We’ve all been there before. You made a promise to your boss you couldn’t keep, or something unplanned happened that disrupted your work, and now you don’t have that big report due when you said you would.
While it’s always best to meet your company’s expectations in the first place, a good excuse can help shield your professional reputation from damage on the rare occasion when you aren’t able to deliver.
Here’s what you should do in the event of an excuse emergency:
Prepare in advance.
One way people protect their image in the workplace is by giving their manager a reason they might fail before they even attempt the task. This tactic, known as self-handicapping, can be useful if you know in advance that there’s a good chance you might not be able to complete an assignment.
For instance, you could say something like, “I’ll do my best to get this project done on time, but it’s going to be hard for me to find time while my mother is in the hospital.”
This way, if you aren’t able to get the project finished by deadline, your boss already has an idea of why your failure was not your fault. And if you do succeed, you come out looking like a superstar.
“The self-handicapper controls the impressions of targets by getting into situations or circumstances that appear quite negative, but paradoxically allow the person to sustain an image of competence, and even sympathy,” former Rochester Institute of Technology management professor Andrew DuBrin writes in his book, “Impression Management in the Workplace: Research, Theory, and Practice.“
Make it detailed.
When making an excuse, it’s important to have a clear, detailed account of why things didn’t work out.
A 2010 study of 173 college students found that excuses were more likely to be found acceptable when they were more specific, even if the screwup in question caused lots of damage.
For instance, instead of just saying that your computer malfunctioned, tell your boss the exact time period which during which your machine wasn’t working and how you tried to work around the issue.
Apologise to the people who suffered from your failure.
People are a lot more likely to accept your excuse if they believe that you understand and feel bad about the headaches you have caused your team members, University of Washington assistant professor Ryan Fehr tells The Wall Street Journal.
You can communicate your empathy by saying something like, “I’m really sorry I didn’t get that report to you on time. I know our client is eagerly awaiting a recommendation.”
Blame external circumstances.
An excuse isn’t much good if the take-home is that you were too lazy or incompetent to get things done. Try shifting attention to things that are out of your control, like weather delaying a flight or an untimely sickness.
“Blaming the environment or external factors deflects attention from a damaged social identity,” DuBrin writes.
Don’t screw up again.
James McElroy, an Iowa State professor who has studied self-handicapping, tells The New York Times that his research shows that people view their coworkers unfavorably after the second time they make an excuse for being unable to meet their goals.
If you find yourself using this excuse-making guide with regularity, it might be time to start figuring out why you need to explain yourself in the first place.
“What happens here is that if you do it often, observers attribute your performance to you, but begin to view it as part of your disposition, i.e., you’re a whiner,” McElroy tells The Times.
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