Expectations - June 2011

This month I have been thinking about expectations. 


When my brothers and I were growing up, my mother had very firm expectations that all three of us would go to university and get a degree.  She had no expectation regarding what career path we might choose and in reality, one of my brothers has an arts degree, the other a business degree and of course I chose engineering. What was not a matter of debate however is that we would all be university educated.


As I think about her expectations now - I realize just how powerful a motivator they were for all three of us. I was probably the least influenced since I always felt that university was my best chance at actually providing for myself. (In terms of manual skills, I am the type of person that measures three times, cuts once and still gets it wrong...so any career that was reliant on me building anything using my hands was a sure path to bankruptcy and financial ruin.)


As far as my brothers are concerned however, one is gifted in a creative way and has parleyed his gift into a successful television career, while the other is the most practical, hands on problem solver you could ever imagine and just the kind of guy you want around when something difficult needs doing. He operates a successful business that demands a high degree of practical innovation and personal resolve.  I sometimes wonder if either of them would have actually gone to university had it not been for my mothers "expectation" that it was going to happen. There is no doubt however, that we were all driven to "achieve" in this way because of her expectation and I believe, are all better off because of it. 


Expectation can also be viewed from a very different perspective where instead of motivating it feels more like being set up to fail or even a bit like manipulation. My clients often judge expectations in a negative way based on their experiences at work. Their stories include being on the receiving end of statements such as: "I expect that you will stay here at work until this project is finished", and "I expect you to have all of the answers our client is looking for in this meeting!"  In such cases, expectations can be demoralizing and downright terrifying.


So as a leader, what is the difference between having high expectations that result in a positive outcome versus high expectations that may be seen as negative or manipulative? Two things come to mind for me.


First of all, positive high expectations are seen as a worthy challenge by the recipient and ultimately will benefit the recipient in some way, such as an increase in capability or competence. In this way, expectations can be a component of "championing" albeit with a bit more of an edge. Positive expectations are grounded in the idea that: "Because I care about you, I expect you to grow, develop and contribute to your fullest potential." It also strikes me that the consequence of failing to meet positive expectations is not that severe, e.g. there is no "threat" implied.  In my mother's case, none of us doubted that her love for us was unconditional.  She may have been disappointed had we not all been granted degrees but it would not have changed her feelings for us one bit.


Secondly, I have also noticed that positive high expectations tend to have a longer time frame than negative ones. I think this has to do with creating the opportunity for the recipient to empower themselves in a way that will result in those expectations being met. In our case, my brothers and I knew what had to be done in terms of marks etc., to get into university and if we did poorly on a course, it was well within our ability to retake an exam, repeat the course or get extra help in support of us achieving the ultimate objective. On the other hand, setting an expectation just prior to walking into a meeting is not empowering at all - it is terrifying and the principle difference is one's ability to actually do something towards meeting that expectation.


So as a leader - expectations can be very motivating in the same way that championing people can be.  Clearly, such expectations have to be configured in a way that enables the recipient to feel supported, challenged and empowered, otherwise setting high expectations is just another tool in the manager's demolition kit right beside those perennial favorites: threat, fear and intimidation.


One other thought on expectations from a personal perspective.  This past week, I signed up for a 5KM walk in support of a local cause.  I told everyone I was going to walk.  I made sure people knew that I wasn't a runner.  In essence, I created low expectations in everyone who knew I was participating.  At the end of the day, when I was perfectly honest with myself, I knew I was going to try to jog as much of it as I could.


So - the only reason I can think of for setting up such low expectations for myself in the eyes of others was the need to protect my fragile ego from failing to meet any higher expectations.  I sandbagged people!   


In retrospect, it seems to me that my approach to this event was driven solely by "ego fear" and lots of residual "hot buttons" around my athletic abilities (or lack thereof).  As someone who likes to think of himself as being reasonably emotionally intelligent, it reinforced for me just how long and challenging the journey of self awareness and personal authenticity can be.  I do know that the next time I take on such a challenge, I will be loud and proud about "giving it my all" and doing the best that I can do. I also know that the personal satisfaction of pushing myself to do the best I can do will far outweigh any ego driven need to put in a "competitive showing" in comparison with others who are participating. In this example, a positive expectation has much more to do with the "process" rather than the "outcome".  This may very well be the biggest difference of them all in differentiating between the positive and the negative when it comes to expectations!



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