The Danger (and Power) of Expectations

Have you ever gone to a movie with friends or family and walked out with completely different perspectives on what was or wasn’t good about it? As soon as the words “That was awesome!” come out of your mouth, someone says, “Are you kidding me? That was a complete waste of time!” Or how about this response, “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.” Now you’re on to something. Too often filmmakers put all their best scenes in the preview and bore you for the rest of the time. This is just another way of saying that your expectations weren’t met.

Expectations. What a powerful word! If I look close enough, I find that I expect things from everyone in my life. From myself, my friends, my server at the restaurant, even God. When my expectations aren’t met, I am left feeling angry, hurt, or disappointed (maybe all three). One of my good friends, in talking about business relationships, used to tell me that the number one thing that causes breakdown in relationships is unmet expectations. I think you can apply this principle to all relationships and almost all of life. I want to give you two observations about expectations, and then a couple suggestions on how to manage them better.

The first observation is this: We often expect from others more than we expect from ourselves. This varies depending on if we have low or high expectations of ourselves, but I have found that I generally have higher expectations for others when I have high expectations for myself. Because I am working hard to come through on certain issues, I expect everyone to do the same. This is unrealistic because everyone is different. No matter my position, I don’t have the right to impose my personal rules on other people.

Second observation: Most of the time my frustration with people is for an expectation that I have not communicated to them. This is a big one! If I have it in my head that all servers should keep my water glass full at all times, I will be disappointed when it gets empty. But if I failed to communicate that expectation (a simple “Would you mind keeping that water coming as I eat? I am really thirsty!” would do just fine), it is really unfair of me to be frustrated. It’s like expecting people to read my mind! I find this to be so true in my own life. Most of the time my frustration is all in my head. It started there, grew there, and is now spinning out of control. The only way to solve it is through communication.

That leads to my suggestions. First, try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and think about things from their perspective. This is very helpful, especially when you realize that not everyone thinks the way that you do and not everyone has your particular responsibilities, worldview, etc. Second, communicate your expectations, and communicate your frustrations. Communication brings clarity. If I am upset by something you’ve done, the best possible thing for me to do is to talk to you about it. Letting it stew and steep inside me will likely inflate the problem (and my anger) beyond what is appropriate to the situation. If I take the time to explain what I want and help people understand, I will be much more likely to have my expectations met (and I won’t be frustrated).

So guard yourself against the perils of unmet expectations. Your leadership and your effectiveness will expand greatly.

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