Well, What Did You Expect?


Well, What Did You Expect?

Whether managing employees, building client relationships or navigating through our personal lives, we are often disappointed when those we partner with or love closely let us down. In this article, we will explore how those disappointments stem from our expectations, and look at some tools that may reduce those disappointments.

To be clear: Having expectations about how others behave is not a bad thing. It is a normal human function and drives much of what we do. But we also know that we often experience disappointment when our expectations are not met. This can manifest in our lives in myriad ways, from the mundane to the serious.

An employee is habitually late to the office, a driver cuts us off with their bad driving skills, or one spouse lies to the other. We quickly blame the other person for their shortcomings or even malintent.

Let’s consider, however, that the source of our disappointment may not be the other person’s behavior but our own expectations that we have created for that person. You may think, “Duh, everyone should know that you should be on time to work.” That is exactly the perfect time to examine expectations. When you catch a case of the “shoulds,” it often sounds like this:

“She should know how to run that report by now.”

“If he can’t manage his team, he shouldn’t be a manager.”

“No one should be treated that way.”

“You’d think she would have figured it out by now.”

“You ought to [insert your wise unsolicited advice here].”

Whenever the word should appears in your language, it is an opportunity to explore its source and determine whether the other person can fairly be held accountable for the failure.

What is an expectation anyway? It is a belief focused on someone’s future behavior or a future event. It is, however, rooted in the past. Expectations grow out of one or more of these three sources: your Values, your Vows or the Variables that surround you.

Your Values derive usually from things you may have been born into, such as your culture, family history or tradition, or your religion. These are deep-seated belief systems that shape the very way we look at the world and everyone around us. It is easy to imagine the number of rules and mores that evolve into what people should do and how they should behave. If someone is not of your religion or culture and they behave different from what your value system dictates, it is easy to pass judgment or be disappointed in their actions.

The next source is Vows. These are conscious affirmations — the rules and guidelines to which we voluntarily agree. Some of the easiest examples include marriage or public service, where we are reciting — publicly — that we agree to behave in a certain way toward another person or to a group of people. Vows also can include what we do in our career, particularly when we agree to work for a company or another person. We enter into a contract for service, and often there are written lists of rules, employment agreements, or contracts that dictate the expected behaviors.

Finally, there are the Variables in our daily lives that include ever-changing laws, social trends, styles and public opinion. What may have been appropriate to say or do during the ’50s may be frowned upon during the ’90s, etc.

Shakespeare is often quoted as having said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” I will take the liberty of expanding on that for our purposes here:

• Unexplored expectation is the root of all heartache for yourself.

• Unexpressed expectation is the root of all heartache for others.

Your Values derive usually from things you may have been born
into, such as your culture, family history or tradition, or your religion.


First, when you have an unexplored expectation, you may not even know why you are upset at the other person. It is easy in that situation to blame the other person for letting you down. It may be as simple as recognizing that the other person doesn’t share the same belief system or isn’t subject to the same rules as you.

Which leads to the second heartache – the unexpressed expectation. Let’s say you are clear about where your expectation is coming from; however, if the other person does not know you expect them to behave a certain way or they haven’t agreed to it, you are virtually guaranteeing disappointment in the future. And it won’t be the other person’s fault. But they will suffer from your upset and judgment.

Whether you are managing a team, working with peers, raising children, or just living in a world where you have to interact with anyone, a reliable way to reduce the number of upsets you have when dealing with others is to:

1- Listen for any shoulds in your language, then ask yourself “Who said?” “Why is that?”

2- Look at your Values, Vows and Variables and ask “Where is my expectation coming from?”

3- Does the other person share it? Does the other person know it? Have they agreed to it? Can I fairly hold this person accountable for not meeting the expectation?

Only when you have explored those questions can you enter into communication with the other person that results in clarity and collaborative development.

Nedy Warren, Esq., SPHR, is a Vice President of Human Resources at ABM. She leads the HR function for its West Region of the Business & Industry Group and national coverage for its Sports & Entertainment Group. Contact her at Nedy.Warren@abm.com.

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Nedy Warren
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