Expectations and Upsets

December 1, 2021 | Peter Cronin

We form expectations all the time. Some of these are due to past experiences, some are from observations of what happens to others (be it a factual or fictional event), some are because we were told something would be a certain way (like a tourism website), some simply because we felt it ‘should’ work a certain way in order to be fair. And in many cases, fair really means appropriately beneficial to me.

What’s the problem with expectations?

On the surface expectations seem fine, in fact, in many cases where they are fulfilled they are even favourable. The issue is when we have an unrealised expectation we can get upset. This is far from favourable. In a personal context, it’s not a nice feeling, but in the workplace, it can be even worse. Getting upset over something is an emotional reaction, often a fear of loss, a fear of an unrealised gain, or just a fear of an unknown/lack of control over the situation.

Think of a big deal that you were sure would go through, you might have started planning how to spend the cash, or worse started spending it already. You’ve relaxed thinking it is in the bag, then the unthinkable happens and it falls through!

Compare that to a big deal that you were really on the fence about, when that falls through you accept it and move on, perhaps to things you had prepared in the meantime.

Upsets can occur particularly strongly when two or more parties have assumptions that are opposed and therefore expectations of what the other party would or wouldn’t do can be wildly different. When these expectations come to a head by not being met is when the sparks really start to fly.

Like any emotional response, this leads to a rash, in-the-moment reaction. A decision that can damage relationships, plans, and our bank account.

Where do expectations come from?

They can be hard to pin down. Expectations can come from assumptions we hold about the way things are or the way they will be, but how the assumptions got there is the tricky bit. Some people build up stories in their head, many of us imagine what could go right or wrong, but the issue comes when we start to consider these outcomes a certainty just because we thought about them so much. Every sitcom has an episode about the main character meeting their future spouse and going on a first date only to experience some horrible upset. Upsets from the other person not being that into them, already being married, or many other more extreme circumstances dreamt up by the writers.

We can be more confident about where assumptions come from in situations where we have past dealings with the same person or business or prior experience with the situation. We’ve certainly had a few ‘to be’ participants on the BBIT, particularly the in-person one-week course, asking us questions based on their experience at different training courses or conferences. One stands out in particular where someone asked for a detailed agenda so they know which classes to attend. Oh, dear. It’s not that kind of course…

The final common type are expectations which come from the assumption that nothing has changed. That is, assuming people will do as they usually do, assuming everything is going to plan, assuming others will understand, and a large one; assuming others have the same assumptions as you!

What can we do to limit or resolve unrealised expectations?

The short answer is; we need to clarify situations and communicate any changes. In practice, what you do will depend on a few factors.

  • Start with communicating anything that has changed as soon as possible. Usually the longer you leave it the worse it gets. Hiding the situation while hoping to change or resolve it can leave you in a worse situation. It is better to declare that there is a risk that things have gone awry and you will let them know how you get on with solving it. This won’t always be becasue something has actually gone wrong, but it might be that someone has an expectation that won’t be realised. In the BBIT example above, I was quick to contact the person and explain the course structure in a bit more detail, then I confirmed with him that the course still suited him.
  • Consider the importance of the situation. The more critical the situation, the more communication should be had. Further, you can go a long way to limiting other’s likelihood of upset by seeking to be clearer and clearer about the situation. This will usually feel strange the first few times you ask, what feel like, blatant questions, but people will almost always appreciate it. An example of this is confirming directly that you have permission to invoice for services before issuing the invoice. It might seem like something that feels obvious, but getting it wrong can quickly lead to an upset on a few peoples behalf.
  • Finally, consider the person or situation. What is your experience with them, if they tend to expect things more solidly, or get more upset that usual, you’re safer to ‘overdo’ the communication and clarification.

What about my own expectations?

This is easier said than done, but try not to build them up more than they are likely to occur. You can look forward to things and plan for things of course, but don’t expect them. Another more practical way is to communicate your expectations and assumptions to others – particularly when working with people you don’t know as well. This will give them the opportunity to clarify the situation. Asking the question also has a funny effect. When you seek clarity your mind switches gear to accept that the situation may not be how you thought!