Expectations vs. Reality

Managing Expectations Based on Values, Not Outcomes

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Expectations play an important role in creating our lived experience — both personally and professionally. Professionally, we are held to certain standards defined by our job description, our managers and even corporate values. But what happens when we don’t meet those expectations? We often fall into the expectations versus reality trap.

Our expectations often create reactions to outcomes. Laura Behnke of The Life Actually Company sums up the trap we can fall into this way: “It’s all about the stories we’re telling ourselves. Those stories dictate the life we think we are supposed to have. It’s the idea of what we think is normal and how we have or have not conformed to that ideal.”

Consider how expectations of the past may be affecting you in the present. For example, did you spend an entire weekend working on a bid, only to have the client reject it? Perhaps now you no longer see the point in devoting as much time and energy to new bids? When faced with unmet expectations, we often tell ourselves an entire experience was a “waste” and expect that same outcome in the future. It is easy to frame an unmet expectation as a failure or an intrinsic flaw in ourselves or others. Much like a bad first impression, this blow to our expectations can lead to all-or-nothing thinking.

A film of negativity can build up over our experience when accepting the reality of an outcome is difficult. This is especially true when we tend to weigh everything with a negativity bias. Early human anthropology, neuroscience and psychology studies find that human thought tends to weigh the negative more than the positive, which is likely a result of our ancestors’ need to develop survival strategies. In other words, our brains are hardwired to react more strongly to negative outcomes and to dwell on them. Finding strategies to steer beyond the negativity to focus on kernels of success, progress or growth in any outcome dilutes the toxicity of our unmet expectations.

As an outcome-based society, we are rewarded for our ability to achieve, based on a set of societal expectations (real or imagined), a concept known as meritocracy. “Meets expectations” is quite literally a common checkbox element of job evaluations. This conditioning gives us tunnel vision. We rely heavily on the outcome to source our feelings, preventing us from looking at an experience holistically.

Remembering Our Values

Mapping our expectations back to our values reframes an experience through a value-based outlook, rather than outcome-based. By taking a moment to objectively evaluate our expectations in the context of our values, we can reorient ourselves and recalibrate. This strategy can be applied to our professional and personal lives, as well as within a corporate-wide context by promoting values such as “make something better every day” and “learn from our mistakes.”

Sometimes our expectations are so high, they might be considered unrealistic and bring us disappointment. But having expectations is natural and often provides accountability in ourselves and others. It is finding balance in our attachment to expectations and the story we create around outcomes that can get sticky.

Professor and bestselling author Dr. Brené Brown suggests a regular “reality check” as another strategy to create realistic expectations. Expectations can be influenced and impacted by or dependent upon our relationship to what others think and vice versa. Managing expectations against the backdrop of reality means checking in with ourselves and those around us. In a professional setting, this might look like a recurring meeting with a manager or mentor. Or it could be conducting a proposal post-mortem with your team, dissecting what each of you thought the process would look like versus what actually happened — without judgement. By releasing our attachment to unmet expectations, we can reclaim the lived experience of the outcome.

Setting realistic expectations does not mean we don’t challenge ourselves, strive for the best or ask for what we deserve. It simply means we don’t ask too much too soon. As professionals, this balance should be struck both ways — between managers and individual contributors. Reality-checking your expectations won’t matter much if your manager is holding you to an entirely different set of expectations. Holding your manager up to unrealistic standards, where they aren’t allowed to make mistakes, is also a recipe for disappointment. A clear and frequent communication plan will alleviate uncertainty and create an open dialogue for an honest evaluation of expectations.

Strategies to Do Better

With a few simple strategies and practice, we can learn to balance the demands of our professional lives with the feelings our expectations evoke.

  • Map your values. Hone in on your professional values. What lights you up? What motivates you? Have your values changed since you started your career? This includes feeling passionate about what you do, having a sense of accomplishment or a healthy work/life balance. Use your values, rather than expectations, as a filter through which you evaluate the reality of situations, experiences and decision making.
  • Do a reality check. Create a list of professional expectations, including the ones you have for yourself. Map these expectations back to your values. If some don’t correlate with your values, it might be an area to reevaluate.
  • Communicate. Open lines of communication to be more honest about standards for yourself and those of your manager or profession. When you and your manager align on expectations, it creates a level playing field in which you feel empowered to succeed and they feel empowered to guide you to success.

Managing expectations versus reality is a tricky balancing act. With practice, we can learn the wisdom of viewing our experiences through the lens of our values, not outcomes. When we’re living from our values, we can become our best professional selves.


Cathy Jo Beecher works as a technical writer for ID.me and is an APMP member. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Montana and is a Registered Professional Archaeologist as well as a certified sommelier. She can be reached on LinkedIn

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