Never Hear an Excuse Again

You’re sitting in a post-mortem or providing an employee some feedback during your 1:1. What follows all too often when you try and give feedback to someone with a technical background is a bunch of excuses. “I didn’t feel well.” “Product should have defined things better.” “No one else does it, either.”

A cascade of excuses comes easily to engineers. Just like you try and find issues with whatever new task you are given to uncover gaps in thinking and pitfalls, we tend to do the same with feedback to demonstrate how we are in the right, or at least not the only ones in the wrong.

This is hugely problematic if you’re trying to follow something like The Five Whys method to uncover deeper issues. Instead of getting to the bottom of matters and fixing the root cause, we are getting sucked into a useless excuses vortex. It’s an issue that I see take one of two common shapes. The first is where new managers cannot keep track of the excuses they’re being served by senior engineers, quickly losing their footing. The other is for higher-up managers that are very good at tackling the engineering-speak and getting to core issues there but cannot do the same when it comes to people matters.

The solution: make engineers do what they love doing

By providing feedback about past issues and asking why questions, you’re summoning the excuse-mode. However, when you treat the scenario as an inflection point instead of pointing fingers, you can turn the whole thing around. Rather than making them use their brains to come up with excuses, you can make them focus on what they love doing: solving problems.

Ask how/what questions instead of why questions. “What can we do to notice these issues earlier in the future?” “How would you change our process to prevent this?” “What is missing in our training to make this common practice?”

Automatically, when faced with such a question, their brains go into problem-solving mode. By posing the issues as a real question and not a blame game, you get the other party’s buy-in and commitment. They are part of the solution and will care more about its implementation than they would if they simply got instructions from higher up.

Never hear excuses again, and never accept them. Create a culture of solutions.