When explaining why something didn't get done/was delayed/was done incorrectly, is it better to identify the party at fault or remain objective, but also risk assumption that it could have been your fault?


Let's assume we are ordering some kind of materials, for example, and it's a time-sensitive process.

  1. The boss (your boss' boss) wants everything needed to make Product A by the end of the month.
  2. You are in charge of getting a particular piece of Product A, and you were just notified on the 22nd (assume it's a 30-day month). Your manager has regularly scheduled meetings, but other than that nothing comes up.
  3. You submit your order, but it needs to be approved by your manager. An email is sent to them and you continue about your day.(All it requires is a quick read and a click)
  4. 2 days later, it still has not been approved, and you have seen your manager walking around and talking to associates, so you know they are not always unavailable.
  5. It's now the morning of the 25th and the order gets approved, and is sent to Company X and they begin their 3 (or 1, 2, etc) day process of fulfilling your order.

It's the 28th and now you're getting an email asking what the status is and where your products are that you were responsible for ordering.

Do you say:

  1. "My Manager, Jane, took a couple days to approve my request to fulfill the order. I did everything I could."
  2. "It took a few days to get the process kicked off due to everyone being pre-occupied. We are working diligently to faciliate the remaining processes."

I'm not in the shipping/transportation industry; sorry for any inaccuracies here.

One on hand, you're essentially saying: "Look, I know it's late, but I did my job ASAP and the remaining processes were delayed because of my manager. Do not blame me." Here, you should not get any blame, but your manager could potentially be unappreciative of you essentially saying this about them and their involvement. But, it could make sure that these things get done a lot quicker in the future. This could possibly put a bad taste in everyone's mouth about the kind of work your team/area does, and it starts at the manager. Possibly no promotion for you.

And on the other hand, you're saying: "We are a team, and everyone is working feverishly to get done what we can get done in the time frame given to us. We know we are running behind, and we will work to do better in the future." Here, your boss' boss is equally aggravated at everyone that things are running behind. Any shroud of doubt of involvement on your behalf is eradicated. This could mean no bonus for you, no promotion, negative impressions about you and the work you do, etc.


5 Answers 5


What to do?

You can simply state the revised timeline.

Company X has told us the materials should be here on the 1st of the next month.

If you want super bonus points indicate what your next actions will be. Anyone interested in the project isn't just wondering "what's the status?" they want to know "is this being taken care of? when will this be available?."

Missing a deadline with clearly communicated expectations is far less problematic than missing it with no communication. Most higher level managers don't want to blame someone, they want revised -- and accurate -- estimates and timelines to be able to better communicate and plan.

It provides much better image to be seen as someone proactively presenting solutions than one just reacting.

Was it your fault?

also risk assumption that it could have been your fault?

It basically was your fault.

You were managing a (small) project and didn't followup with those responsible for the tasks in the appropriate time.

Mistakes you made:

  • When you submit something your manager needs to approve that day it is prudent to stop by and check in with that manager
  • Don't observe your manager socializing while not approving something time-sensitive that you expect to delay a project

This is why visibility is important during the process.

If a time sensitive process (ie needs to be done in one day) is not done you must make it a priority to expedite the factors causing issues.

  • I did wonder about that aspect, thank you for addressing. I feel like this approach makes it more objective and outlines that each part of the process is a task, and we are merely ensuring it gets done, don't care by who (manager, CEO, myself) or what; just that it gets done when it needs to get done by.
    – Mark C.
    May 21, 2015 at 15:23
  • 2
    And if you've gone back to your manager to get that approval and were rebuffed, then you should go to The Boss: Tell them that you're blocked – that you don't have everything you need to do this successfully. That's always an appropriate answer. It's then their job, as a manager to clear the roadblocks for you.
    – senior-dev
    May 21, 2015 at 21:02

Contact Company X and ask them when they are shipping and when your company should be receiving. Once you get the info, you write the manager:

"I contacted the distributor today. They are shipping to us today as promised and they'll supply us the UPS tracking number when they ship. Their ETA is three days from the shipping date."

No finger pointing, no excuses, no complicated stories and especially, complicated, long and sad stories.

Now, if the shipment had absolutely to be in by the end of the month, you shouldn't have been passively waiting for two days to get the manager to sign off on the order. You should have gotten on his case the minute you sent the order to him for approval and you should have followed up by email, phone and plain physical interception either on the way to and from the bathroom or the kitchen.

Email nastygram (turning on the charm): "You instructed me to get the materials delivered to us by the end of the month, and this is exactly what I am doing. I sent you the order for approval three hours ago. I need you to approve it immediately so that I can make sure that the deadline you specified is met."

Phone call (keeping up the pressure): "I sent you a follow up note 15 minutes ago. Did you take care of my request?"

The next day (saying that I can make the pain go away): "Understand that, once you put a critical request in my hands, I will do whatever it takes to get your request executed unless you countermand the request. Send me your approval ASAP, as I need to get our vendor's butt in gear and I can't get our vendor's butt in gear until you send me your approval"

Your boss is your boss. He is also your colleagues, and you are making the point that the two of you have to work together to get it done. I defer to my bosses when they exercise their legitimate authority but no, I don't believe in kissing up to my bosses :)


There's an old saying: "Thou Shalt Not Throw Thy Co-Worker Under The Bus", which means "do not associate people's names with negative situations". This goes double for your boss. When a question like this comes up you dance your way around it, use the "team" thing, and basically do anything except name names. The one time you break this rule is when your boss's boss drags you into his office, sits you down, stares straight into your eye, and says, "I want to know WHO is responsible for this being late!". And then you're screwed, because you have to judge whether it's better to toss your boss under the bus or take the hit yourself. HOPEFULLY your boss is also present, is a stand-up individual, and says, "Excuse me - I'm responsible for this being late" - which may either mean "I caused it to be late", or "It's my team, I take the hit".


While blame is a partition consisting of parts of different amounts...

In most cases, a delay and many other kinds of issues are not caused by a single fault, but multiple contributing factors, and chances are that the factors depend on more than one person.

For some kind of mathematical definition of "cause of fault", the risk does not come from the possibility of blaming the wrong person, but from the fact that the cause is really a set of weighted factors, and even if you knew these, it is not possible to blame a set of persons in a weighted way so that it is fair enough to be used. (Part of the error comes from the interpretation of information on the receiving side.)

That means, as a practical result for dealing with any definition of fault, that blame can not be assigned correctly.
It would always be somewhat wrong, and you can not even find out to what degree.

So you do not even need any ethical, social or psychological reasons for not assigning blame - that it does not work should be enough.

What you can, and possibly should assign, is responsibility - that's what it's there for.

One could argue that responsibility is assigned faults - but I understand it as the opposite:

...responsibility is indivisible

"You are responsible" does not mean Alice and Bob, who helped you to one third of effort each are partially responsible for two thirds of the problem, so you should only take the remaining third of the blame.
It's the point of responsibility that someone is either responsible or not. So you take the full blame. If it makes you feel better, you can give both Alice and Bob a third of the blame - but that does not reduce yours. It's not moving the blame down the hierarchy, it's copying the blame down, increasing the total amount.

It does not help you much when you make them feel worse without better reason, recreating your situation two times. A solution is to not actually blame them, but just making sure they realize thy are to blame, would it become necessary to do it.

There seems to be a difference when there is a measurable part of the blame to assign to something that is outside of the controll of you and your manager, usually when a different company is to blame.
But there is no such thing like something outside of your influence, because even if the other company itself is, you could use a different one, or plan for the risk.
Or document that your job description contains impossible parts.

So take responsibility, but do devide it into partial subresponsibility. A manager knows that it's not fully your fault, and that he can not track down the exact details.

Actually, that is the reason of creating you job function in the first place, to create a layer of shielding the subtree of subcomplexity from him.


Hah. Don't blame your manager. Stay on topic and explain what happened. Focus on the timeline and the process. For example:

  1. On the 22nd, I was notified that I needed to do "blah"
  2. I submitted an order, etc., on the 22nd at 6:00PM
  3. The order was approved on the 25th
  4. The fulfillment process began, however we know this typically takes X days

Based on previous experience I would say we will have the part on "blah". You did your best and that's what matters.

  • I agree with you, and I don't want to get into a puppet game, but assuming the conversation doesn't end there. People are going to wonder why things took as long as they did, and the higher ups don't typically want to spend their time deducting things like this. What is your stance?
    – Mark C.
    May 21, 2015 at 15:10
  • 11
    "You did your best". This is not true. Not following up to ensure time critical things get done in a reasonable time frame is not doing your best.
    – Eric
    May 21, 2015 at 15:45
  • 1
    @Eric agree 100%. Firing off an email does not even remotely absolve you from any further responsibility. If it is your job to ensure delivery on time, then it is your job to follow up the email and make sure a slow response does not cause days of delay. May 22, 2015 at 0:45
  • instant feedback! was working with the assumption that the OP did ask his boss about this. Maybe, maybe not.
    – Mircea
    May 22, 2015 at 15:50

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