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How expectations impact outcomes

Thought Leader: Rachel Botsman
June 27, 2022
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Are you good at setting clear expectations?

I’ve almost finished a renovation project on my home. Never again! I’ve struggled with the mess, the daily decisions but mostly expectations around when it will be finished. When we started, the builder said we’d be done by the end of March but the porta loo and scaffolding look like they’ll be around for a while longer!

Expectations touch so many life experiences, from exam grades to bonuses at work, and from job interviews to the weather on holiday. Disappointment creeps in when reality does not meet our expectations. That’s why this week we’re rethinking expectations to understand how we can get better at setting them.

Two types of expectations

An expectation is a personal belief that something will happen in the future.

There are two different sides to expectations — what we expect from others and what we expect from ourselves. And how we set and “manage” those expectations shapes how we experience situations and trust other people.

You may have heard of the equation:

Disappointment = expectations – reality.

According to this formula, the way to sustain higher happiness is to maintain lower expectations (our happiness levels are inversely proportional to our expectations). But is this the most useful way to think about expectations? Are high expectations actually dangerous?

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Understanding what is in your control

My husband isn’t disappointed by the weather on holiday. Unlike me, he doesn’t check the forecast weeks out; if it rains, it rains. I form a detailed image of what the holiday will be like based on the 14-day out predictions on BBC Weather (checked against other weather websites, of course).  So, when it’s pouring and we’re still playing Scrabble on day three I feel resentment.

There are three things I’ve learned from holiday weather that are powerful principles we can apply to expectations in the workplace:

1.   Understanding what is in your control and what is not is critical in managing expectations.

2.   Getting too fixed on the way you want something to turn out often leads to disappointment, which in turn can lead to resentment.

3.   When we count on something happening, we make plans. Our minds start to think something is guaranteed. This can get in the way of adapting expectations and even lead to risky behaviour.

Let’s think about this through a work lens — for example, getting a bonus. If you expect the bonus before it’s been promised for that year, you could spend the money on something you can’t afford. And then when you don’t get the bonus, you’re left scrambling to make up the difference.

The solution often recommended to solve disappointment around expectations is to simply lower them. But this idea doesn’t sit well with me. Optimism, for example, involves the expectation that things are likely to get better.

So how can we think differently about expectations?

Possibilities to live into

Carol Dweck, the author of The Growth Mindset and a professor of psychology at Stanford University, makes an important distinction between having low expectations for things like the weather on holiday versus expectations about ourselves.

“Having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not getting anywhere,” Dweck says.

Motivation often comes from the expectation that we can do better

In a wonderful book called The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Roz Zander, they discuss how any kind of leader — a teacher, manager, or parent — has two choices when it comes to expectations:

1.   Give grades as an expectation to live up to.

2.   Offer grades as a possibility to live into.

The second approach, the authors argue, is far more motivating.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra gives an “A” grade to all his students at the start of the year rather than at the end. It comes with one condition — his students write him a detailed letter dated next May describing what they did to achieve the “A” grade, and the performer they will become by the end of the course.

Society at large tends to treat “A” students quite differently from students who are given a C.  It’s a wonderful example of reframing: from living up to expectations to living into possibilities.

“The practice of giving an A transports your relationships from the world of measurement into the universe of possibility… This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.”

— Benjamin Zander

The effect of expectations on our actions

Zander’s practice is based on notable studies conducted by the psychologist Robert Rosenthal testing what is known as the Pygmalion effect. Rosenthal has spent much of his career examining “expectancy effects,” which is the influence a researcher’s expectations can have on the outcome of an experiment. In one study, Rosenthal labelled two groups of rats as “bright” and “dull.” He told his researchers that some of them would work with the supposed “dumb” rats and the rest of had the “bright” rats. Over the course of the week, the researchers conducted the same maze experiments. The results were not even close. The “smart” rats did twice as well as “dumb” rats — even though the animals were actually the same.

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Rosenthal discovered that high expectations led to better performance and low expectations led to worse — each leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this experiment, expectations in the researchers’ heads changed their behavior toward the rats in subtle but powerful ways. For example, the “smart” rats were handled more gently by the researchers, which impacted their performance.

Benjamin Zander observed something similar from decades of teaching musicians: His expectations impact his behavior toward his students, which has a positive impact on how they perform.

Think about the power of this principle: Your expectations — your belief about another person (or yourself) — can impact an outcome.

Warmly, Rachel

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