9 Ways to Address Excuses & Improve Workplace Productivity

A few years ago, Inc. came out with an article about the worst excuses unproductive employees use when they don’t get work done.

As the boss, you’ve probably heard a lot of these:

“That’s not my job.”

“I have too much on my plate. I can’t do everything.”

“I was waiting for more instructions.”

“Why should I do it? I won’t get credit. It doesn’t help me.”


The Frustrations of an Unproductive Worker

When you pay someone to get things done for you, and then they don’t, it is understandably frustrating. The easy solution seems to be just fire them. Then, hire someone better.

However, that isn’t as easy or as productive as you might think. Bringing on a new worker is expensive and often inconvenient.

  • You likely end up paying for ads or recruiting services.
  • In the time you are hiring, you are either struggling to piece together the functions of the unfilled position or are still paying the unproductive worker to do it while you search for their replacement.
  • Once you’ve spent the time to go through resumes and conduct interviews, you have to negotiate benefits and salaries.
  • It is estimated that taxes, insurance and other costs of bringing on a new employee, outside his or her salary, end up costing employers around $4,000 per new employee.
  • Then you have to train the new person.

You get the point.

But here is the real kicker: if the excuses are part of your overall culture, then it really doesn’t matter if you get rid of all those unproductive workers – you are still going to be plagued with excuses, excuses, excuses.

There is a better way. Simply create a culture where excuses are not accepted or expected. To do that, follow these nine tips:

1.  Make expectations obvious

If your employees have a problem recognizing your expectations, then there is a simple solution:

Make the expectations more obvious.

What do you expect your employees to do? When do you expect them to do it by?

When you map out all of the things that you need for that individual worker to do, then it becomes a lot harder for them to use the excuse, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.”

  • Make sure they know what tasks they have been assigned.
  • Never assign one task to two or more people – that makes it easy for each employee to claim they thought the other was working on it.
  • Make sure that deadlines are clear.

Basically, just take steps to avoid misunderstandings.

2.  Have a system of accountability

Pretend for a second that you are renting your office space. For potentially a really good reason, you are a few days late with the rent one month.

The owner doesn’t say anything.

Next month, you don’t have that really good reason anymore, but you don’t feel like taking it down and nobody said anything last month, so…

You are a few days late again. Then the next month and the next and the next.

Finally, after a long time of you paying late because that is your new habit, the landlord kicks you out. You’d be a little surprised, right?

That is your employees’ reaction when they are abruptly disciplined for behavior that you have turned a blind eye to for a long time.

Having a system of accountability makes employees responsible for their performance. When you don’t lightly accept excuses, then people stop making them.


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If you have formed the bad habit of letting your workers get away with things they should not be doing, like slacking, then communicate with them that you will no longer be allowing that to go on.

Make a point to admit that you have let things slide in the past, but that under the new system, you will be doing a better job of it.

Then, when someone doesn’t get their work done, figure out why. If it is because they are making excuses, then you can deal with it in the appropriate manner. If it is because of legitimate reasons, then you can take the steps to help them overcome their barriers.

Peter Bregman wrote about how to keep employees accountable in an article for The Harvard Business Review. His suggestions include:

  • Setting clear expectations – which, if you are following point one, you are already doing;
  • Assigning tasks to the right people;
  • Having set measurements;
  • Offering appropriate feedback; and
  • Ensuring people are aware of the consequences.

3.  Get regular status updates

Another way to ensure excuses are eradicated is to get regular status updates. Whether this is through meetings, emails or other technology, status updates make employees stay on their toes.

If you are supposed to say where you are in the process every week or so, then it makes it a lot harder to get down to the wire and say you don’t have it done.

It also makes it a lot more likely that you as the leader will see that work isn’t being done long before it is actually due. Which, in turn, makes it easy to help the worker get back on track.

4.  Monitor workloads

As noted above, one common excuse you probably hear for why work isn’t being done is that workers have too much on their plate.

When it comes to this excuse, there are really only two rationales:

  1. It is just an excuse.
  2. It is the truth.

Either way, though, keeping track of workloads makes this excuse really fixable.


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Let us say that an employee isn’t getting things done because she says her workload is too big. However, that is just an excuse. Most workers of her skill set and role could and should handle her workload.

By being able to quickly see everything she has on her plate, you can talk to her about why she feels she cannot handle the workload her peers are handling.

Maybe there is a health or family problem going on, which might be temporary. Perhaps she just isn’t feeling motivated. Whatever the reason, sitting down and looking at her workload will help clear things up.

On the other hand, let us say that this worker is 100% right. She is doing the work of multiple people, and it would be crazy to think one person could be getting all that done.

When you come face to face with all of the work you are asking one person to do, you might realize that you are expecting too much. Then, you can adjust schedules, assignments and priorities accordingly.

5.  Create prioritization guidelines

I don’t know about you, but I very rarely have a day when I only have one thing that I’m working on. In fact, I often have to create a list of everything I need and/or want to accomplish throughout the day.

If I didn’t sit down and discuss priorities every once and a while, then I might not know where to start or what I need to do first.

That is true for your employees too. Help clear up priorities. That way, they work on the things that matter the most and leave the filler projects for another time.

6.  Show employees their value

Nobody likes doing busy work. People want to feel like they are making a difference. Because of this it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the list of common excuses has, “I don’t see the benefit for me.”

That is why it is so important to create a system that shows employees how the tasks you are assigning them fit into the big picture.

  • Why is their role important?
  • How does the assignment help them make a difference?
  • How do they relate to the ultimate vision of the company?

7.  Offer appreciation for a job well-done

Even the best employees can start to slack if they don’t feel appreciated – which is why not getting credit for their work is an excuse they use when they aren’t productive.

In fact, look at the findings from a recent University of Warwick study: happy employees are 12% more productive and unhappy workers are 10% less productive. While there are many other factors that lead to happy workers, one such way to elevate happiness is just to make them feel appreciated.

In order to counteract this, make sure you let your employees know you appreciate their hard work. There are lots of ways to do this.

  • Say thank you when an assignment is done well.
  • Have an annual event where you thank everyone at once.
  • Do a smaller, monthly event where you thank everyone.
  • Think of something even better, and do that.

8.  Create a culture where teamwork is valued

Nobody should ever get away with saying, “That’s not my job.” And when teamwork is valued and expected, it probably won’t be.

In a culture where teamwork is the norm, there is no ‘me,’ but there is a whole lot of ‘we.’ Siloed workers are not productive workers. Departments should be interconnected.

You can achieve this by keeping things transparent and working to make an environment where everyone helps everyone else and the entire place is working towards one mission and vision.

9.  Show the importance of failure

Some of the final excuses listed in the Inc. article deal a little with insecurity:

  • Employees are afraid to fail.
  • They aren’t sure of all the answers.
  • They don’t understand all of the variables.

Yet, as has been said many times before, there is no reward without risk. Fear can seriously hurt your productivity, yet sometimes failure is the first step to figuring out the next big thing.

There is a way to help overcome this excuse, though:

Allow your workers some amount of freedom to try things. A lot of fear of failure comes from the culture. If they see others being punished for their failures, they aren’t going to want to take any chances.

So, create an environment where failure is not jeered at, but learned from.

Eliminate Excuses, Improve Productivity

Results, Not Excuses

Obviously, if an employee is just a bad worker, then you might be better of getting rid of him or her. However, that should not be your first conclusion.

If your workers are offering you more and more excuses for not getting their work done, then sit back and figure out why.

Is it something that is prevalent in your workplace because of the systems that you have in place?

If that is the case, don’t overreact – just do a little bit of changing of your own.

About AchieveIt

AchieveIt is the platform that large organizations use to get their biggest, most important initiatives out of the boardroom and into reality. Too many great ideas never quite make it across the finish line, because there’s no real way to keep everyone on course and keep everything on track. What does it take to actually guide these initiatives all the way through to completion? You’ve got to:

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That’s why everyone from global corporations, to regional healthcare systems, to federal agencies have turned to AchieveIt for their Integrated Plan Management. Let’s actually do this.

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Meet the Author  Joseph Krause

Joe has helped organizations execute thousands of strategic, operational, and project plans in his 10+ years at AchieveIt. Joe is passionate about helping teams drive successful business outcomes with a focus on practical, easy to use advice. Joe graduated from Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and obtained a Masters of Science in Healthcare Communication from Boston University. Joe recently completed his studies at Rutgers University where he obtained a Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in finance.

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