4 Tips to Manage Expectations for Better Living

By Dave Ulrich | July 11, 2017

Expectations shape attitudes. Attitudes drive behaviors. Behaviors deliver results. Expectations impact relationships, daily routines, and work. 

Expectations shape attitudes. Attitudes drive behaviors. Behaviors deliver results. 

Expectations impact relationships, daily routines, and work. 

Marriage counselor John Gottman found that in marriages (or relationships) that last, 65 to 70 percent of problems are never solved but worked around, partly by moderating expectations of each other. 

Lower end restaurants, hotels, and stores have far fewer customer complaints than their high-end counterparts because of expectations. 

Two leaders each receiving a 4.2 (out of 5.0) on a 360 feedback score may have very different responses based on expectations.

Measures of employee experience, engagement, meaning, retention, and productivity are often shaped by expectations. 

Expectations often range from low to high. We lower the expectation bar as a defense mechanism to temper disappointment: “What else did I expect?” An employee who does not expect to receive the promotion is less disappointed when he is passed over for that career opportunity; a customer is less disappointed that a product or service fails by not having high expectations (it is hard to be disappointed with the $1.99 breakfast). 

The danger of the low expectation bar is that employees quit trying and customers quit buying. 

We raise the expectation bar to challenge ourselves to try harder and do more. We raise the expectation bar to take risks, grow, and deliver exceptional results. We tell ourselves, our kids, and our employees, “You can do anything. Be all that you can be!” Leaders set aspirational visions of being the best and stretch goals or assignments to increase effort and accomplish more than is normally possible. The danger of the high expectation bar is that missed expectations can lead to disappointment and a pattern of failure where employees quit trying and customers quit buying (same outcome as expectations set too low).

How do we manage this expectation paradox of lowering the bar to avoid disappointment and raising the bar to reach new heights (see figure 1)?

Let me suggest four tips to manage this expectation paradox so that expectations lead to positive attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes.

1. Failure is the opportunity to learn. 

Carol Dweck’s focus on a growth mindset suggests redefining failure as an opportunity to learn. When expectations center on learning and growth more than outcomes and results, we make progress. Struggling in a relationship or missing a goal is normal and enables learning. When a relationship ends, rather than blaming, it is helpful to learn to improve future relationships. When a personal or business goal is missed, it is better to run into the failure and learn from it. When expectations are about failure being an opportunity to learn, we can turn a vicious circle into a virtuous cycle.

2. Get real. 

I have coached well-intentioned, aspiring leaders who want to have a great marriage, be actively involved in raising kids, serve in community organizations, consistently be in the top 5 percent of performance ratings, be promoted rapidly, and run a seven-minute mile. Achieving all of these is not likely, at least not all at once. Aspirations should exceed resources, but not too much. A close friend is proud to have run (walked) a fifteen-minute mile because it was progress even if not perfection. Not everything worth doing is worth doing well, and, as my wife has taught me, some things are so important to do that they are worth doing poorly as we slowly learn to do them better. Realistic expectations enable real progress.

3. See and seek patterns, not isolated events. 

When an airplane flies from point A to point B, it is almost never on the direct line between these two points. It is constantly adjusting and making course corrections. But the plane will still arrive at point B (hopefully). In relationships and at work, it is dangerous to overstate a single event. A leader said, “I tried asking my team their opinion on a project, and it did not work. I will return to my previous style.” Managing expectations means focusing on a longer term goal (arriving at point B or learning a new leadership style). Isolated events may deviate but should not derail that process. Expectations are too often short-term, quick fixes, which, like fad diets, don’t often work (been there, done that). 

4. Be humble and engaging in public; be ambitious and driven in private. 

Coaches often give different talks to players in a private locker room than to the media in public. In private, they remind players of their gifts, hard work, and likelihood of victory. In public, they acknowledge the quality of the opponent and the challenge of winning. Likewise, what we tell ourselves does not have to be the same message that we broadcast to others. Quiet and personal confidence does not have to become public bravado to make progress. I can have very high personal expectations of what I believe I can and should be able to do. But my public statements engage others and share credit. 

Expectations shape all aspects of our lives.

At work, leaders who manage expectations of employees help employees reach their potential. Employees who manage their expectations of themselves learn, grow, and find fulfillment from work. I have friends who have abandoned their organization because they expected it to be perfect. Managing relationships requires expectation patience—so does participating in an organization. 

In relationships, as we manage expectations about our companions and friends, we can build sustainable social connections that enrich us. When learning, realism, patterns, and private commitment characterize our relationship expectations, those relationships will likely be more fulfilling and meaningful. 

As we manage expectations about our identity, strengths, and passions in our personal and daily living, we can be more at peace with who we are than at odds with who we are not. 

So, what do you expect . . . of yourself, your colleagues, and your organization?

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Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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