s Day effect; failing to articulate what you want and being disappointed when the person doesn’t deliver. And in the case of an employee you’re already leery of, failing to define your expectations is almost certainly setting yourself up for disappointment. To provide a rubric for their work, describe the minimum standard. What would you consider a home run? What outcomes would be worrisome or would you see as a failure?  Answering these questions eliminates the possibility that the person will pass off shoddy work as “good enough.”


When you make the goals clear, you remove the alignment excuses.


Align on the Optimal Approach


A second major reason an employee might be making excuses for poor performance is that they don’t have the skills or knowledge to do what you ask. If your trepidation is tied to gaps in the person’s capability, your process must go beyond what they need to achieve and explore how they’ll achieve it. Depending on your specific concerns, there are a few ways to broach this.


When you suspect that the person might take shortcuts or neglect essential components, get into some detail about the required steps. Share effective approaches and provide precedents from previous projects. But don’t make the mistake of doing all the talking; their nodding head cannot be interpreted as understanding. Instead, find out how they’re processing the request by asking them to share their plan. Then you can provide any required course corrections with questions that direct their attention, such as, “What steps will you take to ensure finance is on board?” Answering these questions will remove the excuse that they didn’t know how to tackle the project.


Another possibility is that you’re worried not about their technical but their people skills. If you’re nervous that they’ll botch the stakeholder relationships, make the interpersonal issues as salient as the technical ones. Work together to map the key stakeholders, their stake in the project, and any idiosyncrasies you might know. Who has sway over the decision? What are they looking for? What influences them? And beyond the decision makers and influencers, encourage the person to think about other people with valuable perspectives they need to include. Answer these questions to avoid excuses about insufficient support or ornery partners.


You can also mitigate capability gaps by contemplating the decisions they might have to make and pre-qualifying the decision criteria. That way, you can be more confident that they’ll make calls you’d endorse. You can broach the subject in various ways, including asking about the criteria the person will use to evaluate any decisions or trade-offs. How will they prioritize the criteria when there isn’t a perfect option? And lest they get stuck trying to have it all, it’s helpful to clarify which criteria should influence how they implement the decision but not which decision they take.


When you agree on the process, you strip away many of the capability excuses.


Raise the Stakes


We’ve discussed alignment and capability issues. The third possibility for their failure is that they lack the motivation to get the job done. If your loss of faith is associated with their lack of oomph, emphasize their obligation and clarify what’s at stake if they fail to deliver.


You have both carrot and stick options if you need to add a little incentive. Dangling the carrot would connect the successful delivery of the work to a variety of positive outcomes, such as how it will affect their reputation or future opportunities. On the other hand, wielding the stick entails listing negative ramifications if they don’t deliver. And if possible, add some intrinsic rewards to those extrinsic consequences by talking about what the person enjoys about this kind of work and what reward they’d get from doing it well.


There’s one other motivation issue to prepare for; the person who starts full of vim and vigor but throws up their hands at the first hint of adversity. In that case, your process should inoculate the person against setbacks by preparing a plan B upfront. Spend some time anticipating what could go wrong and creating a game plan. What issues do you anticipate arising? How might they handle those types of problems? Be sure to specify which circumstances warrant the person escalating to you and which you’d expect them to tackle independently. Addressing the contingencies and potential pitfalls will make it clear that you expect the person to persevere.


When you articulate the consequences, you bolster the motivation.


If you’re managing a person who keeps letting you down and making excuses for why it wasn’t their fault, don’t waste your energy hoping they’ll miraculously become trustworthy. Instead, work through a process that sets them up for success and removes the excuses in the process. Then if the employee fails to deliver and falls back on the “but, but, but…,” you’ve got all the fodder you need for a performance management conversation.


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