A women explaining herself to her supervisor

Manager: Why didn’t you complete that task? 

Employee:  Because… I ran out of time; I didn’t have enough information; I plan to have it done tomorrow; I didn’t know where to start; Why are you micromanaging me? 

Manager: Stop making excuses and just finish it up (either said out loud, under their breath, or to HR). 

We’ve all been involved in conversations like the above. It is no doubt frustrating when expectations go unmet and explanations sound like another excuse. However, asking people what they need or why something didn’t happen doesn’t mean you’re accepting excuses. Truly listening to the explanation can help you better engage with your team in order to help them be successful.

Turn the Tables

Let’s turn the tables around. Think of a time when someone asked you to do something and it didn’t go smoothly. Did you want to explain yourself? What went wrong or kept you from moving forward? Did you disagree with the directive? Were you missing information? Was the deadline unclear? Is it possible the person on the receiving end of those questions/reasons saw your explanation or delay as an excuse? 

Many of us have too much to do and not enough time, people or resources to do it. We hear the “excuses”, roll our eyes and wonder what happened to good ol’ common sense. I get it, remember I was a leader in corporate America and also had three kids; I heard every excuse in the book. I remember struggling in a role. I remember trying to ask questions or explain why I did something. I remember feeling like I wasn’t being heard. And when that happened, I either got more assertive or became frustrated and disengaged.

What People Need

It is human nature to want to be heard and to feel understood. As leaders, if we can pause and really listen, we can learn so much about what someone needs to be successful.

Do they need: 

  • More information:
    • High S need for structure/plan/details
    • Low E need more data
    • High E need affirmation they’re on the right track
  • More time to complete:
    • High P need to plan the work/work the plan
    • High S made too many commitments (sense of duty) and now are buried
    • High E made too many commitments (please others) and now are buried

Often times, slight adjustments can be made help meet their needs. For example, can you share more information (high S), listen to them “think out loud” (high E), or give them time to research and think independently (low E)?

When it’s Not Working

There are times, despite the best effort on the leader and employee, when what the person needs is not possible in the role.

A misalignment of needs and strengths might sound like:

  •  A highly detailed person (high S) who needs to make more decisions without having all of the details
  • The highly assertive person (high A) who doesn’t want/can’t complete all of the details 
  • The highly extroverted person (high E) who can’t stand staring at a computer all day. 

While this explains the behavior, it doesn’t excuse it if it is critical and necessary in the role. So now what? What strategies can be put into place to help the person be successful? Some possibilities may be:

  • Job re-balancing – shifting duties across the team to align better with the individuals strengths within the team
  • Job sharing – identify when certain duties can be handed off to someone else with those strengths
  • Role change – if they’re a good organization fit, are there other opportunities that would align better with their needs? Not to move a “problem”, but to re-position a team member for success.

Right Person, Right Role

In the end, knowing your authentic needs doesn’t give someone an excuse from being held accountable to the expectations. The question is, are you asking someone to stretch a little or are you trying to teach a duck to be a great sprinter? If you’re trying to get someone to operate drastically different than their natural self, you’ll probably hurt their little webbed feet and they’ll become frustrated and disengaged.

The best leaders and organizations take time to know the needs of the role and the strengths/weaknesses of the employees before they hire them. This allows them to put strategies in place for supporting their weaknesses in a way that is realistic and helps lead to the long term success and engagement of the employee.

The MPO tool is all about getting to the core of how you’re authentically wired. By understanding and spending more time in your areas of strength, you’ll be stronger for the activities that are a weakness. It’s important to not stay in the area of weakness for too long or it will make one physically, mentally, and emotionally weak.

Often the paradox is in knowing when something is a weakness or a challenge.

What has been the biggest challenge of your life? For me, the year was 2011 and at 45, I decided to tackle RAGBRAI; a 7-day bike ride across Iowa, with 15k other riders. Two things to know about RAGBRAI; Iowa is NOT flat, and the route is not a direct route from the west to the east border. This is ~500 miles across rolling hills during the hottest and most humid week of the year.

So, with my mind set, I bought a great bike, trained for six months and on the third Saturday in July my husband drove me to the west side of the state to join my team for our adventure. For the next seven days/nights, I would live out of a tote, sleep in a tent and focus on staying right and upright.

I’ll always remember climbing onto my bike the first day as the sun was rising, the air was still, and my teammates were like dogs at the gate of a big race. Everyone was excited to embark on our 70-mile day, which started with the traditional dip of the back tire in the Missouri River. Three miles into the ride my legs started to cramp, my back started to ache, and I thought to myself, “what the heck was I thinking?” The negative narrative began to spiral, and I wondered if I could convince my husband to make the four-hour trek back to pick me up.

Pride took over and I decided to focus on one rotation of the pedals at a time. Just make it over the next hill, to the next town, to the end of the day. Whew – one day down, six more to go! I was promised that the next day would be easier. However, two hours into the next day, I realized that “easier” didn’t mean “easy”. Again, I focused on one rotation of the pedals at a time, yet there were times that tears were rolling down my face from sheer exhaustion.

By the third day, I was more comfortable with the pain and the sweat pouring down my face and back. On day five, I actually smiled and began to enjoy the scenery and camaraderie. And, by day seven, the last hill no longer seemed like a mountain. The 90-degree humid air on my face was a sign of progress. And the final stretch was an easy coast to the Mississippi River, where I dipped my front tire into the water to symbolize the final leg of the journey!

There were many things I learned over those seven days that translate to everyday life:

  • Great equipment and tools are key (like MPO in the business world)
  • Amazing colleagues/friends and support crew make every journey easier (though maybe not “easy”)
  • The common denominator for all who accomplished their goal was the belief and determination to do it!

For thousands of people, this experience provides an adrenaline rush that propels them to ride RAGBRAI year after year.

Not me.

It was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the thought of doing it again makes me a little nauseous.

From a work perspective, I could take on the “challenge” of mastering my analytical skills. However, I have learned that a challenge worth pursuing lights a fire in my gut. It makes me uncomfortable, but I’m drawn to it. It is harder to NOT do it than to do it. It’s something I know I’ll regret if I don’t try. The thought of mastering my analytical skills makes my stomach hurt. My body repels against it and no amount of encouragement, training classes or someone showing me how they do it, will flip that switch. I have achieved a level of basic competence and that’s where I’ll stay.

What great challenge do you dream about? Something that seems harder and harder to not do, than to do. That is the challenge you should pursue. Please listen closely to others to understand their dreams, which are likely different than yours. This will help you to understand and encourage their dream that lights a fire in their gut, and not focus on their weaknesses.

Congratulations to those who are on their final stretch of RAGBRAI; either literally or figuratively. Enjoy the accomplishment of an incredible challenge!