How to Explain Missed Deadlines at Work
By Ryan Ong
For those who lack composure, here’s how you miss a deadline and not get fired:
1. Give Earl 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.