Wednesday, September 12, 2007

NPR - Excuses and reasons

We all do it. Make excuses why something wasn't done, finished, or worse even started, as they say, "on time." According to my handy dandy Oxford American Dictionary, which it is because it always sits next to my computer desk, the definition of each are as follows.

Excuse.-- "an attempt to lessen the blame attaching to fault or offense; seek to defend or jusify."

Reason.--"a cause, explanation or justification for an action or event."

How often do we confuse the two using them interchangeably? I used to, and may still on occasion, but I try now to separate the two in my mind and speech. Why the interest?

Well, for one at work over my 27+ years I was a staff employee, supervisor and technical manager. As a staffer I was always held to deadline and schedules for field work and data production. That's expected and reasonable in most cases, and I had the occasional good boss who understood things change and to be flexible.

And I had some bosses who weren't micro-managers, only outlining the work and overall time frame, and left the rest to you to organize and manage your work and time. Unfortunately, the USGS is like many organizations, who don't have enough of these bosses and an abundance of ones who overschedule and under estimate time to put staffers in constant speed mode - the do more with less theory that never works. But that's another story.

For about seven years I was also a section chief and supervisor. And yes, I did learn and was thought to be a good boss who did what worked, meaning outline and delegate, and then get out of the way. Part of my job was to represent the staff to management, accept blame when things didn't work out and praise always went to the employee, something else I learned to do from being a staffer. And again, that's another story.

After my supervisory time I became a senior technical manager. And that's where I learned excuses and reasons. You see my job was about thinking, planning, organizing, and writing, with do work as time permitted. I didn't supervise anyone but often guided others. Some of the tasks were strictly mine because we lacked the staff, and that's where I had to learn office politics more than at any time before.

You see bosses like definitive answers, but my work was always fluid and dynamic. We had the gamut of work in terms of resources, time, money, etc. so I had to fit everything in so nothing was lost. Well it works until you have 150% workload to fit into 100% of the time. Everything just doesn't fit, but my boss had these ideas it did. And since he hadn't really done the work to know, he had difficulty accepting either excuses or reasons.

I wasn't alone as someone who reported to him, so we all had to learn reasons matter and excuses only gets you in trouble, especially on your performance evaluations. In effect you have to shift from excuses they want to hear to blame you to reasons that they were the cause. This creates the pause you need to make them think, which you can they turn into excuses they must make to you.

Nifty huh? Well didn't always work, as I learned my last year, and my boss just ignored the reasons since they pointed to him and not me. But he lost when I appealed his decisions and won. But that's really another story altogether about life in the USGS. Anyway, I retired remembering the difference.

Except in my personal life, I'm a great procrastinator, especially in retirement because it only effects me, and If I don't see any harm, I can simply put something off into the future. The underlying cause is another matter, but I can explain it away. It's really self-delusion, but works sometimes to simply put aside something that isn't important or won't hurt anything if delayed.

In short, you have excuses for inaction but you have reasons actions or events that inhibited your inaction. Excuse is about the inaction itself and reason is about actions around the inaction. Excuse is about the why of the inaction and reason is about the why of the other actions.

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