Don’t Manage My Expectations

“An expectation is a pre-meditated resentment.”  So goes one interesting saying aimed at managing our own expectations.

But what about managing others’ expectations of us?

  • Have you ever done a small extra favor for a client, just to show your good will, and then ended up getting called out for not doing it repeatedly – even though it was outside the scope of your original contract?
  • Have you ever over-promised in an attempt to close a deal or a budget?
  • Have you ever under-promised in order to make sure you could over-deliver on a contract, or a sales target?

Setting expectations is a major issues in our professional relationships. All these situations are fraught with peril – let’s just focus on the third as a case example.

Always Exceeding Expectations

You know this one – the mantra to ‘always under-promise and over-deliver,’ perhaps as a way to achieve customer delight. 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?

Over time, this 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 intentional sandbagging – 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 ultimately 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 for you to manage my expectations is to leave their management to me – that’s hard enough.

2 replies
  1. Frank Piuck
    Frank Piuck says:

    Charlie, when I was newer to my business and did not try to manage expectations I had unhappy clients. When I take on a job I really don’t know how long it will take. Generally I am within 25% of my initial estimate, but the error is asymmetrical. Jobs I estimated at two hours have taken ten hours. So I tell my clients I expect a job to be between 8 and 12 hours or 16 to 24, or 80 to 120. Usually that is satisfactory. Sometimes I get push back to tighten the range, which has generally been an early warning of an unpleasant engagement. As a purchaser of services, I expect uncertainty as well, but I am much more unhappy at under delivering than under promising.

    Reply
    • Charlie green
      Charlie green says:

      Frank, I think we’re actually in violent agreement. I’m not saying don’t give any estimate, I’m saying do the best estimate you can, then do the best you can to meet it. Which I think is what you’re saying too.

      Though I’m sure you’d never put it so abstractly, what I hear you saying is “I’m about 90% confident that I’ll end up within 25% of my original estimate.” Which to me is precisely right, you’re telling the maximum truth known to you at the time (and you presumably then try to hit your target date).

      I also hear you – when I client pushes back on a good-faith estimate, i raise my eyebrows too – it doesn’t augur well for a collaborative view of risk.

      Reply

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