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Expectation management

How to manage expectations and why it's important

Managing others' expectations of you

Make expectations explicit

  • Get others (your boss, customer, ...) to tell you what they expect from you
  • Frequently ask for feedback regarding the extent to which you are satisfying these expectations
  • Make sure your role and responsibilities are clear in the projects/meetings you're involved in
  • Make sure there is a shared understanding of what the priorities are
  • When you get a task, make sure you know what success looks like. What are we trying to achieve? What must happen for us to be happy with the outcome?

Benefits:

  • No stress from uncertainty or from assuming that others' expectations of you are high and unrealistic
  • You might find out that you can significantly improve your performance in the eyes of your boss/customer by slightly shifting your priorities or doing something small you didn't do before
  • You might find out that something you've been spending a lot of time and energy on actually isn't that important
  • You know whether these expectations are realistic or need to be adjusted

Adjust others' expectations to be realistic

  • Tell others what they can expect
    • Don't just assume that your boss or customer knows what's going to happen, how long something is going to take or what things can go wrong and what the impact would be
    • Responding to requests with something like "sorry, we know of the issue you're reporting but it's very low on the list of priorities right now" or "sorry, we're absolutely swamped right now and will not be able to handle your request in the next few weeks" is typically still better than keeping people waiting for a response
  • If you found others' expectations to be unrealistic, explain this to them and also explain them why
  • Providing alternatives can help
    • "I can't do X, but I can do Y if you like"
      • Example: "I can't call today, but we can schedule a call for tomorrow morning"
      • Example: "We can't get a proper fix to production this week, but we could deploy a small adjustment today that creates a workaround for the issue"
    • "I can do X, but only if I can take Z off my plate"
  • When something happens that has a big negative impact on your ability to achieve the planned results, communicate this as soon as possible

Benefits:

  • No stress from working on something while knowing that you'll never be able to meet the expectations
  • By telling others what they can expect, you can also take away some stress and uncertainty at the other side of the table
  • The sooner you communicate that something is going wrong, the easier it is to find a solution, find alternatives or adjust the plan (and potentially also other plans further down the line or higher up the management chain)
  • Adjusted expectations can make a huge difference in how others view your performance

Underpromise, overdeliver

  • People are happy when their expectations are exceeded and unhappy when things don't live up to their expectations
    • The same outcome might be perceived as either very positive or very negative based on the expectations that were set
  • When setting expectations, don't promise anything if you're not confident that you can deliver it even if a few things go wrong
    • Clearly indicate the fact that things can go wrong and what their impact could be
    • The more uncertainty, the lower you should set expectations
  • You might be able to please people in the short term by giving them an unrealistically optimistic estimate, but that will backfire once they find out that it doesn't match reality at all
  • Example: You're asked for on estimate on how long a task will take. You know from experience that it can be done in 1 day if everything goes well, but due to a lot of factors it can take up to 5 days if luck is not on your side
    • If you say you can do it in 1 day, the other person will likely be happy about it, but there's a very big chance you will have to disappoint them later on when the task turns out taking 2-5 times your estimate
    • If you say you can do it in 5 days, the other person might question your estimate as being way too high, but they are likely to understand when you point out the risk factors. If you then end up completing the task in 1 day, they will be thrilled. If you end up needing the full 5 days, they will still be happy, because they adjusted their expectations (and maybe some expectations further down the chain) to your conservative estimate
  • Example: Someone asks you for help, but you're not sure if you can find the time for it given your other commitments
    • If you tell them you'll make it happen and then end up not finding the time, they will almost certainly be disappointed
    • If you tell them you most likely won't be able to do it, they will likely appreciate every minute that you can free up to help them
  • Note: Don't take it too far
    • Don't set expectations that are so low that it takes no effort at all to exceed them
    • If you keep giving unrealistically pessimistic estimates, people will stop paying attention to them

Managing your expectations of others

  • When you ask someone to do something for you, make it clear what your expectations are and give them a chance to adjust those expectations if needed
  • Remember that others are imperfect and will make mistakes
  • See also Pragmatism and imperfectionism

Managing your expectations of yourself

  • Make sure not to set unrealistically high expectations for yourself
  • Ask yourself (and your boss): "What are reasonable expectations for someone in my position?"
  • Remember that, even if you are generally competent at your job, it's expected that there will be specific situations where you make mistakes
  • See also Pragmatism and imperfectionism

Resources