Let Go of Expectations to Improve Your Leadership (and life).

Let go of expectations and seek agreements.

Have you ever felt disappointed, angry or hurt because someone didn’t meet your expectations? If you’re a leader, is there one (or several) of your team members failing to meet your expectations? Have you ever shared with a staff member, a partner or a child a statement that starts something like “I expect you to…”? Chances are you can say yes to at least one of these questions and chances are it led to negative experiences. So, maybe we should stop having “expectations” of others.  How would letting go of expectations improve your leadership?

What a minute!  (insert sound of screeching tires) Am I asking you to lower your standards, lower the bar and just accept whatever happens?  That sounds like a recipe for mediocrity!  NOPE – you can still seek excellence, you can still achieve goals, you can still surround yourself with high performing people, just let go of expectations and seek agreements instead.

When we have expectations, we are looking for a particular outcome. When we have agreements, multiple parties have discussed the desired outcome and made a commitment to get there. When we have expectations, we don’t necessarily have clear commitment from all parties to act accordingly; when we make an agreement, we communicate about our expectations and people commit to certain actions.

The dynamic of having “expectations” of others is a recipe for hard feelings for everyone involved and creates more negative experiences than positive. There are many reasons for this:

First, the truth is, we often don’t communicate our expectations clearly enough – this is a definite set-up for failure. Even something that seems like a reasonable assumption and “obvious” to you may not be so to another. Most of us have had a conflict where, in the end, after the explosion, someone says something like “I didn’t know that was what you expected” or “If I had known that then I would have done it!”  Yup – been there.

Expectations are toxic because they put your satisfaction in the hands of others – your reaction and emotional state depends upon someone else meeting or failing to meet them. And… because having expectations of others is a kind of top-down, unilateral experience, it creates a natural stress response and push back instead of partnership and collaboration. When others hear you say (directly or implied) “I expect you to….” they can become defensive. Unfortunately, many of us have had negative experiences in the past of the shame and guilt of not meeting others’ expectations (often but not always rooted in our family or academic experiences). This means that as soon as someone “has expectations of us,” we are already at odds and often on the defensive.

On an emotional level, starting with expectations creates neutral emotions at best. Okay, so you met my expectations – fine…  “Meeting expectations” is not generally something that we cheer about -after all, its “expected.”  So, having expectations of others means that at best we feel a neutral, “blah” upon completion and at worst we feel disappointed, angry or hurt when others miss the mark. All while they have an experience that is disempowering and potentially shame inducing. Very little upside. So, from the wise words of Elsa, we need to “let it go!”

In contrast, seeking agreement instead of having expectations sets you up for more positive experiences, strengthens and clarifies relationships, improves creativity and problem solving and leads to better outcomes. High standards and excellent outcomes are supported and achieved in partnership. Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point …

Instead of :

“I expect this report by Friday at noon”

(assuming you communicated your expectation at all – many people would just be angry on Monday morning when the report had not arrived!)  

Replace that by using the opportunity to engage your colleague in a collaborative agreement:

“Can we agree this will be ready by Friday at Noon?”  

Agreement achieves a number of things all at once – it starts with clear communication, creates a collaborative commitment between the two of you and signals ownership by the person agreeing. This also provides an opportunity to discuss and problem solve if needed.  The ownership and accountability for various actions are made clear and if clarity is still lacking there is a chance to discuss. This discussion keeps you, the leader (parent, spouse,) informed about context and what is happening “on the ground” in your organization and empowers your partner to have a voice.  If what you are asking for is unrealistic your colleague has an opportunity to speak up. (Of course, you have to be willing to collaborate too! “My way or the highway” thinking isn’t productive.)  If for some reason they feel they cannot agree, they can share information, ask for resources, or offer other solutions.  “I can get this done by noon Friday if the sales report can wait until Tuesday” or “If I have someone to crunch the numbers for me” etc.… It empowers the other as a partner, helps you better understand what is happening and decreases the likelihood you’ll be disappointed. It may also mean that YOU have to agree to something.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that as soon as you have an agreement to a course of action then there will never be disappointments, it does, however put you in dialog and sets the stage for a trusting relationship. If the partnership fails to achieve whatever was set out in the agreement, you have a chance to talk it through -Maybe you can help develop that person or maybe you will discover what you needed to do differently.  You can find out what went wrong and make new “agreements” to go forward such as – “let’s agree to be open and honest if things aren’t progressing as expected” or “let’s agree that you’ll ask for the resources you need” or “let’s agree that I will be available for your questions as you work through this project” or even “let’s agree to keep our agreements in the future.”  Using this strategy of discussion and collaborative agreement builds trust and transparency, helps you understand the people you are leading, the context they are working in and the resources they need, helps them achieve and feel competent in clearly understanding their roles, and empowers them with a voice. Overall it encourages emotionally mature, less reactive interactions based on honest communication. So,

Can we agree to let go of having “expectations?”

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