Leadership Development: Expectation Management

  • 6 mins read

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, eating 12 grapes at midnight is customary for good luck in the coming 12 months. Some carry an empty suitcase around the block, hoping for 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 tends to be optimistic in their worldview tends to have greater success, better health, and longer lives. However, beliefs and expectations must be based on achievable reality. You see, expectations profoundly affect 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

Two variables must be considered in managing expectations: our expectations of others and our expectations of ourselves.

What was the last expectation you set for someone else?

Chances are, it was the completion of a clearly understood task. Or was it?

Our expectations are often implicit; we don’t 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 our pursuit of goals and 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 x and succeed, dopamine will slightly increase.
  • 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 is that for many of us when we 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 vaccinate when they are eligible, we have no real control over these variables.

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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 and adaptive and maintain these habits throughout 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 events. You can, however, adjust your expectations.

Strategies to Exceed Expectations

Accurate expectations give you peace of mind. They can also propel you to take on more challenges and achieve greater goals.

Consider this: what was your last experience with something or someone that exceeded expectations?

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

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

6 Key Strategies

1️⃣ Adopt an optimistic mindset, and expect progress, not perfection.

2️⃣ Be specific. Outline what you must do daily to realize your desired results.

3️⃣ 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.

4️⃣ Determine how you’ll evaluate progress.

5️⃣ Exercise your grit. Grit is the willingness to commit to long-term goals and endure despite difficulties.

6️⃣ Fuel your willpower muscle. Rest helps you recover quickly and remain positive. Completing small tasks reinforces your willpower muscle.

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 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 stepping in mud occasionally. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment or the prospect of never reaching your potential.

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