My Gym went out of business on Friday. I know, I know, too bad for me right? Well, I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m trying to explain something important about expectations. The owners put a notice up early Friday morning explaining that they would be closing the doors for good at 5 pm. It didn’t really bother me all that much, because it didn’t really surprise me. I knew that they were having financial difficulties and that the deal they had in place to sell the facility to a prospective buyer had fallen through. So I was kind of expecting it to happen. No harm, no foul. I joined another gym the next day. Sunday morning I woke up at 730 am ready to try out the new facility. It turns out they don’t open on Sunday until 11 am. WAIT! WHAT? HOLD ON! THAT’S RIDICULOUS! I was an unhappy camper! I had some pretty choice words to say about the new Gym to my wife. And that was despite the fact that it was my own fault. I never bothered to look at the Sunday hours before I joined.

And there you have it, the power of expectation. Our expectations go a long way towards shaping our satisfaction in life. If our expectations are met – or exceeded – we feel good about the situation. If our expectations aren’t met, we are dissatisfied. If you expect to get a bonus of $10000 and you receive $8000 you will be upset and angry. If you expect $5000 and receive $8000 instead, you’ll be, as Katrina said, “walking on sunshine”. Same amount of money, just different expectations.

That dynamic plays out regardless of if the issue is a Health Club, a restaurant, a blog post or a relationship. Every interaction we have is affected by our expectations. And our satisfaction or dissatisfaction occurs even if our expectation is illogical or as uninformed as my implicit assumption about when the new Health Club would open its doors on Sunday. Yeah it was my own fault for not looking at the Sunday hours before I joined. But that didn’t stop me from being upset and disappointed with the Gym when the reality hit me. And it won’t stop your customers, your boss, your spouse or friends from being unhappy and dissatisfied when their implicit expectations about you – or your business – aren’t met, either. Which is an important point. Even if someone’s expectation is ill-conceived or illogical, (or like in my case, their own fault) if it’s not met, they will still be disappointed. And that disappointment can lead to a loss of trust in the relationship and maybe to a loss of business.

  • If you are running a business, setting clear expectations is important for customer satisfaction. If your customers believe that your business will be doing something, and you don’t do it, good luck. You’ll have an unhappy customer. It’s one reason that an upscale hotel might receive lower ratings than a budget motel. While the upscale facility is observable better than the economy property, expectations for the luxury hotel may have been unrealistically high and not met.
  • If you’re a manager, do your team members really understand what’s expected of them? Do you know what they expect from you? Have you worked through the differences to arrive at a clear understanding and agreement? If not, their level of motivation and engagement will probably suffer. That happens more often than you might imagine. According to research at the Gallup organization, only about half of employees believe that they know what is expected of them at work.
  • As a parent, the expectations you establish – implicitly or explicitly – with your children communicate mountains of information to them. Clear expectations about their behavior and effort and their responsibilities within the family lead to better long-term relationships. Expectations in areas that they have less control over – like the outcomes you expect them to achieve or the abilities you believe they should develop – can lead to relationship problems.
  • And for the rest of us, working to establish clear expectations with the people we work and live with is an essential – and often overlooked part – of building and maintaining strong relationships. One of the biggest withdrawals from the relationship bank account occurs when one or both sides in a relationship feel as if a basic expectation has not been met. It destroys the lifeblood of the relationship – Trust.

It could be as simple as expecting your significant other to call you at night before they go to bed when they travel. When they don’t, the voices start inside your head. Why haven’t they called? Are they ok? Don’t they want to talk to me? Meanwhile your significant other, who had a busy day and had no idea of the expectation, is blissfully unaware and fast asleep. Over time, even unmet expectations about seemingly little things can have a profound impact on the trust in the relationship.

Our work relationships are also built on expectations. Arriving at a common understanding with the people you interact with at work is an important relationship management strategy.

Reaching agreements with them about goals, communication, how you will work together and workplace behaviors will help put a foundation for trust in place.

Unfortunately, instead of having those conversations we often assume and act as if we share a common purpose and understanding. Maybe we act that way because we really believe it, or perhaps because we are uncomfortable confronting and talking about potential differences. Whatever the reasons, when misunderstandings inevitably occur, (and they almost always do) not only does performance suffer, but also the relationship. Blaming, disappointment and recrimination lead to less effective relationships.

So what can you do about it?

Here are 9 steps to get in front of the expectation gap.

1) Recognize the importance of expectations. Take the time – and the courage – to bring them into the open

2) Be clear in your own mind about what your expectations are. If you can’t articulate them to yourself, there’s no way they can be clear to the people you work or live with.

3) Identify the “why” of your expectations. What purpose do they serve? Are they rational and logical or are they based in emotion?

4) Make time to specifically talk about expectations with the people with whom you will be interacting. Those conversations can sometimes be a little daunting. Have courage.

5) Know what type of expectations to work towards. To create mutual understanding and set the relationship up for success, discuss and work towards agreement on:

  • Expected Outcomes – Exactly what are you trying to accomplish together? Be as specific and concrete as possible.
  • Timelines – If you are clarifying expectations about responsibilities, behaviors, goals or projects, timing may be important. Talk about “by when” things need to be done.
  • Roles and Responsibilities – Who will be accountable for what?
  • Processes – How will you work together to achieve the common goal? How will you communicate? How will you make decisions?
  • Resources – what human, financial, technical or other resources will you and they have access to?

6) Take ownership and responsibility for ensuring that both sides expectations are surfaced. It’s not enough to unilaterally share your expectations. You need to be prepared to ask good questions and really listen to identify and understand the expectations of others

7) Make your intentions transparent. Explain the why’s and context behind your expectations and help the other person understand the bigger picture. Usually, the better they understand, the easier it will be to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. If you don’t explain your intentions the other person will come to their own conclusions about the “why’s” of your behavior.

8) Be proactive. Do your best to manage the expectations – the perceptions – of the people you interact with, particularly those you provide some type of service to. I had elbow surgery recently to repair a torn tendon. After 6 weeks I was still in considerable pain and had limited movement of my elbow. I felt disappointed and dissatisfied so I made an appointment to visit the surgeon. He explained that what I was experiencing was normal, and that rather than evaluating my progress day-to-day I should instead look for improvements week to week. It was good advice; however it came at the wrong time. That was information he should have shared immediately after the surgery to help proactively manage my perceptions about my recovery.

9) Don’t overpromise. Whether it is a customer interaction, a discussion with a colleague or an interaction with your five-year-old son, over-promising leads to unmet expectations. As a rule, promise a little less than you believe that you will be able deliver. Exceeding what you promised is another deposit in the relationship bank account.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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