Are Your Expectations Hurting or Helping You?

Posted by Todd Smith

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Expectations—we all have them from a very early age, yet many of us don’t learn how to set and manage them, if at all, until well into adulthood.

From the child whose birthday wishes are never quite fulfilled, to the spouse who always feels as if he/she is the one who’s giving more, to the manager whose team never seems to get it quite right—the expectations we set for ourselves and those around us have the power to influence our success and satisfaction in life.

Because expectations have such far-reaching, powerful consequences in every area of your life, I’m excited to share with you some of the best advice I’ve ever learned when it comes to setting proper expectations for yourself, those around you, and those you lead.

Consequences of Unmet Expectations

When we set false or unrealistic expectations, we put ourselves at risk for a host of unwanted outcomes ranging from perpetual frustration and disillusionment to damaged relationships. Even worse, the negative experiences of unmet expectations are a serious drain on our motivation and often lead to a spiral of negative thinking. Here are a few common examples of self-talk that illustrate this point:

“…If he won’t do more in this relationship, why should I?”

“…I’m very disappointed, and I’m going to make sure it shows through my behavior!”

“…If Joe isn’t making calls, why should I?”

“…It doesn’t matter what I do. Things are never going to change.”

On the other hand, the benefits of learning to set proper expectations are many and well worth pursuing. People who have mastered the art of expectations generally have more positive attitudes and a happier outlook on life. They experience fewer disappointments and less discouragement.

Three Categories of Expectations

You can begin to set proper expectations—those that are appropriate and realistic—when you recognize that there are three main categories of expectations.

1. Expectations you set for yourself

You know what you are capable of, but be careful about setting goals or expectations for yourself that are unrealistic. There is a fine line between pushing yourself to do better and setting yourself up for failure. It’s important to find that line so that you don’t limit your own accomplishments or, at the other end of the spectrum, end up feeling depressed and unfulfilled.

One effective way of finding the right balance is to keep in mind that expectations should be incremental. Change does not happen overnight, no matter how much you want it.

For example, if I am committed to remembering the names of people I meet at a networking event and only remember 2 out of 10 names, then setting a goal to remember 3 or 4 the next week is more realistic than expecting myself to remember 8 names.

As you explore the right increment for your personal growth, never lower your expectations to a level where you are no longer challenging yourself. The day you stop challenging yourself to become a better person is the day you begin falling back in life.

2. Expectations you set for your family, friends, and colleagues

Whether or not you are consciously aware of it, you react all the time to the outcome of expectations you set for those around you. In personal relationships, take care when considering what you expect of others.

Because every person is unique, no two people see things exactly the same way. Therefore, it’s simply not realistic to expect that people—even those closest to you—always know what’s in your heart and mind and are actively working toward meeting your expectations. When you start counting on others to meet your unspoken needs and desires, you set yourself up for grave heartache and disappointment.

In my personal life, I expect things from my family, friends, and business colleagues, but my expectations are realistic and appropriate to the relationship. Furthermore, to be fair and to avoid my own disappointment, I do my very best to consistently communicate those reasonable expectations.

3. Expectations you set for those you lead

In a management position, you should obviously set expectations for your team, but it’s critical that they know, understand, and agree to the expectations you set for them. Expecting those you lead—whether it’s at home, at work, or in the community—to fulfill expectations you have not clearly communicated is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and dysfunction.

Expectation Check Up

How do you know if the expectations you’re currently setting are appropriate? If you find yourself constantly disappointed in yourself and in others, you are likely setting expectations that are unrealistic or too high.

Will you commit to examining the expectations you have set for yourself and others?  Here are a few checkpoints to get you started.

  • What do expect of yourself? Are your expectations realistic and aligned with your goals? You should always strive for improvement, but make sure that it’s incremental and achievable.
  • How are your current expectations affecting your relationships with your spouse, friends, and co-workers? Don’t make a list of the things they should be doing to make you happy. Instead, make a list of the things you can do to make them happy. When you do, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your personal level of satisfaction.
  • Know that your expectations are not the same as everyone else’s. That’s normal! If you’re in a leadership position, don’t set expectations that have not been clearly communicated, no matter how basic they may be. Remember that Basketball Coaching Legend John Wooden started every season teaching his players how to put on their socks to avoid getting blisters!

If you set realistic expectations for yourself and those around you, you’ll avoid many of life’s blisters and enjoy happier, more fulfilling relationships.

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About the Author:

Todd Smith is a successful entrepreneur of 34 years and founder of Little Things Matter. To receive Todd’s lessons, subscribe here. All Todd’s lessons are also available on iTunes as downloadable podcasts.


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