Louie and I took a long walk the other day and ran into our neighbor, Cindy, and her dog, Eve. Cindy invited us into their home to let the dogs play and expend some energy. When we walked in, Eve expected a treat because that’s what they do after she’s been on a walk. So Louie joined her in expecting a treat and both dogs sat perfectly still anticipating their reward.
When Cindy accidentally dropped a dog biscuit on the floor, Louie immediately snatched it and gulped it down. He sat back down again next to Eve and waited for his treat. Cindy knows “Louie speak” and said, “Lou, you already had your treat.”
Louie was shocked and replied back, “That wasn’t a treat! That was an accident; you dropped it on the floor and I picked it up. See me properly sitting here? I should get a treat because I’m sitting, just as I have been trained!”
“Sorry, Lou!” Cindy replied. I’m not sure, but later I think Cindy ended up giving him a treat because she can’t resist his big brown eyes. But the initial look on his face when reality set in was classic.
Facing the difference between our expectations and reality is a tough lesson for all of us. We’ve experienced this at Christmas. In our minds, we picture a Norman Rockwell image of a beautiful Christmas tree, a warm, crackling fire in the background, hot chocolate with a perfect dollop of whip cream, and presents stacked up to the ceiling. In reality, it’s rarely like that. While I wanted to believe in Santa forever—dreamer that I am—I had to face the reality that Santa did not exist when I found the box that held my beloved Thumbelina doll in our TV room later on Christmas day.
We’ve all had expectations that a new job would turn out wonderfully, but a year later we must face the reality that it’s not at all what we expected.
So are we setting ourselves up for disappointment by setting our expectations too high? And if so, does that mean we are settling for less and not even trying to reach a higher bar?
Leaders run into this issue all the time with employees, and we also deal with these issues personally. I think setting high expectations is a good thing but several things need to be in place to ensure we are not setting ourselves or anyone else up for failure:
- Communication is key: I can’t express enough in this blog or in any talk I give that communication is the key to genuine, authentic relationships. It is very important that we clearly communicate our expectations and in turn, listen to what barriers may get in the way of achieving those expectations. Often we have a picture in mind of what the finished product should look like but we fail to communicate that to others. Then when our expectations are not met, we blame others. In our personal lives, it is even more profound, and can be more costly.
- Make sure the expectations align with everyone’s values. Though this may come up while you are engaged in discussions around barriers, it may take additional questioning and going deeper. Many times our struggles are not always obvious in an initial conversation until we’ve had time to reflect on what is expected of us. When we start to feel conflicted, it may be because it doesn’t align with our values or focus. Additional conversation needs to take place, otherwise it may happen in an unproductive, damaging and explosive conversation.
- Be realistic: While stretching beyond ourselves is an excellent way to grow, we don’t want to stretch so much that people snap. Be realistic about expectations and setting goals. Give clear timelines and any additional assistance needed to achieve the goals.
The components above apply personally as well. How many times are we disappointed because someone did not give us what we were hoping for? I overheard Louie and his gal pal, Eve, having an interesting conversation around expectations. See if this sounds familiar:
“Happy birthday, Lou!”
“Oh thanks, Eve” he said as he looked behind her for a dog biscuit. When he didn’t see anything else, he looked forlorn.
“What’s wrong?” asked Eve.
“Oh nothing!” sighed Louie.
“Were you expecting something else?”
“No, of course not. You remembering my birthday is more than enough.” Louie feigned a smile, then sighed. “Well, okay, yes, I was hoping for a little more; a treat or something, you know.”
“Oh, no…I didn’t know. You should have said something.”
“Well, if I said something, it would ruin the surprise.”
“The surprise I was expecting,” exclaimed Louie.
“Well, how do I know what you are expecting if you don’t tell me what you’re expecting?”
“Because you should just know.”
Oh Louie! The harsh reality that others will not always meet our expectations is a tough lesson to learn. I suggest we not get so fixed on our expectations that we miss the possibility of far exceeding what our minds are capable of imagining. I believe it is good to dream, reach and imagine possibilities for ourselves—just be clear on what you expect of others.