We got talking about expectations in a session I was facilitating last week. The conversation was like a giant projective test; quickly exposing the participants’ core ideologies about people, and relationships, and trust. Some of the people around the table talked about the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy and how setting lofty goals can inspire others to deliver. Others were more cynical about expectations, believing that they are the source of disappointment and even heartbreak.
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope
I suppose it’s true what Alexander Pope says. If you have no expectations, you’ll never be disappointed. That’s the “never disappointed but never satisfied” end of the spectrum. I’m just sad for people at that end. What a lonely, disconnected way to slog through the world.
Instead of sadness, I get angry at people on the other end of the spectrum; the “hopeful but always disheartened,” folks. They set ridiculously high expectations and then externalize their own failures, finding someone else to blame for not measuring up.
But reality is not binary. Not everyone is either going it alone or holding out for a hero. Many people are doing practical things to create middle ground and get their expectations met.
Here’s what you can do to get your expectations met:
Set Reasonable Expectations
If you want to have your expectations met, you can’t make them so lofty that mere mortals will fail in pursuit. You need to calibrate your expectations with past performance, competing priorities, existing capabilities, and anything else that provides context about where to set the bar. You don’t need to place the bar in the same spot as last time, but don’t crank it so high that there’s nowhere to go but under it.
If setting reasonable expectations feels more like settling, you need to work out those issues for yourself. What’s behind your unreasonably high expectations of others? Are you more ambitious? If so, are your expectations of your colleagues less about them doing the current task well and more about you getting the next promotion? Are you frightened of something and passing your fear on to others? Are you abnormally detail oriented, or proactive, or creative? Do your expectations go way beyond what’s actually required? If so, ask yourself whether it’s fair to impose your hang-ups on your colleagues.
Communicate Your Expectations
I could have called this post “The #1 Thing You Need to Do to Get Your Expectations Met.” If I had, this would have been the one and only point. If you want your expectations met, you have to let them out of your head. One of my favorite book titles is, “Hope is Not a Strategy.” That perfectly sums up what you do when you hold expectations of people without communicating them; you just hope they’ll live up to your expectations. It’s not likely.
Don’t sit with a secret answer key waiting for everyone to fail your test. Out with it! Communicate with people to let them know what you’re looking for and what good would look like. You’ll notice that I said, “communicate with” people. That’s very different from communicating at them. Which leads me to #3…
Modify Your Expectations
You are not the only person in the world with expectations. Sometimes your expectations will clash with competing priorities, scarce resources, insufficient capabilities or other annoying realities. If you want your expectations met, you need to consider these factors and get aligned around what is possible. It’s the people whose expectations are unyielding in the face of constraints that are repeatedly disappointed.
Even with the most reasonable expectations, you are deluding yourself if you think you can just walk away and return to everything being completed as expected. (Unless you have a Fairy God Mother. If you do, carry on.) But if you don’t have a Fairy God Mother, check in every now and then and see how things are going. Is the person on the right trajectory? If not, what course corrections are required to get things on the right track? Do you need to revisit #2 and #3 and consider revising your expectations?
Checking in gives you the opportunity to change tack if the current approach isn’t working. Maybe the project needs more resources to achieve the goals. If you check in, you have the chance to change the course before you wind up disappointed.
After the work is completed, it’s too late to change anything for this assignment, but it’s time to start setting yourself up for success in the next one. I keep trying to explain this to my daughter’s teachers. If you don’t mark one assignment before the due date for the next assignment, how do you expect her to know what she needs to do differently? Don’t get me started on how some teachers set themselves up for disappointment.
Just don’t make the same mistake. Provide detailed, constructive feedback about where the work did and didn’t meet your expectations. Share ideas for how it could be better next time. Take ownership of the spots where it was your behavior that got in the way, rather than the other person’s.
Learn and Adjust
The cynical crowd just moves on after someone disappoints them, chalking it up as more proof that no one is trustworthy. The people who get their expectations met learn and adjust. They build capability, improve communication, secure resources, revise timelines and do the things that will make it easier for everyone to accomplish even more next time.
Think about your own expectations. Are you reaching for the stars but failing to take anyone along for the ride? Or are you keeping your expectations low to protect yourself from disappointment? Try using a conversation about expectations to really connect with people. Engage them in realistic expectation setting, get aligned around what’s possible, check in to keep this on track, and then learn and grow and set things up for even better results in the future.