The Trick to Managing Expectations Well

managing expectationsEverything became much easier once I learned a simple secret to managing expectations.

I was able to shed a lot of anxiety and stress. I was able to more skillfully juggle competing priorities.

Which was a great relief. Because there is a lot of anxiety and stress that comes with staving off angry or disappointed people who need something from you.

It seems like work is crazier these days. We seem to be in an era where “doing more with less” has settled in as the norm.

But this hasn’t changed anyone’s expectations.

And everyone seems to want their thing to be priority number one.

That’s why I was glad to realize a key insight into working through that constant struggle.

Let me explain.

Unrealistic expectations

A lot of times, perhaps too often, work goes something like this: Some issue becomes urgent. Then, a meeting of riled-up people occurs. A plan is hastily devised, then carved in stone.

That stone is handed to you.

Now you spend your time carrying that stone around with all the other ones. You make piles of stones. Rearrange them. Try to organize them. Chip away at some where you can.

Progress is slow and cumbersome. Dates slip. More piles on. It becomes harder and harder to see how to work through it all.

Yet, everyone still expects you to deliver. Top quality. Quickly. Without letting anything else get in the way.

In today’s work environment, you can’t easily prevent unrealistic expectations.

But you can change how you respond. Which can help start to shape expectations into something more reasonable over time.

And that’s the trick. Expectations are to be negotiated.

Don’t accept the stone and just live with it.

Bringing it back to the goal

goalUnrealistic expectations are often born from an overly simplistic view of the problem or solution.

In “negotiating” your way to something more reasonable, you are probably going to have to do some educating. As you’ve begun your work, you have no doubt uncovered new information.

With this new information, you might need to refine the definition of the problem. You may have a more nuanced view of the solution–and its broader implications in a variety of areas.

You might have learned that you will need to incorporate the insights, advice, and opinion of others.

All of this needs to inform the original expectations. That’s when you circle back to have exactly that discussion.

But a whole bunch of detail isn’t going to do the trick. Most likely, that will just make it feel like you are slowing things down.

Which is why you need to keep your communications all about the goal.

That’s what brought everybody to the table in the first place. They came together with a goal of solving a problem or meeting some need.

If you are in agreement about the goal, then the rest of the conversation can be guided by that shared objective.

Aligning as collaborators

The most important thing you need to underscore in this ongoing conversation is that you are focused on the goal. You know the desired outcome. You are working hard to make that happen. Not only quickly, but thoughtfully.

As others get a good sense of your commitment, they will gain more confidence in you and your approach. They will trust that you are on their side.

That will make it easier to engage them in a more collaborative discussion of what it is going to take to reach the goal.

Now, you must also make an effort to see things from their perspective.

It can be nerve-wracking when someone is making (maybe unrealistic) demands of you, and they are relentlessly focused on getting the thing done.

Just as you will help get them on board by sharing your insights, strategies, and important details of your work, you must strive to understand them better.

Why is this so important to them? What happens if this thing doesn’t work out? What other pressures are they under?

In a word, empathy.

The more you can appreciate their perspective, the more you can get on board with helping them.

You can become a better collaborator with them, just as you are hoping to get them to be a better collaborator with you.


Frustrations can bubble up pretty easily in a busy work environment where a lot of people are under pressure. We can start to put a lot of demands on each other. Sometimes pretty unrealistic demands.

One thing we can agree on (hopefully) is goals and outcomes. By staying focused on the end-game, we can make wise decisions as we work through the details of a problem or the nuances of a solution.

The more we can get on the same page, the more we can act as collaborators. This means taking shared ownership. And, wherever possible, taking the time to understand and appreciate each other’s perspective.

Once you are in this collaborative mode, it’s much easier to negotiate various deadlines, approaches, and compromises that might be necessary to reach the goal in the best way possible.