David Strittmatter

Better manage expectations - 3 tips

Never raise expectations in others that you cannot realize: promise is less pleasing than disappointment is vexatious – Norm MacDonald


  • When we create expectations that don’t come to fruition as hoped, we are often faced with disappointment, anger, and stress
  • Expectations aren’t met because of 2 reasons: (1) Unclear expectations and (2) overpromised expectations
  • Having no expectations of others leads to a significantly happier life

Practical advice:

  • First, never assume. When in doubt, ask
  • Second, rather over-communicate than under-communicate
  • Third, under-promise and over-deliver. Whether in your private life or in your career, if you need to communicate expectations, take your estimate and lower it

Dear friend,

Imagine the following scenario: It’s your spouse’s birthday. You’d planned everything for him/her that you knew s/he’d love so that when s/he arrived home from work, s/he’d be wonderfully surprised. You had prepared his/her favorite meal, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. The music was exactly what you knew s/he’d want. …

When s/he walked in, s/he said: Ugh. I’ve had a horrible day. I’m not even hungry. I’m going to go take a shower and go on the couch.

Most people would be angry and disappointed. How dare s/he? Where was his/her appreciation?

However, what actually happened in this scenario is that your spouse failed to live up to your expectations, but that isn’t his/her fault. The expectations were yours; s/he had no obligation to fulfill them.

Unclear, hidden expectations should be avoided. Not only in romantic relationships but also in friendships and in the workplace they cause too much anger, disappointment, and stress.

In today’s blog article, I talk about the consequences when expectations aren’t met, why we fail to meet them, and how we can better manage our and other’s expectations.

When expectations aren’t met

By definition, an expectation isn’t an agreement between people but a belief that a certain outcome or event will happen.

Expectations can have a huge impact on our feelings. When we create expectations that don’t come to fruition as hoped, we are often faced with disappointment, anger, and stress.

In the workplace, we might have communicated implicitly that we’ll take care of something and get it done even though we couldn’t. As a consequence, our manager has certain expectations we won’t meet, leading to stress and frustration.

In a friendship, we told our friend that we can make it to his party, but actually, we are unlikely to make it, overpromising and creating expectations we won’t meet.

In relationships, unmet expectations are THE source for arguments. Often, it’s not that our partner doesn’t care but doesn’t know how to do better. For instance, imagine your girlfriend loves flowers. There’s nothing she wants more than flowers to her birthday. But you don’t know. She only implicitly told you that she would love getting some flowers. Every year, when it’s her birthday, you ponder how you can make her the greatest joy and prepare kind gifts, such as an intimate candlelight dinner. She really appreciates those, however, every year again, she’s disappointed that she didn’t receive her flowers.

Failing to meet expectations

Expectations aren’t met because of 2 reasons: (1) Unclear expectations: We unintentionally create expectations (2) Overpromised expectations: We intentionally create expectations, which we cannot meet.

The first type of expectation is often undesired and unfortunate. Usually, we don’t want to fail to meet those and wouldn’t if we knew they existed in the first place:

  • If we knew how we can make our partner the greatest joy, we would do so
  • If we knew that our friend expected us to give him something in return for his favor, we would do so
  • If we knew that our colleagues expected us to take over a certain task, we would do so

The second type of expectations – overpromising expectations – is rather the consequence of irresponsible behavior. That might sound harsh, but playing with the emotions of other people, particularly those we love most, is irresponsible and an asshole move.

Maybe you know this French Netflix series “Lupin”. Assane – the master thief and main character of the series – is incredibly charismatic, a person whom you meet and instantly like. Yet, he is heavily unreliable. He has this tendency of always overpromising. His former girlfriend and mother of his son has zero trusts in his words anymore because, numerous times, he overpromised and hence raised too high expectations that he failed to meet. In my opinion, his behavior is totally irresponsible and kills all the sympathy I developed for him.

How to better manage expectations

To better manage expectations, I differentiate between internal and external expectations. Internal expectations are those I have towards others, external are those I create in others towards me.

I decided for myself that I have zero expectations of others. I’m convinced that having no expectations of others leads to a significantly happier life. Why? You can read another blog article of me, in which I thoroughly discuss this topic, here.

External expectations are those we can only indirectly influence. For that, I’ve 3 practical tips to better manage the expectations of others.

First, never assume. When in doubt, ask. You don’t know who is going to do what? You don’t know what another person needs? You don’t know what others think of you? Assuming is only the last means. It’s much easier and more sophisticated to just ask another person.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming someone has the same understanding of a situation, project, deadline, or whatever that you have. It sounds maybe too simple, but having a conversation in which you openly discuss what’s expected is the best way to manage the expectations of others.

Second, rather over-communicate than under-communicate. Let others know exactly what your needs, perspective, and boundaries are. In the work context, clearly communicate when you’re available, your personal boundaries, where you are flexible. The better others know what you need, know, and desire, the better they can take into account your needs, perspective, and boundaries.

In your private life, let your friends, family, and partner know what you need and why. If no one knows how to please you, everyone loses. For instance, if my family and friends back home know when I’m coming to visit and exactly how long I’ll stay, they less likely anticipate me staying longer and feeling hurt when I leave.

Third, under-promise and over-deliver. Whether in your private life or in your career, if you need to communicate expectations, take your estimate and lower it. From a psychological perspective, a person is much less disappointed if you communicate lower expectations that you meet than you won’t meet desirable expectations. For instance, at work, I always take my estimate for how long a task might take and multiply it by 1.5x. That might sound a lot, but most of the time, my initial estimate is wrong anyway and so, I rather overdeliver. Particularly junior consultants and other junior employees, tend to overestimate the amount of work and time a task takes.

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