By Wilhelm Crous
August 25, 2023

How do you handle an employee who consistently fails to meet expectations and continually offers excuses for their shortcomings? Liane Davey, a Toronto-based management consultant, recently shared insights in the Harvard Business Review¹ on how to tackle this challenge. She emphasised that hoping for a spontaneous change in their trustworthiness is futile. Instead, develop a method that primes them for success, systematically eliminating potential excuses. If, after this, the employee remains entrenched in their excuse pattern, it may be time to initiate the performance management process.

Davey posits three fundamental reasons for an employee’s failure. First, there may be an alignment issue, where employees are unclear about expectations or what constitutes satisfactory performance. Next, the issue could be competence-based. And finally, they might simply lack the motivation. If an employee’s performance is continually lacking, it’s likely due to the absence of one or more of these foundational elements. As a manager, your task is to devise a strategy that bolsters alignment, capabilities, and motivation.

Clarifying Success
A primary reason employees underperform is their uncertainty about what constitutes success. Davey observes, “It’s common for managers to bypass initial alignment discussions in the interest of time.” This shortcut can prove costly. Investing in clarity from the outset promotes quality performance and offers a foundation to address subpar results early on.

Begin by outlining the objective of the task. Solidifying the goals minimises excuses stemming from disparate viewpoints, motivations, or end objectives. Once there’s a shared understanding of the task’s purpose, define what constitutes good, mediocre, and unacceptable outcomes. A frequent managerial oversight is not communicating expectations clearly, leading to subsequent dissatisfaction when outputs don’t meet standards. By setting and communicating a clear benchmark for excellence, you diminish the chance of employees presenting substandard work as “adequate.” By clarifying objectives, you address potential alignment issues head-on.

Addressing Capability Issues
Another significant barrier to performance can be an employee’s lack of necessary skills or knowledge. Here, adopting a coaching mindset can be instrumental in pinpointing capability gaps and guiding employees towards successful project completion.

Tackling Lack of Motivation
When the root cause is diminished motivation, it’s essential to highlight their responsibilities and underline the potential consequences of non-delivery. Davey champions the age-old carrot-and-stick approach. Offering the “carrot” links successful task completion to positive outcomes, such as enhanced reputation or future opportunities. Conversely, the “stick” emphasises the adverse repercussions of not meeting expectations. Additionally, be prepared for situations where an employee begins with enthusiasm but becomes discouraged at the first sign of a challenge. To mitigate this, anticipate potential obstacles and formulate backup strategies. Clearly state when they should seek your intervention and when issues should be resolved autonomously. By addressing possible challenges and solutions proactively, you set the expectation of resilience and persistence.

In light of the challenges articulated in this article about employees who consistently make excuses, managers everywhere are seeking effective strategies to enhance workplace productivity and harmony. The upcoming Managing The Troublesome And Counterproductive Employee online seminar on the morning of 21 September provides a comprehensive toolkit for navigating these very issues. Echoing the insights of Liane Davey, this seminar delves deeper into understanding the root causes of such behaviours and offers actionable, step-by-step solutions tailored to transform these challenges into opportunities for growth. This seminar promises to be an invaluable resource in the quest to counterproductive behaviour and cultivate a proactive and high-performing team culture. Click here for more information:


1. Davey, L. (2023, July 17). How to Manage an Employee Who Always Makes Excuses. Harvard Business Review.