Manage Your Expectations

david v goliathUsually our expectations are based on what we want to happen. On the other hand, what actually happens depends on what we do, or if your expectations are from other people, what they do.

Clearly there’s something wrong with this world since it doesn’t exactly conform to our expectations – however there’s always something to be done to a) align your expectations to match reality and b) align reality to better match your expectations. It’s a two-way street, and all you need is a better understanding of how people tick.

Let’s start with what we know:

  • Expectations = how we want things to happen, quite different from how they actually take place.
  • Our expectations will alter our perception of reality. Wants and Reality are separate worlds. I want to be the greatest sportswriter in the history of mankind – I’m just a fraction short by current estimates (your mileage may vary).
  • When dealing with people, we do a shockingly poor job of conveying our expectations from the outset. Everyone thinks like us because a) that’s the right way to think and b) there’s only one reality, our own.
  • Worse, we suck at estimating the expectations of others (see above).
  • We’re very good at exporting responsibility for actions (needed or already carried out) away from ourselves. If I *want* a new car, that means the world is responsible for making it happen, not myself. Sometimes I think all of this can be summarised into two words: grow up.

Now, let’s talk about how you can better manage your expectations – both from yourself and from the world around you.

1. Understand what needs to happen before expectations become reality – follow the process from start to end, ask for help if you aren’t familiar with it.

A simple example: If you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume over a period of time. The amount of weight you lose will then be determined by the difference (between burning and consuming), the time you give yourself and whether your methods don’t produce an adverse reaction (starvation isn’t always the best answer).

A not-so-simple example: If you want to make money online, there are many different business opportunities available to you, although in most cases you won’t know where to start. You could first need to explore your options (selling services vs selling products vs content + ads vs affiliate marketing and more), and for this you’ll need expert advice. Once you’re better informed, you will then have more decisions to make and those decisions will reshape your expectations as well give you a clearer picture on how to turn your wants into reality.

2. Before you start, clearly state your expectations (i.e. the desired outcome) and ask for commitment.

If your expectations are from your own life, then the commitment must be with yourself as well. The idea to move past stating desires and on to stating specific outcomes, the steps that lead to that outcome (what you are responsible for) and committing – preferably with a time-based deadline – to each step and the ultimate outcome.

If another party is involved, the situation changes to include the expectations of both sides and both sides knowing what needs to be done (and what they are responsible for) before any commitments are made.

By committing to specific actions instead of the final outcome (what needs to be done vs what you want to happen), you can know ahead of time where you’ll have difficulties in getting things done and then, either ask for help or find an alternative solution to that specific step.

If no commitments are forthcoming (either because you feel something is too difficult or because the other party disagrees), you can re-evaluate your initial expectations, modify the path to accommodate the objections or just work with someone else (of course, there’s a cost – time – involved in that as well. If it’s just you though, don’t give up, just get help.

It’s also possible that either your expectations or something in your plan of action is unreasonable / impossible given your constraints (time, resources). As always, ask someone who knows better.

3. In writing.

Write down your commitments – in fact, write down everything, from expectations to required actions to responsibilities to deadlines. Writing it down does not automatically mean you’ll get it done, but it helps in a number of ways.

For starters, it’s a useful reference guide to keep you (and the people working with you) on the right path when you’re knee-deep in execution.

It’s also a nice psychological shortcut to give the process more meaning by having a written as opposed to verbal commitment.

4. Stick to the plan.

99% of the time, you’ll want to change things – either your expectations or part of the process or even the deadlines – for the wrong reasons. Every time you want to do that, you’ll think it’s one of those rare, 1% moments where it’s the right thing to do.

You’re better than that. Stick to the original plan – unless you’ve accounted for feedback in your planning stage (something you must do if you’re unclear on any aspect of how to get things done), it’s just old habits clawing at your mind and tempting you to tamper with what you’ve already decided is the right path to be on.

Be consistent – and plan for feedback ahead of time.

5. Measure results against clarity of plan.

When you’re evaluating results, take into account how clear your expectations and plan of action were at the start. A crystal-clear plan that’s poorly executed means someone screwed up in the doing phase. A muddled plan that doesn’t achieve your expectations means people screwed up because you screwed up in the planning phase.

Time is precious – focus and create a clear plan with well-defined responsibilities, communicate this in writing before you start and ensure that all parties commit to it.

6. Expectations are a two-way street.

When you’re dealing with a project involving other people, managing expectations becomes a two-way street. Do your job and complete your responsibilities as well as you can, and convey the same desire and expectations to other parties. If someone isn’t serious, it’s not going to get the done the way it needs to be done.

7. Second chances only come once.

It’s one thing to identify a flaw in your plan that’s preventing people from doing what they need to do and accept that it needs reworking. It’s quite another to have someone repeatedly fail to meet their responsibilities.

I strongly believe in giving people a second chance, but there’s a method to it – first, you need to ensure that the failure isn’t due to a flaw in your requirements and expectations – because if it is, then you’re the one responsible for it and it’s your job to fix it. Second, you need to convey expectations and responsibilities again and emphasize that this is the only time (bonus points if you can be direct and charming about it) this second chance is being extended.

Third, if a person messes up again and fails to learn from their first experience, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be similarly slow in future projects. If they need 3-4 tries to get things right, it then falls to your plan and whether you have the time, money, patience and motivation to put up with repeated failure or if you want to jump ship and bring someone more reliable on board.

8. Use past experience and reason, not guilt.

We tend to let guilt (firing someone you’ve hired can be traumatic, similarly accepting that you yourself are a repeat failure is a hard pill to swallow) undermine the most basic principle of human interaction – learning from past experience.

People seldom change unless they are presented with extraordinary circumstances that demand massive change in exchange for survival. For ordinary matters, if someone is going to give you the runaround and be consistently late in delivering on projects, swearing at them, pleading with them and throwing more money at them is unlikely to get them to respect time.

First you need to understand why people do what they do. Why is the designer ‘always’ late? Why does your editor always forget to add photos to the articles? Why does your programmer keep making silly mistakes? Understand why this happens and then try to figure out a practical solution which allows you to minimise these problems (in all three cases, setting extra-clear guidelines, conveying them at the start and going into detail on what needs to be done will cover all bases).

If the problems persist, find someone else. If you give it your best shot and people still don’t measure up to your expectations, it’s time to change expectations or change people.

I’ve heard the argument – “you won’t give up on yourself, why give up on others?” It’s not giving up, it’s a matter of meeting expectations. If you want to lose weight and you’re repeatedly fail to do so, there are two possible reasons – one, your execution is off and for this you need to rejig your plan to make it easier to execute. Two, your expectations are ridiculous – in which case you need to reconsider them (and perhaps think about losing less weight in a longer time period).

With yourself, you don’t have the luxury of changing people. You just need to learn how to manage your expectations better. But when you’re dealing with other people – specifically for business – always weigh the costs of changing expectations to manage failure as against the costs of changing people (usually the costs here are emotional and if they are financial, they are usually manageable in the long run).

Learn from experience and use reason – don’t be sucked into an emotional decision, it will blind you from the truth.

One Response

  1. paresh 9 August 2008

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