Manage Expectations So They Don't Manage You

Expectations. There are two ways they can shackle you, and make your professional and personal lives far more difficult than they ever need to be. 

But, Alli, expectations are good! It’s a good thing to have standards and expect for them to be met.

Ah, yes. Standards are mandatory.

But there is a critical difference between having agreed-upon criteria for behavior or performance, and “expectations.”

By definition, an expectation is not an agreement between people; instead, expectations are beliefs that a certain outcome or event will happen.

Expectations are purely conjecture about what the future might hold, based upon strongly held assumptions. 

Let’s start with an example to illustrate the concept.

A college professor I know of once told his Philosophy classroom about his wife’s recent birthday. He’d planned everything he knew she’d love, so that when she arrived home she’d be wonderfully surprised. He had prepared her ideal meal, the lights were dimmed and scented candles were lit. The centerpiece contained her favorite flowers, and the music was exactly what he knew she’d want. 

When she walked in, she said, “Ugh. I’ve had a horrible day. I’m not even hungry. I’m going to go take a bath.” 

The Philosophy professor told his class how he was originally very angry. How dare she? He worked so hard! Where was her appreciation?

Then he realized that she failed to live up to his expectations, but that isn’t her fault. The expectations were his; she had no obligation to fulfill them.

In this story is a valuable lesson we can take with us throughout all aspects of our life. Expectations should be avoided, otherwise they can cause grief for all parties involved. The professor was originally upset that his wife didn’t react the way he’d anticipated, and his wife was shocked and upset that he was angry with her for simply wanting to take a bath at the end of a long day.

We’ve  all had similar experiences, whether or not we realized at the time that expectations were the culprit. But we can manage the expectations that could arise in our life, so that we aren’t affected by their consequences.

So I started by stating that there are two ways that expectations can shackle’s time to delve deeper into each of them!

The first type of expectations is when you have expectations of others, as in the example of the Philosophy professor. 

The second? Is when others heap expectations upon you, as the wife of the professor experienced.

Knowing each of these potential pitfalls, and more importantly how you can avoid them, is a life skill that will serve you well as you go through your day, from business to family and everything in between. Once you being to recognize them, you’ll be surprised at how often throughout your day expectations are at play.

Managing Your Own Expectations

Once we understand that our own expectations are nothing more than our best guesses sculpted into theory. These best guesses are really- at their core- our deeply held opinions mixed up with a big dash of hope.  

But we don’t need to fall prey to them!

3 Ways to Avoid Having Unrealistic Expectations 

1. Never assume.

When in doubt, ask. Ask your friend, coworker, child...ask what it is they want or need in any particular situation. It’s so easy to assume that your spouse is going to want their favorite meal for their birthday dinner. But really they might just want to take a quiet bath. 

It’s easy to assume your assistant knows exactly to whom you want your memo emailed; but they might send it to the wrong department. Save yourself time and effort; ask in advance.

2. Realize that removing expectations from your relationships, both personal and professional, is not only wise, but kind.  

Being misunderstood never feels good. Human beings, even the most hermit-y amongst us, really thrive on feeling that they are connected with others. 

When expectations are projected onto others, the consequences can be very uncomfortable when the assumptions fail and they feel that they’ve not lived up to...well, expectations. 

3.  Enjoy what your life looks like today. 

This isn’t about expectations of others; this is about having expectations of yourself. 

All too often we compare ourselves to others and fall short in one way or another. Then roll in those fantasies and dreams that really are just expectations in disguise, “As soon as I get that raise, I’ll be happy.” “Once we’re married, I’ll feel content and like my life has really begun.” “All I need to be fulfilled is x, y, z.” 

Nope. Revel in the day you have today. Don’t mistake expectations for goals. Goals are fabulous and as a coach I’m all for them; in contrast, expectations just make people feel bad.

3 Ways to Manage Other People's Expectations

A bit more difficult than managing our own expectations is managing other people's expectations of us. But you can do it, and it is absolutely worth investing your time and energy into.

How? By being proactive in key areas.

1. Communicate. 

In business- Over-communicate. Communicate redundantly. Communicate like crazy. Let others know exactly what your boundaries are; when you’re available or not, your firm boundaries, where you are and are not flexible, your timetable, etc. Don’t leave anything up to chance.

In Life- It is just as important to over-communicate with others outside of work as inside. Just like you want to let others know what your boundaries are, what your plans are and your preferences, it is important to share all these things and more with your friends and family. If no one knows how to please you, they everyone loses.

If Aunt Betty knows when you are coming to visit and exactly how long you will stay, then she is less likely to anticipate you staying longer and feeling hurt when you leave.

2. Anticipate Problems.

In business- For big projects, sometimes it’s worth spending a few minutes “catastrophizing.” That is, imagining a half a dozen worst-case scenarios and how you they could occur. Then articulate to your team a few key points that ensure those scenarios do not happen.

In Life- This translates to non-business situations as well such as a family trip or home remodel. My husband is the king of anticipating every possible outcome and being prepared for everything and making decisions to ensure things go well.

3. Know the biases of others.

In business- Think about any common history or relationship you may have had with them; do they give you any clues as to their perspective? This likely speaks to how they are coming to the situation with preconceptions; preconceptions grease the wheels for expectations.  In this scenario, you can use expectations as opportunities. Not only can you anticipate what they might expect, you can under-promise and over-deliver. Win-win!

In Life- Knowing where your friends and family stand on certain issues and their core beliefs can help you have compassion for and communicate better with them. 

Show Expectations Who’s Boss

Once you understand the role of expectations in your everyday interactions, you’re well on your way. Remind yourself...goals are not the same as expectations! Goals are concrete based upon reality and facts, expectations are beliefs based upon hope and opinions.

You’ll feel empowered once you being implementing the strategies, for both eliminating expectations of others, and for not allowing others to have expectations of you.

Having this understanding will enable you mitigate and navigate expectations, so that you manage them...not the other way around.

Now it's your turn-

What ways have you seen unrealistic expectations hurt business and personal relationships?

Here are some tweets to share:

Don’t mistake expectations for goals. (Tweet this)

Managing expectations of ourselves and others is a key to success. (Tweet this)

Our own expectations are nothing more than our best guesses sculpted into theory. (Tweet this)