Expectation Management

What are your plans to bring in the new year? Will you celebrate?

Maybe this is the year to try a new custom from a different culture. For example, in many Latin cultures it is customary to eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in the coming 12 months. Some carry an empty suitcase around the block in hopes of a travel-filled new year. Others hang an onion on the door as a symbol of rebirth; a chance to start anew.

Of course, hope, optimism, and positivity are important. They help us set and achieve goals, another common tradition for the new year. However, optimism can be dangerous when planning and forecasting. Realism is key when making decisions, committing large sums of money, and setting certain expectations.

Research has found that almost everyone who has a propensity to be optimistic in their world view tends to have greater success, better health, and longer life. However, beliefs and expectations must be based on achievable reality. You see, expectations have a profound effect on our energy, drive, and happiness.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted,” Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg writes:

“It feels like the whole world is tired. Even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.”

This is an ominous warning, and an opportunity for expectation management.

Expectation Variables

There are two variables to consider in the management of our expectations: our expectations of other, and our expectations of self.

What was the last expectation you set for someone else?  Chances are, it was the completion of a task which was clearly understood. Or was it?

Many of our expectations are often implicit; we don’t actually verbalize or negotiate our expected outcome. This sets us up for resentment. Instead, we need to manage our expectations with clear communication.

What about your personal expectations? Did you achieve the goals you set for yourself this year? Why, or why not? How do you feel about that?

Our perception of our experiences is critical to the way we pursue our goals and achieve success. At the end of the day, our happiness level can be measured by the number of expectations that were met. That’s why setting conscious, realistic goals and expectations is so important.

Unrealistic Expectations

The adage, “hope for the best, expect the worst,” might seem like a way to protect us from disappointment, but the truth is, it doesn’t.

Researchers have found that:

  • If we expect to get xand succeed, there’s a slight rise in dopamine.
  • When we expect to get x and get 2x, there’s a greater rise.
  • But, if we expect to get x and get .9x, then we experience a much greater drop.

The real solution is to be adaptive, rapidly flexible, and understand what is in your control.

For example, we have certain expectations about the rollout of the new vaccine and a return to “normal.” But, the truth of the matter is that for many of us, when we will receive it is yet to be seen. And, in order to reach true global herd immunity, 70% of the world must be vaccinated. While we can encourage others to get vaccinated when they are eligible, we have no real control over these variables.

Realistic Expectations

A more realistic expectation is that we may need to continue our habits of wearing a face mask, frequent and proper hand-washing, and even social distancing for quite some time. We can remain flexible, adaptive, and maintain these habits through-out the next year.

When we have doubts, or when we fall into the gap of unrealistic expectations, we can focus on the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Remember: things are. People are. You are. What you expect of them—and yourself—makes all the difference in your personal level of happiness. You can’t change people, things, or event. You can, however, adjust your expectations.

Strategies to Exceed Expectations

Having accurate expectations gives you peace of mind. It can also propel you to take on more challenges, and achieve greater goals.

Consider this: what was your last experience with something, or someone, exceeding expectations?

Chances are, you clearly recall the feelings you had. When expectations are exceeded, we actually experience a hit of dopamine, making us feel good.

We can harness the power of this physiological response to manage our expectations, and, if we combine it with a few key strategies, exceed our own personal goals.

6 Key Strategies

  • Adopt an optimistic mindset, and expect progress, not perfection.
  • Be specific. Outline what you must do on a daily basis to realize your desired results.
  • Create contingencies. Predetermine when and where you’ll take action to avoid the traps of distractions and other competing commitments. The best tactic is “if/then” planning: If X happens, I will do Y.
  • Determine how you’ll evaluate progress.
  • Exercise your grit. Grit is the willingness to commit to long-term goals and endure in spite of difficulties.
  • Fuel your willpower muscle. Rest helps you recover quickly and remain positive. Reinforce your willpower muscle by completing small tasks.

When facing disappointments, you may be tempted to dwell on unmet expectations, and even use them as an excuse to lower your expectations. But this will prevent you from reaching your goal. Instead, take control of negative emotions. Recognize the emotion, and allow yourself to experience it. Then, shift your focus to what you can control.

We have goals and we have excuses, some of which are true and valid. This is the hard part. It’s always helpful to work with an executive coach who can help you navigate your blind spots and develop greater self-awareness. Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back for being courageous enough to turn weaknesses into opportunities for growth.

Also recognize that putting your best foot forward means you’ll occasionally step in some mud. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment or the prospect of never reaching your potential.

The Need for Kind Leaders

Is your organization led by kind leaders?

This year has been like no other. Most leaders and managers are eager to put it behind them. Yet, we’re not out of the woods. A culture of kindness will make it easier.

Researchers have found that kindness is associated with better and stronger physical and mental health; relationships, teams, and communities; life satisfaction, and even economics. According to researcher and psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, “The science of human emotion, kindness and goodness are not to be taken lightly, they are actually good for our bodies and minds.”

Unfortunately, uncertainty, increased stress, and frustration have challenged and tested many organizational cultures: the way we collectively perceive, think, and feel at work. Add to that tribalism, polarity, and over exposure to vitriol, and incivility is easily sparked. Organizational culture is damaged, and left unchecked over prolonged periods, altered.

The Importance of Kind Leaders

Over the past two decades, thousands of employees have been polled about their treatment at work. According to research referenced in the recent Harvard Business Review article, 98% report experiencing uncivil behavior, often prompted by thoughtlessness, rather than malice. Common forms include:

  • Interrupting others
  • Discussing other employees
  • Acting in a condescending manner; belittling someone and/or their contributions
  • Arriving late; responding late (or not at all)
  • Ignoring others
  • Negative eye contact—giving the side eye, dirty looks, rolling eyes, or staring
  • Yelling, shouting, and/or verbally assaulting others (insults, harassment)

While subtle forms (and microaggressions) are often easier to overlook, they erode engagement, morale, and ultimately, organizational culture. Managers, and leaders, must intervene, not in kind, but in kindness. Being kind can boost oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. In turn, our outlook, creativity, efficiency, and productivity improve.

The Leadership Skill of Kindness

Kindness is an interpersonal skill that requires a certain amount of strength and courage. Even though sympathy and caring for others is instinctual, consideration, empathy, and compassion are often required to lead and support others with kindness.

Kind managers understand that there is no kindness in allowing problematic behavior to continue. They have the difficult conversations with their employees to prevent ongoing failure. They work to improve the lives of others. How? First, they cultivate feelings of kindness.

Put Kindness on Your Radar

To be sure, it’s easy to focus on the negative. But when we intentionally look for acts of kindness, our bodies are rewarded in a very positive way.

Research from 88 studies involving over 25,000 participants found that those who witness an act of kindness—from cooperative action to comforting someone in distress—increase their own kindness at work.

When people witness others being praised for their kindness, motivation to act kindly also increases. However, the more time that passes after bearing witness to a kindness, the less inspired people feel.

If you’re not already, keep a journal. Make a note about acts of kindness at work. It could be a simple list with name, place, date, and action; a folder of emails; a collection screen shots; whatever works for you. Also consider the social conditions that prevent kindness at work.

Practice Self-Kindness

First, recognize the hard stuff. Here are two important questions to consider:

  • In what ways has life become more challenging?
  • What is the current state of your social ties?

Think of times when you felt a strong connection with someone—a meaningful conversation; a shared success or loss—and journal about the experience.

Then, recognize ways life has gotten a bit better. Have you been able to spend more time with family? Have you explored or developed different interests? What about greater understanding of different perspectives, beliefs, or opinions?

Reinforce your self-worth. Honor who you are, and act with authenticity. Exercise your power to choose, especially when it comes to attitude.

Finally, tackle the hard stuff. Prioritize ways you can strengthen your social ties.

Establish friendships at work. Clear boundaries and a willingness to make difficult decisions are necessary. This requires emotional courage and specific skills to avoid the formation (or reputation) of an exclusive clique. Wise leaders and managers practice mindful kindness.

Practice Mindful Kindness

There are two components of mindful kindness:

  • Consideration and action regarding the social conditions, practices, and policies that prevent employees from finding the good in human nature.
  • Random acts of kindness conducted in mindful ways that are sensitive, inclusive, and equitable.

Both of these components focus on treating everyone with mutual care and respect:

  • Practice honesty with consideration. Brutal feedback is not kind. Be clear, direct, and compassionate.
  • Show you care with unconditional acceptance. While you might not like or accept certain behavior, separate the action from the person.
  • Step through fear to do what is right, right now. Be courageous, and practice justice and compassion for all.
  • Welcome others into your circle. Extend kindness to everyone; grow your circle of friends.

Even the smallest acts of mindful kindness can go a long way, especially under the microscopic gaze of others. While the biochemical boost is powerful, research has found it only lasts three to four minutes. That’s why it’s so important to make kindness an ongoing daily practice.

Expanding Kindness to Community

A new analysis of studies reveals that witnessing goodness inspires us to be kind. When we see or hear about people acting kindly or helpful, we are inspired to do the same. Even the smallest gesture can have a meaningful ripple and go a long way.

In Working Knowledge, published by Harvard Business School, researcher, professor, and author Boris Groysberg and journalist Susan Seligson identified seven simple phrases we can use to communicate kindness.

Words of Kindness to Use Everyday

  • “I hear you.”
  • “Are you okay?”
  • “What can we/I do to help?”
  • “How are you managing these days?”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “I know you’re doing the best you can.”
  • “Thank you.”

Incorporating these phrases into our daily conversations expand kind communities. They help to satisfy our need for love and belonging, and create unity.

Daily Kindness Practices

Kindness in community sustains our capacity to thrive. When given freely, it moves beyond our immediate circle (family, co-workers, organization) to our greater community, through:

  • Service: reach out to those around you.
  • Responsibility: take positive action wherever you are.
  • Integrity: do the right thing.
  • Tolerance: Honor the strength in diversity.

Tara Cousineau, PhD, author of The Kindness Cure (New Harbinger Publications, 2018), writes that “how we learn from our past and envision our future depend on how we choose to live in the present moment.” When kindness is our north star, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness become natural, and spread exponentially.