Expectations - Friction, Tension, and Conflict

Expectations and assumptions are the root cause of most tension, friction and conflict in all areas of human relationship. Both at work and at home. Part of the challenge of human performance and effectiveness is to articulate expectations and arrive at a shared understanding of what is important. It's a collective and individual process.

Even when we choose to have explicit conversations about expectations, the territory can be muddy. We frequently use language that in itself is laden with expectations and underlying assumptions. Words like 'respect', 'integrity' and 'accountability' usually draw easy agreement. There are few of us who would argue that these are not important. But the detail of what we mean by a term like respect can be difficult to articulate for ourselves and discover in others.

This morning at 4am, I joined a lecture at the University of North Dakota, Space Studies Program. I didn't even have to leave home. The lecture was delivered by Dr Sheryl Bishop who has spent the last 25 years researching human performance and team dynamics in isolated and hostile environments. She has spent time at the poles, deep cave diving, and simulation of space habitats. She also conducted some research in conjunction with Bob Cooper on one of his Advanced Survival Exercises in the Pilbara.

Dr Bishop made an interesting point about how challenging it is to get people to even acknowledge that there is an underlying expectation or assumption at play.

She showed this photo of the crew dining table on the old Skylab Space Station. When it is not in use, the table folds down, leaving just the central pillar. Crew were moving through this room all day, and the Earth based control team noticed that they all pulled themselves around the pillar. It was so much more effort than simply flying over the top. 

When asked, the crew were unable to explain why they did it, especially when there were such obviously easier ways. After a few days of reflection they came back with this explanation. "It just doesn't seem right or polite to fly right over the top of our dining table." The crew had unanimously adopted a practice that took more effort and was based on expectations. They had never discussed it, and even when asked directly about it, took a while to identify why.

Dr Bishop's quote of the day for me was, "Often our expectations and assumptions are completely invisible, even to ourselves."

Had there been a crew member onboard who took the direct, and easier route through the dining room, this would have been a source of possible friction or conflict for the crew. In situations like that people often say things like, "He doesn't respect us." They are not even consciously aware of what the person is specifically doing to create the friction.

As leaders, subtle friction or tension is an early indicator that there are unmet expectations in play. Time spent exploring, and clarifying your expectations and those around you is never wasted. Greater clarity results in better performance, cohesion and dynamics, all of which are better for business.