Every negative emotion I can remember feeling (or causing) can be traced back to violated expectations.1
Realizing this may have been the single most valuable thing I’ve learned about human relationships.
The last time that I got mad — like, really mad — I was trying to contact the Internal Revenue Service about some tax stuff.
IRS: Call this person.
Person: *doesn’t answer phone or return calls*
IRS: You can contact this person’s manager.
Also IRS: We have no way for you to figure out who their manager is and also we don’t answer our phone or return calls.
— Jason Lengstorf (@jlengstorf) June 6, 2019
I got a letter from the IRS telling me I needed to provide additional information about my tax return. The letter gave me an agent’s name and phone number, which I called. And called again. And again.
After a week of no responses, I tried to call the main office. It hung up on me automatically.
The letter listed one of my options as, “talk to the agent’s manager,” but failed to tell me who their manager is or how to get in touch with them. So I called the IRS hotline and waited on hold to talk to a human, hoping to figure out how to contact the manager.
I was told they can’t share that information. Instead, they have to put my information into a queue that will get me a call back “within the next 30 days between 7 am and 7 pm”.
By the time I got off the phone with the IRS hotline, I was fuming.
When I got the letter from the IRS, two expectations were set:
- I had a direct line to an agent who would help me understand what they needed from me.
- I could escalate to the agent’s supervisor if I had any trouble.
These are both great things: I can get help, and I have a fallback.
My expectations were repeatedly violated throughout this process:
- The agent has not answered their phone at any time of day.
- The agent has not returned any of my multiple messages.
- I have no way of figuring out who the agent’s supervisor is (meaning I can’t escalate).
- I was unable to get any actual help after calling the general help line.
At each step, I was told something would be true, only to hit a wall and learn that what I was expecting to happen wasn’t actually happening.
My frustration got worse and worse until I was so mad that it actually ruined my day a little bit.
The worst part of this experience is that this was all completely avoidable.
When I look back on interactions that went poorly in my past, something becomes apparent: it’s not what happened, but how it happened in relation to what was expected that determined how people felt about the outcome.
If the IRS letter had just said, “You need to call this number and put yourself in a queue for a callback within 30 days,” I probably wouldn’t have been thrilled, but I also wouldn’t have ended up so mad it wrecked part of my day.
Setting expectations properly doesn’t eliminate bad news, but it can significantly reduce the fallout from bad news.
You can’t set good expectations if you’re fooling yourself.
Can you actually hit that deadline, or are you saying what you think people want to hear?
Do you actually want to commit to this opportunity, or are you just afraid of losing it?
People are masters of self-deception, so it’s hard to get this right, but in a lot of cases just asking the question makes a difference.
The biggest risk for violated expectations is ambiguity. For example, I might say something to a coworker along the lines of, “Take all the time you need!”
But that’s not actually what I mean. What I mean is, “This is important, but not urgent. Please finish it as soon as you can, but not at the expense of working extra hours.”
If I don’t communicate that, however, there’s a risk that my expectation won’t be communicated properly. My coworker might hear it and set their own expectation: “This isn’t urgent, so I’ll put it at the bottom of my todo list and get to it someday.”
Both of these expectations are valid interpretations of what I said. Later, when the project isn’t done, I’ll be angry because my coworker ignored my request, but my coworker will feel confused and frustrated because I’m coming after them for work I said wasn’t important.
Unclear expectations are the single biggest factor in violated expectations.
Expectations aren’t permanent after they’re set, but all changes need to be communicated clearly and — this is the important bit — before the changes catch people off-guard.
If you and I agree to meet for dinner at 5 pm2 and you’re going to be late, there are two ways the evening can go:
- you can call or text me as soon as you know you’ll be late — definitely before 5 pm — to let me know you’ll be late and set an updated arrival time, or
- you can let our meeting time pass without an update, at which point you’re dead to me.3
If something changes, share the updated expectations as soon as possible with everyone who will be affected by it. Getting good at this is a superpower in both life and business, because it takes situations that were previously terrible and turns them into no big deal.
Are you going to miss the deadline on a project? Bring it up a couple weeks in advance and it’s usually pretty easy to adjust the timeline to accommodate it.
Setting clear expectations can be hard to do in the moment — it can feel like letting someone down or being pushy — but I promise you it feels way worse to have that conversation after someone’s expectations have been violated.
Setting clear expectations ahead of time is the difference between someone calling you in the morning to let you know that they aren’t going to be able to make your evening plans vs. standing you up and not saying anything until you text them asking where the hell they are.
No one likes to get stood up. Set good expectations!
Although a few of those violated expectations boiled down to, “I expected you to be less of a jerk.”↩
At heart I’m an octagenarian who really just wants to be in bed by eight.↩
I’m not one of those “early is on time; on time is late” people, but hyperbole aside, I really do take it as a sign of personal disrespect when people show up late without an update — especially in groups.
Like, really, Glen? You’re just going to waste 15 minutes of everyone’s time wondering whether or not you’re going to show up while this hostess gives us the stink-eye and reminds us we won’t be seated until our entire party has arrived? Ugh. You’re the worst, Glen.↩