Recognizing Blame: How to Break the Habit of Making Excuses

We all do it. Something goes wrong, a customer complains, a colleague asks a question and what do we do? We make an excuse. I recently ordered a vanilla matcha latte with soy milk (my latest addiction) from a local café. While I was waiting, a seasoned employee came over to me and said, “I’m sorry, we no longer carry soy milk, our cashier is new and she didn’t know. We have oat or almond.” The cashier being new was completely irrelevant, and the employee included it solely to absolve herself in that moment. 

On the surface, there may not seem to be anything wrong here. However, consider how often we do this and how normal it is for us to blame others for even the slightest error; imagine the lengths we’ll go to in order to avoid blame for bigger mistakes. Why do we do this? The employee wasn’t lying; the cashier was in fact new. However, the fact was used to hide the excuse. I believe this is just a learned behavior we all need to unlearn. I’m sure you can imagine how that cashier would feel after a day of receiving blame for things that weren’t her fault. 

The problem wasn’t that she didn’t know that soy milk wasn’t an option, it was that no one had told her. So what was the more appropriate and role model response? Taking the blame (or at least part of it). “I’m sorry, we no longer carry soy milk and we haven’t had a chance to update the menu yet” would have done just as well without throwing anyone under the bus.  

There are several reasons why taking the blame is a reputation-building habit. Here are a few: 

  • As described in last week’s Extreme Email Accountability article, being personally accountable helps strengthen relationships with those nearest you because they will trust you never to pass unnecessary blame onto them. 
  •  More problems are solved. When you stop yourself from issuing blame (to another person or even higher powers) you hold yourself accountable. Thus, you’re much more likely to take part in coming up with a solution. For example, imagine you apologize for being late because the weather was bad. You’ve still wasted another person’s time (who was able to show up to the same meeting in the same weather), and not made any effort to ensure it doesn’t happen again. “I’m sorry, I’m late because I failed to check the weather, I’ll be sure to do that next time” leads to a better outcome for all. 

What do you do when something is wrong and there is no one to pin the blame on? Here are some options: 

  1. Take the blame. You are likely somehow responsible and even if you’re not, it is a much higher road to take the blame than to pass the buck. You can go back and fix the issue later. 
  2. Refer to the solution. The best response to the lack of soy milk would have been something like, “I’m sorry we are no longer carrying soy, however, we do have oat and almond milk. We have an artist who updates the menu board, she’ll be here next week.”

How can you tell if you’re making excuses? You can ask others around you to let you know. You can also start tracking them. Having some triggers will help you recognize blaming in the moment. Here are some words and phrases that usually indicate an excuse is coming. 

  • I’m sorry…
  • But…
  • That’s not my…
  • I didn’t…
  • I can’t…
  • Wishy washy words like would have, could have, or should have. 

At the end of the day, reflect on your interactions with people. Was there anything you could have taken the blame for even if you had seemingly nothing to do with it? If you’re a manager or supervisor this is particularly important. Blaming others is a poor trait, one that will identify you as a Diminisher (the opposite of a Multiplier, terms coined by Liz Wiseman in her book Multipliers). Your employees can only do what they’ve been trained or coached to do. Be mindful of blaming them for things they didn’t know (but should have been told), for results from decisions they aren’t empowered to make, and for just about anything; after all, it’s your job to help them succeed. 

As with most habit changes, this transformation may seem simple but in reality takes quite a bit of self-awareness and discipline. It’s also an important element of being Extremely Accountable. If you’re interested in learning more about this and other ways to enhance your life through self-awareness, join us for next week’s Extreme Accountability workshop taking place on January 11th from 9-11am, hosted by MACNY (members and non-members welcome). 



Laura Thorne specializes in strategy and execution through workshops, coaching, and other services. Click here to learn more about Laura’s consulting partnership with MACNY.

Want to to suggest an article topic or make a comment? Contact Laura at [email protected]