Don’t Manage My Expectations

It’s received wisdom by now that you should manage expectations. How could you argue with that? Nobody likes to be surprised on the downside. But as with many platitudes, the devil is in the details. And there are a few devils lurking out there in expectations-management land.

Always Exceeding Expectations

Exhibit 1 is the mantra to always under-promise and over-deliver, perhaps as a way to achieve customer delight. The problem is, if you consistently under-promise and over-deliver, you are – in an important sense – lying. You are deliberately telling your customer (or whomever) one thing, and then doing another. How else to describe that form of managing expectations?

The downside is that, over time, it destroys your credibility. Whether it’s stock analysts looking at your quarterly guidance, or employees expecting you to top last year’s ‘surprise’ holiday bonus, once you say one thing and do another, the only expectation you’ve ‘managed’ is the expectation that your future behavior will resemble what it was – an under-promise – not what you said it would be.

And so the party you’re trying to influence makes their own mental adjustment to counter-balance your expected over-delivery– negating your attempt at ‘management.’ Except that another degree of uncertainty is added on each end.

Managing Attitudes

There’s no question that a good attitude helps with life. Measured optimism, a propensity to trust, a positive outlook – all these increase the odds of positive interactions with others. Whether you expect ill or good of another person, that’s probably what you’ll get.

But what if an entire generation is raised the Lake Wobegon way, believing they’re all above average? What if self-help affirmations are of dubious benefit because on some level we don’t believe what we’re trying to tell ourselves? What if corporate and political spin get so bad that they destroy our trust in the very institutions and people who are seeking to manage our expectations?

Attempts at managing attitude are utlmately seen as patronizing. Whether it’s “don’t get your hopes up,” or “you should feel really good about this,” we resent others doing our feeling for us. We want the right to determine our own reactions, therefore our own attitudes.

Managing Expectations the Right Way

It is true that bad surprises are not a good thing. It’s also true that expectations aligned with reality (or slightly more optimistic) are preferable to living in a fantasy world. The problem is not with the noun ‘expectations.’ It comes with the verb – it matters who does the ‘managing.’

I want to manage my own expectations. You can help me by telling me the truth. That means six things:

  1. Be transparent. Get way past just not lying to me. Tell me all the truth you have access to. Make it a policy to give me access to data-without-interpretation.
  2. Prove to me – over and over– that I can depend on you. Promise me lots of little deadlines and meet every one of them – precisely, on the money, not ‘over-performing.’ Do exactly what you said you would do.
  3. Trust me. Share things about yourself with me that I could misuse against you, take risks on me that allow me to over-perform. Because then I have a chance to prove to you how competent and trustworthy I am.
  4. Respect me. Give me the data and let me make up my own mind how I feel about it. Don’t spin me, don’t tell me how I should feel.
  5. Be straight with me. If you do see my expectations careening out of control, and you think I’m about to make a serious error, then pull me aside and tell me straight; don’t sugar-coat it.
  6. Hold me accountable. Call me on my bullshit; confront me when I fail to deliver on time; be forthright with me when I let you down. And let me know that you expect me to do the same.

The best way to manage my expectations is to treat me like an adult. That’s my truth anyway; what about you?