Reason or Excuse, What's the Difference?

What is the difference between a reason and an excuse? Does it matter? I bet it matters to your boss and to your colleagues.

Before we jump in, I would like to give a special shout out and thanks to Dave Newell for reminding me of the John Belushi, Blues Brothers clip on excuses which accompanies this posting!

Last time we considered excuses. Excuses and how they teach
other people about you and how they teach you about yourself. But what about
reasons? When I say I have a reason for acting a certain way, is that just an
excuse too? Let's ponder that together today.

  1.    "I did not make the deadline because I could not concentrate on work. All of this talk about us being acquired by Gigantor Corporation is really distracting."

  • "I did not make the deadline because I had to take some long lunches in order to help plan mybest friend's wedding."

  • "I did not make the deadline because I was directed to work on another higher priority project."
  • Which of the above is a REASON and which of the above is an EXCUSE?

    Your perspective shapes your reply, my perspective shapes my
    reply. I think statement #3 is a clear example of a reason for missing the
    deadline, I am not happy with #2 and right now I could go either way with #1.

    Let's see if you and I can gain some clarity or determine a way to classify
    reasons vs. excuses.

    In the Oxford Dictionary the first definition for reason is: "a cause,
    explanation, or justification for an action or event. " For example he
    resigned for personal reasons or we have reason to celebrate.

    Excuse is defined as: "attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault
    or offense); seek to defend or justify."

    It looks like a core factor which will help us decide the difference between a
    reason and an excuse has to do with the intention of the statement. If the
    intention of the statement is to avoid blame or perhaps to even push the blame
    off to someone or something else THAT is an excuse. If the intention of the
    statement is to provide factual information as to why something occurred, THAT
    is a reason.

    With that in mind, let's again examine our statements.

    1) "I did not make the deadline because I could not concentrate
    on work. All of this talk about us being acquired by Gigantor Corporation is
    really distracting."

    What do you think is this a REASON or an EXCUSE? If you have been
    through an acquisition or a corporate shake-up, you know that it is
    distracting. You worry about what this means to you and your paycheck. Is it
    fair to expect that a team in this situation is 100% productive? Most likely
    not. I think that whether or not this is a REASON or EXCUSE has to do with who
    is saying it and to be really honest, your perception of who is saying it. If
    one of your top performers tells you that she is late because she is distracted
    by the pending acquisition, you may accept it as a REASON. If someone who is
    chronically late or easily distracted tells you they are late because of the
    pending acquisition, is it a REASON or an EXCUSE? I have to confess to you that
    with some people I have tended to treat this as a little bit of both. I would
    take into consideration the degree to which they were late. Fair or not, I had
    my own thoughts about how much a delay was REASONABLE based upon the

    2) "I did not make the deadline because I had to take some long
    lunches in order to help plan my best friend's wedding."

    What do you say? I say EXCUSE! Maybe I am too harsh, but my
    expectation is that if my team member needs to take long lunches to help plan a
    wedding, that time should be made up. I am happy for your friend, yet I still
    expect you to attend to your professional responsibilities. I can see where my
    team member may find this to be a REASON and find my perspective to be cold or
    impersonal. My team member is probably thinking, "Lighten up, this is my
    best friend, hopefully getting married one time, for a life time, the work will
    always be here."

    3) "I did not make the deadline because I was directed to work
    on another higher priority project."

    I say REASON, but only IF this is true and only if there was not
    enough time to complete the work on both projects.

    You and I may or may not agree about each of the statements discussed. Who is
    right? (Me, because it is MY posting - I am kidding of course!) I do think that
    agreeing on a definition for reasons versus excuses is helpful; it just does
    not solve the entire problem. There is still the issue of intention and
    interpretation. Your team member may believe that she is presenting you with a
    factual description of why she missed a deadline, you may believe that she is
    presenting you with an attempt to defend herself or shift the blame for being
    late. It never hurts to explain to your team your definition of a REASON versus
    an EXCUSE and continue to remind them of your definition throughout the
    duration of your working relationship.    


    This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

    Dave Newell December 06, 2012 at 07:37 AM
    I would go with #3. I loathe excuses. I prefer to admit I messed up and put into place something to ensure it doesn't happen again. It could be running a pivot table looking for variances in a 6-decimal point computation (yes, I have done that), or just making sure you close the door behind you.
    Margaret Meloni December 06, 2012 at 05:13 PM
    Right on!
    Watts December 06, 2012 at 09:37 PM
    Before even reading the definitions, my initial understanding that differentiates between a reason and an excuse was that an excuse seeks some sort of forgiveness by providing additional context and/or detail for a certain action or inaction. So using my understanding and looking at #1, I wouldn't see it as being determined as much by the recipient's perception of the person making the statement, as much as it is more important who it is being said to. So if this is being said to peer in a company, to whom the speaker is not reportable to, then this is a reason. But if it is said to the person's boss or whoever the speaker owes the work, then it is an excuse no matter what the recipient in that case may think of the person saying this. I think that what the recipient (if boss or person owed the work) may determine about this excuse, based on their perception of the speaker, is whether or not this is a plausible and acceptable excuse.
    Watts December 06, 2012 at 09:51 PM
    There is a local company based in Irvine that bought a previous strategic partner of my own business. The previous set of owners and employees were on top of everything and our point of contact always accepted responsibility for making things right for whatever may have gone wrong and we never heard about mysterious people or departments who may have even been valid causes for issues. But after they were bought, all that we ever heard about from our new rep (and all subsequent reps and even the new owners) was how problem A, B or C was the result of the failings of these vague people or departments that we never knew or spoke to. Sometimes these may have been valid excuses and sometimes I knew that it was our points of contact covering their butts. I frequently told our contacts and even the owners, that their company was better at producing excuses, than they were at producing results. We had been a top 10 account under the previous ownership and billed deep into 6 figures each month, but specifically because of this culture of excuses that went from the top down in the new company, we slowly shifted our business and eventually severed our relationship with them. I would love to ask anybody in that company to run through such scenarios to see what they perceive as a reason or an excuse or to see if they even believe that there is a difference.
    Margaret Meloni December 07, 2012 at 12:45 AM
    Thank you - I think your distinction as to whether or not what is being offered is plausible and acceptable is an important part of the discussion.
    Margaret Meloni December 07, 2012 at 12:46 AM
    Wow, maybe you should send them a link to this posting and the comments - but I suppose they would have an excuse for not reading it like - well our web server was down.....
    Panglonymous December 07, 2012 at 02:47 AM
    Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex. Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex. Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization? -- "The Big Chill", Lawrence Kasdan, Barbara Benedek
    Watts December 07, 2012 at 07:18 AM
    It is as if you have dealt with them yourself. I heard the server crash speech more times than I can ever remember as an excuse for their EDI issues amongst other things.
    Nancy Wride (Editor) December 07, 2012 at 07:24 AM
    :D A roommate's sister called in sick--with a terminal disease! She lucked out. Her boss got fired before she had to fake a funeral for herself.
    John B. Greet December 07, 2012 at 03:25 PM
    A drill sergeant once told me (in his most kind and genteel manner) that "excuses are like a**holes. Everybody has one, but some smell better than others." I think it all comes down to primary motivation. If the person's *primary* motivation is to be excused for a failure, then whatever information he or she is offering is an excuse. On the other hand, if the person's primary motiviation is to explain a failure and to suggest constructive ways to correct and not repeat it, then the information he or she is offering is an explanation. Having been a boss, I was never interested in excuses. They are neither constructive nor productive. Bad stuff happens and employees, being human, sometimes fail to meet our expectations. In almost every case, an explanation will help me get to the bottom of why the failure actually occurred and help us correct that going forward. An excuse just muddies up the water and prevents or delays constructive outcomes.
    Margaret Meloni December 07, 2012 at 03:47 PM
    And at the end of the day what we really need is root cause and the ability to gather some lessons learned and move on!
    Margaret Meloni December 07, 2012 at 03:48 PM
    Funny and right on point! Love it.


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