Expectations. Such an interesting phenomena—watch this quick three minute video of Bobby McFerrin using the pentatonic scale to reveal a surprising result of the “way our brains are wired” and you can see why I’m fascinated with expectations. Our brains create systems and categories to help us make sense of the world around us—and that’s mostly a good thing.

However, when our expectations aren’t met, it can lead to disappointment and frustration. When a result doesn’t meet the lofty goal we set, or something happens to derail our progress (which is pretty much a guarantee, at least to some degree), it can feel jarring or even unfair—like our system of categorizing the world around us is faulty.

In the workplace in particular, expectations are powerful. It’s interesting, that in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world in which we live and work, we continue to expect precision and exactness. That said, this VUCA world doesn’t mean that everything is unpredictable, instead, it challenges us to ask lots of questions, to exercise our curiosity and get out of our comfort zones. Our ability to be agile is critical, because strategic adaptations must continually be made.

Life is messy, and yet we crave tidiness and a certain amount of control. When we set our expectations on “perfection” or attempt to use a neat approach to solve a messy problem, we are bound to be disappointed—even if only slightly—and could end up even further away from a workable solution.

What it might look like in practice, when addressing human nature’s craving for certainty, is to reassure stability and transparency of process. For your clients, for example, this might mean clearly outlining the program you will deliver and ensuring it also tackles the usual inundation of information and knowledge, omnipresent in the VUCA world, and redirects the team’s energies towards more efficient and effective processes. This might seem obvious, but it happens often enough that there is no measurement along the way or after the program is complete.

I should state, and rather passionately, that I’m not trying to suggest we avoid expectations, or stop pursuing the idea of perfection in our work or lives. Attempting to meet the internal expectations we have for ourselves and the external expectations of the world around us can help push us to try our best. Instead, I’d like to suggest that accepting the challenge—to question assumptions about our expectations—may allow a little more grace, a little more flexibility, and sometimes, even a little less calculation, making way for potentially powerful results.

I can, at times, be a bit of a perfectionist. In many different ways, this has served me well. It has supported moments of success, allowed me to accomplish both big and small goals, and I am often energized by the pursuit of precision. But, like any good qualifier, a strength can also end up working against me, rather than for me. I am working to let go of some of those expectations for myself—but it can be a struggle. What I’m seeing as key, is being honest about it, acknowledging it, and harnessing that characteristic and using it as an asset, rather than an inhibitor.

It is our ability to then be flexible and resilient that allows us to succeed in a VUCA world.  

While I like the idea of perfectionism, it’s not entirely realistic (a lesson I re-learn and re-learn and re-learn). The expectations I often have for certain things in my life, can, if not met, lead to frustration, rather than joy. Now, I’m not suggesting we all approach things half heartedly and let it all go (our expectations help us define what’s important to us, what we hold dear, and how we can measure different components of our lives), but what I am proposing is that we be a little more forgiving, a little more open and a little less rigid in our expectations. And in this case, for this particular post, especially as the idea of perfectionism relates to the expectations consultants and coaches have for their clients and the outcomes of their programs.

It can be particularly challenging as you not only have to manage your own expectations, for yourself and your business, but also those of your clients. It becomes crucial to ask a lot of questions and learn to listen really well, exercising some of the coaching questions you ask our clients. And, when a certain expectation isn’t met, asking yourself some helpful framing questions like: ‘did I accurately manage my clients expectations around the outcomes of the program?’ and ‘did I (we) accurately define those measures of success,’ among others, and then adjusting for next time.

We are wired to seek out certainty, and equations—if I do these three things in this order, I get this result. But, life is often a LOT messier than that. We want to put in a certain kind of effort, and then get a certain kind of result. As we know all too well—it doesn’t always work this way and we do not always see the results we were hoping for. We then become disappointed or frustrated. What’s important here, is to remain in a growth mindset, to continue to plan, continue to adjust and readjust again, but also, to continue to be resilient in our expectations.

If we gave ourselves a little more wiggle room, imagine the possibilities that might arise.

It definitely does not have to be perfect (and really what is?), but it does have to be meaningful, make an impact and deliver results—or however it is that you measure outcomes and success (that is a post for another day!).

So, what can you do when you find that your expectations (or your clients’ expectations) aren’t being met? Here are a few tips to help you navigate the frustration that can sometimes come along with expectations, and get back on track:

  • Clearly define what success looks like. Remember that “success” and “the exact results I was hoping for” are often two different things.
  • Proactively check-in with yourself and your colleagues about what your short term and long term expectations look like.
  • Embrace iterative modes of working. If you start with a working prototype or first draft of a project, you can then improve upon it over time. If you’re working overtime to make something “perfect” before you launch it, you may discover unseen forces in the market (VUCA can strike at any time) that foil your carefully laid plans.
  • Learn more about Integrative Thinking and explore using the model when working through challenges.
  • When the frustration of unmet expectations hits, take a deep breath (a short walk or anything that allows you to reset), and then spend some time reflecting on what went wrong.
  • Talk it through with someone! When you are deep inside a project, it can be hard to maintain perspective. Reach out to your own coach or a trusted colleague to talk through what happened.

If we ground ourselves, our teams, and our work around ongoing feedback and openness, adjusting expectations if need be, opening the lines of communication and collaboration, we can become much more agile and flexible—critical capabilities for our VUCA world.

One of the areas I like most about the work that I have the privilege of doing is that we have the opportunity to work through these questions, think about what success looks like, and address the challenges that arise. We support our Consulting Partners and help them work through their thinking when they’re stuck, or just seeking a second opinion. It’s incredible what can happen when you combine a few brains on a mastermind call or even challenge thinking ever so slightly—sometimes it really is that two brains (or more!) are better together.

The point here is not to forgo expectations, abandon the pursuit of perfection, and never seek it out, but rather, to encourage space to manage assumptions, redirect our sails to catch a more effective, or different wind, and end up with something better than we ever imagined. And that is a space in which I would much rather live!


Redefining Expectations