Managing expectations

13 Jul

How we perceive things, people or our experiences is often not determined by how good or bad they are in absolute terms but good or bad they are relative to what we were expecting them to be.  If they tell you in a restaurant that the food will be ready in five minutes and you end up waiting for 15 minutes, you will be disappointed with the service. Had they told you however that it will take half an hour because they are very busy at the moment but manage to get it to your table in 15 minutes, you would be very happy. The time is the same, but your perception of the restaurant is vastly different.

I believe that expectations management is one of the most important things to keep in mind when communicating with others. I have seen wrong expectations setting or lack of it lead to dissatisfaction many times in the past. Which is a shame because all that was missing was an awareness of the issue and two minutes to communicate it to others.

Dissatisfaction is result of a negative expectations gap – the difference between what we were expecting something to be like and what it actually was. If we the reality is better than our expectations, we talk of positive expectations gap and if the reality is worse we talk of negative expectations gap. We can therefore ensure satisfaction in two main ways. Firstly by setting lower expectations and secondly by achieving better results – both lead to increase in positive expectations gap.

People often focus on achieving better results but neglect the expectations setting part. Now do not get me wrong here, I am not saying that you should tell your boss tomorrow that you are going to do only very little work over the next year. You would probably get fired if you did that. But you can get fired just as easily if you tell your boss you are going to do loads or make him or her think so and then deliver only to your normal standards.


Expectations should be set for realistic targets for two main reasons. Firstly, as your might have guessed already, to give yourself some space to work extra hard and overachieve those expectations thus generating a positive expectations gap and satisfaction of others with your performance. But equally importantly to allow others to plan accordingly and be able to rely on you delivering what you promised to do. Things can go less smoothly than anticipated sometimes and if you fail to do what you promised, others who were relying on receiving your output would get into trouble. And if you get people repeatedly into trouble, they will stop trusting you and working with you (that’s quite obvious, huh?).

I am now doing my final project at LSE, my university, and I have been very careful to set the right expectations with my client (in this case one pharma consultancy) and my academic supervisor as to what the project will cover and what the project will not cover. I set myself a realistic plan at the beginning which I am following on time to everybody’s satisfaction and people are generally happy with how things are progressing.

One my friend is in charge of a not-for-profit organisation and had an annual review meeting with her team earlier this week. One of her team members did not think the meeting is going to be anything serious, just a group of friends meeting, and when she got questioned why she did not achieve her plan she was very defensive and felt somewhat hurt afterwards. She had wrong expectation from the meetings.

The concept of expectation setting can be applied to all areas of life where we are dealing with others and even when we are dealing just with ourselves. We all get surprised sometimes how well things worked out when we were not expecting it at all. Perhaps our satisfaction then stems at least partially from the positive expectations gap we had.

So next time you are doing something, ask yourself what expectation are you setting for others and if you feel they are not very realistic, go to every length you can to rectify it. It might seem like a difficult discussion to have occasionally, but it would still be probably hundred times easier to what the discussion might end up being like if you do not do any expectations setting at all.

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