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How to Handle Unrealistic Expectations

Daron Dickens
Daron Dickens Monday May 15, 2017
<? echo $type; ?> How to Handle Unrealistic Expectations

It’s a simple rule that effects most of our lives in one way or another: The larger or more complex a system or organization, the more structure is needed to maintain that system or organization. The way most of us come into contact with this rule in our everyday life is through our jobs. Many of us work in an organization that is large enough that it needs a hierarchical structure to get things done. In other words, we are not in charge of every detail of the organization and we have a boss. If you are like most, then there has been at least once in your tenure where your boss’ expectations of your part of the system weren’t realistic. If this is you, then you’ll be happy to know you are not alone. However, it begs a question: “What can you do about it?” Here are some helpful tips to help you navigate the inevitable, yet no less stressful, reality of unrealistic expectations.

Don’t compare.

It will do you no good to compare these expectations with other companies, other people or other situations in general. Although expectations are somewhat relative to the situation, comparing will only make it look like you’re making excuses. Not only that, but the discussion now focuses on whether your comparison is reasonable and accurate or not. It can sometimes take the conversation in an adversarial manner that really has nothing to do with the expectations themselves. Not only does it muddy the conversation, but it can create a situation where it’s you against your boss rather then about the goal itself.

Be specific.

Do not talk in truth statements. In other words, making categorical statements about the unrealistic nature of the expectations implies that if you disagree you are either wrong or misguided. The truth is, we have different perspectives. The boss is trying to look at the overall picture where you may be in charge of getting things done on the ground. By that very nature you’re going to have more insight into that particular part of the picture. Your boss may have reasons for their position that you’re not privy to. So, if you think the expectations are unrealistic then use logistics for that specific situation and help support your case. Talking as if expectations are unrealistic simply because that’s the truth only looks like you’re making excuses and creates an adversarial duel between facts. Saying things like, “No one could meet those expectations” sets you up to be proven wrong. Entering into a zero sum game only hurts the project and certainly won’t help your case. If you feel like the expectations are unrealistic then you should be able to pull out data that will show that to be the case.

Start from common ground.

Most of the time, unreasonable expectations are about outcomes of a bigger project. Most likely the bigger project is something you and your boss share. It’s important to start there. Remember you both have the same goal in mind. The difference is the how: how fast you can get there, how big the result or something to that degree. Establishing the overall common goal with your boss that you both share will help you as you try to align expectations to become more realistic. Starting with the common WHAT allows us to negotiate the HOW.

Talk to the person in the room.

This is something that happens with all kinds of relational situations. Often when we’re having discussions we’re not actually talking to the person in the room, but a caricature. We might be talking to the “Unreasonable-Boss” or the “Lazy-Employee” or the “Person-Keeping-Me-From-Having-Free-Time.” It can sometimes feel like the person across the table created these expectations just to make our life more miserable. If this is the truth, if the person across the table is purposely making things harder just to make your life more miserable, then I have news for you: You need a new job. Don’t try to figure out how to reason with this person, just start sending out your resume. The definition of crazy is trying the same thing and expecting different results.

However, if you are like 80 percent of the workforce then this person probably isn’t evil and isn’t trying to purposely make your life more miserable. Seeing a caricature instead of a person objectifies that person. Psychologically, it’s much easier to justify actions outside of our character or things we would normally do. We might see them as the enemy to overcome. This makes it much easier to not listen, or to misunderstand their position, or just to dismiss them out of hand. When we really listen to the person in the room it allows us to try to figure out where they’re coming from. Again, if this is a program that we both value, then it will help us to figure out how to get there together in the best possible way. Many times unreasonable expectations are simply a lack of knowledge or a different perspective—two things, by the way, that you’re also capable of having. Certainly, we want our boss to see us as a person rather than a cog in the big machine of our business. We have to do the same.

Realistically, you are still going to run into people who well-meaningly put expectations on you that just aren’t possible. There’s no way to avoid this. We’re groups and churches and companies that are made up of many different brains trying to work toward a common goal. Missteps are going to happen. However, if we can follow some of these tips and genuinely try to clearly communicate then often we can avoid as many as possible.

Daron Dickens serves as a marriage and family therapist in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife, Margaret, and his two kids, Truman and Carter. He also served as a pastor for over 20 years. He loves reading, all things baseball and the heavenly blessing of coffee.