Expectations and Reality – Part One

This is the first of a two-part series.

Step into the Unknown

Clouds of anticipation and expectations fill the air. With the decision made and research done, the conclusion has been reached that success can be achieved. Besides, others have completed it even within a time crunch, so it can’t be too demanding. Affirmations of I got this is on repeat in the mind. The steps have been read carefully and will be executed verbatim. As progress begins, it hasn’t gone exactly as planned, yet optimism stands. There is nothing more that can be done except to patiently wait.

Finally, the first result. They’re adequate but the next steps require more finesse and the confidence has faded slightly. At moments, there’s some confusion, possibly thoughts of giving up. Success! With the hardest part over, excitement has returned, and the finishing touches are taken of with ease. In a couple hours, during a night of board games and drinks, they’ll be brought back out…to be eaten.

The Reveal

This was the experience of my wife’s first attempt at making Boston Cream Pie Éclairs, inspired by our binge watching of The Great British Baking Show. If you’ve never seen the show, regardless if you’re a baker or not, you should. It is refreshingly genuine and humorous, absent of the over-the-top drama that would exist in an American baking competition and it is not uncommon for bakers to assist other bakers if they can. Wholesome entertainment.

During one episode in the technical challenge, where bakers are asked to create a challenging dessert armed only with a vague recipe, they needed to make Raspberry and Salted Caramel Éclairs. The challenge is also timed leaving a small margarine of error. Baking pun joke +1. While watching, Éclairs sounded delightful and we both enjoy Boston Cream Pie so she set out and gave it a shot.

The Choux Pastry straight from the oven

There’s two major components of an Éclair. One, the Choux Pastry. A delicate pastry, that’s golden brown, puffy, and hollow to allow the second part, the Creme Pat to be piped in. The final touch to ours was a dip in melted chocolate. Now that you know what the product is, go back and re-read the first two paragraphs and you can visualize the prep, waiting, wondering, and excitement.

The Choux Pastry came out not as puffy as she would have hoped and ultimately made a second batch. Those came out better, yet their shape left something to be desired. The Creme Pat was riskier, since while whisking there’s a chance the eggs will become scrambled. It did not, and as a batter of fact, baking pun joke +2, I think my wife was proudest of that.

Engaging with Expectations

Her first endeavor at baking a new dessert that was technically challenging wasn’t an overwhelming success, but it wasn’t a catastrophe either. Before she started her expectations were probably somewhere in the middle of “I could be on The Great British Baking Show” and “I just knead to stick to cookies,” baking pun joke +3…I’ll stop now. In the end, what was envisioned closely resembled the final product, or reality. But that isn’t always the case.

The finished product at game night!

We’ve all seen pictures online of the cake expected to look like Ariel from The Little Mermaid turn out to be a red-headed medusa. Or right now, where my expectation was to sit comfortably on our couch and write, only to be nudged, pawed, whined, and whimpered at, let alone see what I’m typing from my dog who thinks the closer she is to human, the less the sky will make booming noises during a thunderstorm.

There are countless memes expressing this relationship for just about anything. Sleeping, college, working from home, exercise, and hanging out with friends are just a few. Usually the square depicting reality for hanging out with friends is blank which for me is accurate. No activity is safe from the comparison of expectations versus reality and it speaks to how universally shared this experience is.

We’ve seen them, we’ve been there, and whatever it is, it doesn’t feel great expecting a certain outcome and the reality ends up being wildly different. Humorous as it can be online, or your own character cake gone wrong, expectations versus reality can lead to disappointment, regret, confusion, and frustration. When it’s larger scale expectations like a new job or new responsibilities within a job, the feelings are exacerbated. Expectations versus reality can be tough to accept and manage through but with careful planning and mindfulness, we can reduce the tension between the two.

Great Leaders Are Proactive

We feel friction whenever expectations aren’t met and part of that is deciding on what exactly those expectations should be. Great expectations are realistic, meaning challenging yet attainable. As a leader, it’s crucial to proactively set realistic expectations but many fall short. On the extreme ends, having someone set an impossible bar is exhaustive, deflating, and can feel stagnant.

Setting expectations isn’t a dictatorship,
nor is it an anarchy.

Leaders who set low or no expectations are equally as frustrating. Leaders who set no expectations might have a lack of commitment, abdicating their responsibilities to do so. Leaders who set low expectations, can be afraid to because they see it as too authoritative. The truth is expectations are different than demands. Expectations provide a sense of order and clarity. Setting low ones leads to disengaged teams and these teams are more likely to go off script, create their own expectations that may not be aligned with the organizations goals along with spending company time and money. Setting expectations isn’t a dictatorship, nor is it an anarchy.

Realistic expectations means giving enough challenge with appropriate support. If you’re looking to set an expectation, there’s a few questions you could consider seeing if it realistic or not:

Would this energize or exhaust them?
Do they have the necessary skills?
Do they have all the resources?
Does their workload allow for this?

The answer to all of these doesn’t have to be yes. In fact, some should at least be maybe or partly. We want to provide enough challenge to teams to stretch their confidence beyond their comfort zone. To be able to feel what it’s like to swim in the deep end, not to sink. The support given from leadership is their floaties. If they currently don’t possess the skills, what can you do to get them there? If their current workload is unmanageable, what can be taken off them? Unrealistic goals can become realistic if there is enough support from leadership.

Our Own Expectations

Not only are expectations set onto us, we set our own. Setting realistic expectations for ourselves can be difficult. Given the same task, we’re likely to set the expectation on execution higher for ourselves than we would on another person. Just as before, a challenge is appropriate but impossible is not. Impossible teeters into perfectionism, an unhealthy standard set on ourselves.

Layered on top of our own is the external pressures of societal expectations. People with low self-esteem are more susceptible to these. It can be seamless to transition an external expectation to one of your own. The best example is any combination of marriage, children, and age. Everyone has their opinion of “the right time” and secretly wonder what’s going on if you don’t meet that requirement. Learning to separate external expectations from internal motivators takes reflection. Is this something I want? Why do I want it? Does it coincide with my long-term goals and vision? Expectations need to be realistic for you and only you.