Excuses are self-defeating. They get in the way of our success by letting us off the hook, making life easier for us when we should be facing up to a challenge.
We all have our pet excuses: "I'm too busy," "I'm too old," "I'm not qualified." There must be a million of them. But we need to dig a little deeper to see why excuses are so popular and persistent.
The Function of Excuses
We use excuses to protect ourselves, to avoid looking bad, failing or harming ourselves in some way. Excuses deflect responsibility onto circumstances or other people. We place blame to avoid being put on the spot ourselves.
Failure excuses are especially obvious ways of deflecting responsibility. Usually we explain our failure to get something done in line with expectations by blaming somebody else or circumstances: "John didn't deliver his part in time" or "Our supplier had a breakdown."
We may occasionally blame ourselves but do so in a way that we hope will absolve us of real accountability. For example, I might say: "I forgot," thinking that this is a good excuse because I really did forget. The truth is that I didn't think it was important enough to make the effort to remember.
To take another example, I might say: "I didn't realize that it was so important." Here, I seem to be admitting my misunderstanding but I'm really trying to say that you failed to communicate your needs clearly enough to me so it was your fault, not mine.
Chris Argyris, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, did a study a number of years ago showing that young high fliers in a consulting company failed to learn from their mistakes because they couldn't admit them. There was such a premium on looking good that the consultants always felt compelled to blame something or someone other than themselves for their errors.
Excuses vs Genuine Reasons
Some reasons for failure are not excuses. A company whose product is getting pulverized in its market may have done everything possible to make their product attractive but it simply wasn't good enough. A sports team might bust a gut trying to win but still lose because the other team is simply better.
However, we don't like to cite genuine reasons for our failures. Professional golfers blame their putters for their poor putting. A losing sports team might use the excuse that they had too many players out with injuries. We don't want to admit that someone might just be better than us. It's too hurtful so we protect ourselves from that hurt by effectively lying to ourselves.
How about you? Do you make excuses or do you always accept responsibility for your errors? This would make an interesting research project. A good bet is that most of us would say that we don't offer lame excuses, but this in itself is a self-protective lie. We thus not only deceive ourselves about particular errors, we kid ourselves that we don't do this sort of thing at all.
How to Stop Making Excuses
We use excuses to avoid being judged negatively by others and by ourselves. A key step to stopping this bad habit is to convince ourselves that it is more admirable to be honest and to admit errors than to tell lies to ourselves and others.
Telling lies creates a vicious circle. When we tell lies, we know at some level that we haven't been honest. We lie because we fear that someone will judge us negatively if we admit the truth. But the first lie creates even more fear that we are inadequate in some way and this feeling creates an even stronger motivation to lie next time. The only way to break out of this vicious circle is to start telling the truth.
Before offering the real reason for your failure, you could highlight your honesty by saying: "Well, I could offer you a phony excuse, but I'd rather be honest so I can learn from my mistakes."
This might make the other person see you as courageous as well as honest and trustworthy. Rather than dwell on your mistake, or let the other person dwell on it, you could quickly shift the conversation to steps that could be taken to avoid similar mistakes in future or to how to rectify the immediate problem.
Naturally, it can be scary to admit our own errors. It may not be a good idea to start with a very high risk, costly, high profile project or person. Start small but manage expectations by encouraging others to do the same. See it as a leadership opportunity, where you lead by example but also by actively promoting a "no excuse" policy. Doing so will make it easier for you to be honest but it will also prepare your stakeholders for your honest answers.
When you admit a mistake, it's essential to congratulate yourself for your honesty and think of all the advantages you have gained by your admission. You won't succeed in changing your excuse-making habit if you immediately start beating yourself up as soon as you admit a mistake.
The "Too Busy" Excuse
Everyone is "too busy" to do some things. The more honest answer is: "I have a number of other priorities that I seem to regard as more important at the moment than this one."
This honest answer can encourage you to ask yourself a challenging question: "Why are these other priorities more important to me than this one?" This might lead you to readjust your priorities. However, if you just say "I'm too busy," you avoid challenging yourself and fail to learn why some things are more important to you.
Learning From Mistakes
Whenever we blame circumstances or other people for our own errors we could always ask ourselves instead: "What else could I have done?" You could formulate this question in the future tense as well: "What could I do differently in future?"
No matter what happened – a supplier went bust, a colleague forgot to deliver or a strategic partner wanted to sabotage your efforts, there is nearly always something you might have done differently that could have avoided the problem. Forcing yourself to ask this hard question is really the best way to learn from mistakes.
Excuses let you off the hook but at the cost of destroying your opportunity to learn. This is why excuses are self-defeating, because if you fail to learn, you are hurting your chances of longer-term success.
Some people advocate the virtues of responsiblity to encourage us to avoid excuses, but the real motivation should be more self-interested: the banefit of being better able to learn and to increase our chances of being effective and, therefore, successful. Also, avoiding excuses could enhance our self-respect and our confidence. Even if it is scary to admit a mistake in the short-term, confidence can be enhanced by the realization that we are taking fuller responsibility for ourselves and our destinies.