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How to Explain Missed Deadlines at Work

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Ryan Ong

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I am the world expert on this subject. The last time I explained a missed deadline, my boss’s face went slack in awe. Then he wrote it down, sent it to an agent, and made a killing in the movie industry. But we’re not all gifted storytellers; I’ve known people who couldn’t defend their innocence if they were charged for a murder in Bedok, but were in Nigeria with 50 witnesses at the time. For those who lack composure, here’s how you miss a deadline and not get fired:

 

1. Give Early Warning

There are telltale signs you’re going to miss a deadline. Maybe the project’s due in three days, and just getting the supplies will take two. Or maybe your team members are so overworked, they’re comparing the merits of eating glass to their task lists.

Whatever the case, everyone knows the deadline is less probable than a Geylang United win. But because we want to appear competent, our first instinct is to not sleep for 72 hours, and try to discover time travel. Here’s the problem with that:

  • The damage is ALREADY done. Even if you luck out and meet the deadline, your superiors and colleagues can SEE that you lucked out.
  • Because you didn’t give forewarning, your missed deadline will wreck everyone’s schedule.
  • Last minute work tends to look like you paid the cleaning auntie $15 to type it.
Talking to the bus
“Next time, try waiting till I say what the project is before complaining about the deadline?”

 

When you feel a deadline has become improbable, inform your boss immediately. Apologize and propose an alternative. At worst, you’ll annoy her and get a dressing down. At best, you’ll get a shrug and a “Meh, okay, next week.” Needless stress avoided.

 

2. Prepare a Correction Plan

I’m not going to tell you “Don’t make excuses, blah blah blah”. If you need that level of advice, you’ll be getting it from the unemployment office.

What I will say is this: Back up your apology with a correction plan. This is a one page document, which outlines what you’re going to do differently. It’s not enough to just plan a new timeline; your boss needs to see you’ve learned from this experience. The plan should include:

  • Improvements to workflow
  • Lessons learned
  • Recommendations for different resources / project members
  • The new timeline, with quick notes on why it’s better

Don’t make the correction plan longer than one page. If you do, it’s obvious why you keep running out of time.

 

Youtube and TV screens
“My correction plan is to waste work hours watching Youtube instead of TV. Shorter clips you see?”

 

3. Explain What You Could Have Done

If asked to explain yourself, you will sound like a whiner. You’re like a wrestler backed into a corner, with your boss climbing up the top rope: You’re going to get every reason shot down and you know it.

So rather than let it happen, try this gambit: Whenever you give a reason why you failed, follow up by saying what you could have done. And apologize for “not thinking of it at the time”. Mention that in future, you will know to apply the solution.

 

Man pulling his bathrobe open ala clark kent
“I should have revealed my secret identity as DEADLINE, with the superpower to meet impossible schedules.”

 

This clarifies that you’re not there to argue; your boss needn’t get worked up probing you like a $600 an hour lawyer.

You may still get yelled at, but you know what? You were going to get bawled out anyway. This method at least has a chance of wrong-footing the boss, who seldom sees it coming. It also suggests you can take responsibility, and that you’ve learned something.

 

4. It Really WAS Someone Else’s Fault

Emphasize accountability, not blame.

If you’re late because a client was late, show the relevant E-mails or schedules to the boss. Never directly accuse the client; just present the facts, and let your boss work it out. If you were stalled because of a colleague, point out the delegated tasks that weren’t done on time.

But never rant that someone was incompetent, or that they lied, or that you fantasize about backing over them in the carpark. Just state the facts; few bosses are truly oblivious about who to blame.

 

Ambulance
“It’s Paul’s fault. I’m telling you, he purposely fell into that coma a week before our deadline.”

 

5. Over-Communicate in the Following Days

For a week or two after missing your deadline, you need to over-communicate. Keep your boss informed of how you’re implementing that correction plan. Likewise, you want to provide reassurance that nothing like that will ever happen again.

If you’ve requested additional resources, this is part of the justification. It helps your boss to set more realistic deadlines in future. Likewise, it can reduce damage to your performance appraisals. Your boss needs to see that: “Yeah, he lacked the resources first time around. I guess you really can’t build a network server with two shoelaces and a pork floss bun.”

It might guilt your boss into thinking she’s partly responsible. And in the process, shave an angry one-liner from your annual review.

 

Guy staring out the window
“Out here boss. You didn’t answer your phone, so I climbed this window to hand you the report.”

 

Image Credits:
Alan Cleaver, Abeeeer, Victor 1558, thms.nl, bark, ernstl, Zach Klein

Have you ever missed a deadline at work? Comment and tell us how you explained it!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.