Effective Expectations

Expectations are powerful. They are uniquely human. As I work with individuals and businesses engaged in change, I often hear people say “Change is hard” or “people are not good at change”. I reckon this is a recent and not particularly useful myth. Humans have always been great at change. It’s the main reason we have achieved so much as a species. Stop for a moment and consider the incredible advances in every area of human endeavour. What we are capable of verges on miraculous sometimes. If we were not good at change we would still be living in caves. 

From the dawn of humanity we have been driven by 3 things that mean we are constantly looking to improve and evolve. We want to make things easier. We want to achieve more with less. We want to make things better. Da Vinci's inventions are great examples. He could see possibilities long before the technology existed to bring them to life.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress therefore depends on the unreasonable man
— George Bernard Shaw

We create an (often unreasonable) expectation that things can be better than their current state, and then we use those expectations to bend reality to meet us. For expectations to bend reality, they have to be crystal clear.

Action: Invest some regular time in clarifying your expectations. If others are involved communicate your expectations clearly to them. Allow time for exploration. Don’t expect people to automatically understand your expectations. 

That’s the powerful up-side to expectations. The down side comes when we hold them too tightly. Expectations cause us problems when:

  • Reality is sending a clear message that what we expect is not currently possible.
  • We persist with an unrealistic expectation.
  • We hold them too tightly, causing blindspots, frustration, judgemental attitudes, defensiveness, conflict and anxiety.

Expectations held too tightly are the root cause of death in every survival situation. Nobody leaves town for a trip expecting to die. They expect to arrive at their destination. When they become lost or stranded, they still do not expect to die - they leave the vehicle expecting to walk to help. It is neither the expectation, nor the circumstance that is at fault; it is the fact that the expectation becomes immovable in the face of evidence that suggest a different tack.

Pursuing an expectation when reality dictates a change is a short road to frustration at best, and heavy losses at worst. These three elements are all present in Shackleton's expedition.

Action: Take regular opportunities for feedback about your expectations from the environment, circumstances your face, yourself and the people around you. Be prepared to modify or discard expectations if they are not serving you.