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?

6 replies
  1. John
    John says:


    I have been thinking about your comment that “under promise over deliver” is a lie of sorts. This has been a standard refrain in my selling career. I can see what you mean, technically it is a lie. And yet…

    Often times I have accompanied colleagues who were so intent on the sale that they will promise almost anything. Even when they will be in charge of delivery. They will believe that they can and will deliver on their promise. Then life happens. It might be a system “glitch” (that was a favorite of one colleague). It might be a key player went out ill, or an earthquake or any number of other things we have no control over. Then we miss the opportunity to match our promise with a deliverable. At this point the promise to deliver could also be considered a lie?

    Instead if I see a project that I estimate will take 3 days to complete and I set the expectation that I can deliver in five and I then am able to deliver in four days, everyone is happy. I continue to believe it is better to set a realistic expectation that leaves a little wiggle room for the unexpected.  This way you can pleasantly surprise the buyer by exceeding and you create a deposit for the “Trust” account for when things don’t meet the expectation.

    Happy New Year

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:


      Thanks as always for your “voice of reason” commentary. It’s certainly hard to argue against the careful approach you suggest.

      Sometimes, though, what cures a trust ailment is more trust medicine.  In your 3-day project case, if you wanted to be even more accurate, as well as transparent, you might tell the client words to the effect of:

        “We hit our target time of 3 days 80% of the time; 5% of the time we finish in two days, and 15% of the time it’s four. I’ll give you a quick heads-up along the way so there are no surprises for you.”

      That may sound a little elaborate for a program that may also be only 3 days elapsed time, as well as 3 days of work.  But if it’s a month’s worth of work, spread over elapsed time of several months, then I think it’s materially better to share the inevitable uncertainty that you point out with the client, rather than keep it all to ourselves under the guise of being conservative. 

      • John
        John says:

        I have been thinking more deeply on this and have concluded that the truly transparent approach is scary; particularly early in the cycle. Too many qualifiers might  scare a buyer. And yet, experience has demonstrated that many buyers actually appreciate the transparency.

        Besides if it is scary that probably means it is the the thing to do to grow.


  2. Rick
    Rick says:


    The difficult situation comes when you have a manager or executive that is having a difficult time accepting the truth or does not want to hear the truth. Any thoughts on this? We work on smashing the aspirin so that the “medicine” (the truth) can be swallowed. No one wants to make anyone sick!

  3. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:


    Great question. What you describe is of course quite common, the norm in fact. Smash the aspirin so it doesn’t trouble the overly-sensitive person.  

    Of course, as you suggest, you have then diluted the aspirin. Worse, you have validated the person’s REAL problem, which is an inability to face truths of all types.

    My solution: apply penicillin to the REAL problem, so that you can then apply un-smashed, undiluted aspirin to the symptom.  What that means in non-metaphorical terms is something like this:

    1. Take the person aside–privately, confidentially, one-on-one

    2. Tell them words to the effect of, “Listen, you’re an important person with a lot of talent; that’s why i’m taking this time.  But I’ve got to tell you, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” 

    “You have got to learn to confront issues, accept criticism, take advice – without going to pieces over it being about you.”  

    “We care about you enough to take the time to talk really straight to you; I’m going to give you one small example, but the bigger issue is you don’t hear these small examples, and you have to get better at it.”

    [All that preceding is the penicillin]

    “Now let’s talk about this particular example: Joe and Susie tried to tell you you were talking too much in the meeting – but you just couldn’t hear them.

    “Now, that’s no huge deal by itself–though I happen to think they’re right– [there’s the aspirin] – but the bigger issue is, how are people like Joe and Susie supposed to talk to you?”

    “That’s why I’m taking this time with you, and doing it private, and one on one.  This is important to you, and so it’s important to me.  We need to be able to give you advice without dancing around on eggshells, OK?   So let’s talk about how you can get better at hearing such advice, all right?”

    “And you and I both know that if you can get better at this, everyone will benefit; though no one more than you.”

    Or so it seems to me it should work.


    • Rwardrip
      Rwardrip says:


      Thanks for your insights and thoughts on giving them the REAL medicine.  This is a challenge.   Enjoyed our discussion on the phone today, and once again thank you for the opportunity to take the TQ Self-Diagnostic Test.  The results were insightfuly in ways to continue to learn and grow especially in the areas of intimacy and self-orientation.



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