Managing Expectations: In Business and in Life

Are you optimistic about everything, assuming it’ll live up to your expectations, or cautious – not getting too excited in case it doesn’t happen? Annie Ridout looks at when it’s good to lower, or manage, our expectations

We have a little joke in my house about how negative my husband is. Well, I say negative – or pessimistic – he says ‘realistic’. For instance, we have (rare) plans to go out and party, I say: I can’t WAIT to get dressed up, go out and get drunk. He says: it will probably be shit.

Over the years – seven, in August – I’ve become as accustomed to his ‘realistic’ attitude towards life as he has to my stupidly optimistic (or unrealistic) perspective. I look forward to everything, he looks forward to nothing. About 50% of events are brilliant so we end up about even. Except that he never got his hopes up in the first place, so it’s only ever me who feels let down.

I realised, at some point, that while I like to err on the positive side of things, it can occasionally pay to manage your expectations. You see, there are some things in life that you can control, and some that you can’t – and with the latter, going in expecting a bit less than you’d like means being pleasantly surprised if you’re wrong, or feeling no way if you’re right.

What can happen when you manage your expectations…

For example: you’re going on holiday with your toddler. Abroad. This means early morning flights, 50 suitcases full of nappies – and you have to pay for every single one of those 50 because Ryanair are so tight – an awkward transfer at the other end on a big public bus exactly when the toddler will need a nap and arriving in an apartment made up of unguarded stairs, because you didn’t read the brochure properly.

You have two options. You could be like me and ignore every possible cause for frustration/acute anxiety/panic attacks; remaining blissfully in denial that anything could possible go wrong or even be in the slightest bit inconvenient. Or you could be like Rich, my husband, and spend the weeks leading up to the holiday sharing your fears about how excruciatingly not-fun the whole thing is going to be. I’ll tell you from experience that expecting the worst – and planning for it – is a whole lot less stressful in this situation. Take the lowered expectation road.

But what about in business, or the workplace – where should expectations lie here? When I was preparing to launch The Early Hour, I told a friend that I’d be publishing an article a day. Really, she said, isn’t that aiming a bit high – what if Joni (my daughter) is ill and I don’t have time to write one, won’t that look bad, she asked. I said that yes, it would, but that it also wouldn’t happen. I would make sure I had something to put up each day.

Should your readers/customers have high expectations?

And so, since the launch in September, one article has been published at 5am each morning. Sometimes I’ve spent a few days panicking about whether I have enough articles in the pipeline, other times I’ve had 30 scheduled in advance. Either way, I just have to make sure that tomorrow an article goes up. And that it’s a good one, as I want people to keep coming back. As Annie Pace Scranton says in this Forbes article, you should ‘under promise – over deliver’. Not the other way around.

So when it comes to managing readers’ expectations, there is no debate: they should have high expectations, and The Early Hour should live up to that. Always. But when I think about the behind-the-scenes, it’s a slightly different story. Because I’m asking the people I interview – who might be mad busy mums, the CEO of a company, or both – for their time, I am at their mercy. They might postpone, cancel, or just not quite deliver and I have to go along with that.

And so in business, it becomes clear that when someone is doing you a favour – like giving you their time – even if it is also in their interest, you should manage your expectations because it’s just possible that it won’t happen. Or won’t happen when you expected, or won’t happen in the way you imagined it might. However, when it comes to your customers (or readers, in my case) – there is no space for error. You are offering a product and they should be able to rely on you to not let them down.

But what about expectations in your personal life?

How does this feed into your personal life? Well, when it comes to relationships we will be occasionally disappointed. Perhaps you have a friend who is always late, or who cancels last minute without a good excuse? Maybe your partner says they’re going to take the bin out each week but never does and you end up doing it. Or perhaps, as with the holiday mentioned above, you might assume every trip away will be perfect. Whatever it is: expecting a little bit less than you’d like will reduce disappointment.

BUT – if you treat the people close to you in the same way as I try to treat my readers, or another business treats their paying customers, by ensuring that you deliver, every time, exactly what you’ve said you’ll deliver, you’ll know that at least you’re keeping up your side of the bargain. And knowing that your friends/family can have faith that you won’t let them down is a big deal – for you and them. It also means they will likely up their game in return. And in both home life and business, that’s surely the most valuable thing: a trusting, loyal, two-way relationship.

What are your thoughts on managing expectations, do you like to go in expecting everything to be amazing or do you find yourself erring on the side of caution?

Photo credit: Alan O’Rourke