Expectations and Reality – Part Two

This is the final part of my post on expectations and reality. Part one is here, on setting realistic expectations as a leader or for yourself.

Rumbling with Reality

Even with realistic expectations, what happens when the result falls short? You can’t change what happened. It is what it is. All true, but we’re left with a choice. A choice of perception. What direction do you want to accept your reality? Up or down? We can choose to anguish over the less than desired outcome or be grateful there is any outcome at all. Even if it was a complete disaster, some fail to even try.

Every year the Olympics are here, old articles and research sprout up on the happiness levels for each athlete on the podium. Through decades of research, they’ve found that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists despite their final ranking. Bronze medalists choose the upward state of reality that they made it to the podium, that they beat the dozen other athletes behind them.

Silver medalists, while excited, didn’t get gold. They choose the downward state of reality. They were that close to be being number one. The fact they beat thirteen other Olympic athletes is ignored and so begins the what ifs. If only they could have ran a little faster, scored a couple more points, could they be on top. The point spread between Gold, Silver, and Bronze is infinitesimal, normally a few milliseconds or hundredths of a point. That’s the reality. They all did amazing so one would think their happiness is proportionally equal. The choice of mindset is what makes the difference.

Our Reality is Our Choice

We have the same choice as world-class athletes when we’re faced with outcomes. We can choose to see the downsides, the shortfalls, or the achievements that exist in the contours of them. There’s a reframing of reality that has to happen that is much harder than just being optimistic or “looking on the bright side”. Optimism is an attitude. It’s maintaining energy and hopefulness throughout the process even when not everything goes how you expected. Once we get to the end though, what is there left to be optimistic about? Next time? Sure, it’ll be better then but you still have to manage the first one.

Reframing our reality is understanding the meaning, recognizing the growth and progress made along the way. It removes the what if questions and rewards us presence, to Show Up in the moment. For trivial outcomes, reframing can be effortless and you’re able to shrug it off. Larger outcomes like career changes, tough feedback, and losses take more effort, more mindfulness to see though it to the end. The larger the gap between expectations and reality, the more difficult it is to reframe the situation.

When reality hits hard, the emotional triggers are immediate – disappointment, anger, and regret. These are unavoidable but choosing the reality you subscribe to lessens the time they are felt. Choosing the upward state of reality shifts our mindset from disappointment to determination for next time, from anger to acceptance, and from regret to reflection. When mindfulness is practiced, the quicker it gets until both the emotions and reframe happen simultaneously.

To help, weight the importance of the outcome against your own life. Ask yourself if this would matter in a week? A month? How about a year or five? So much of our angst comes from feeling like it must be right in this very moment. That what happens today or this week is premonition for the next six months. In truth, what happened today doesn’t flow into tomorrow so long as you’re willing to shift your mindset, choose a better reality, and move on.

Ready, Expect, Reframe

Expectations versus reality. A continuous battle we all share. Start on the right foot by setting realistic expectations that make sense to you. Don’t be fooled by society’s expectations. As new information comes in, stay optimistic but adjust your expectations accordingly. When reality knocks and the outcome is absolute, your choice is your mental state. Think like a bronze medalist. The sooner you can reframe and reorient your reality, the better off you’ll be.

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.

Speed Walking is for Leaders

Setting the right pace with proper vision requires a balance between the extremes.

Run too fast, and the team won’t keep up leading to burnout for them and yourself. Speedsters focus too much on the finish line. They see the horizon clear as day but their peripherals are blurred unable to see their team falling behind.

Strolling pulls the energy down. Progress is grueling and teams are unable to maintain enthusiasm. Dawdlers look at their feet and while they never trip, they can’t see the goal even if they squint. They lack decision-making and purpose. The team expends all their energy not by moving forward but walking in circles.

Leaders are speed-walkers. The pace is slow enough for clarity, to see when others need support, but fast enough to keep the team dedicated to the cause and because of this the team moves as a group. Their vision is set somewhere between the horizon and the ground. It is realistic, not blurred or intangible. Leaders can point to it and say “There it is, let’s go get it, together.”

Kindergarten Creates Leaders

Recently, I inherited a few boxes from my childhood that my parents kept. It would have been a cinch to take them out of the car, up the stairs, and into our attic space. So naturally they went out of the car and onto the garage floor. A month later they moved up the stairs in front of the closet with the attic door. A week passed and I continued to tell myself that I did not have the time to move them.

Paradoxically what I did find time for was to open one up and flit through the various documents for an hour. The contents were neatly organized and reflected various artworks, stories, and projects from my schooling in chronological order. The cover photo is just one of the many exquisite creations from my obvious gifted talent with the crayon.

Now, we’re not here to discuss what could have been a successful artist career, or how procrastination takes many forms from avoiding physical exertion to reminiscing. The spotlight today is on curriculums throughout school grades. From my box, I discovered my outline from kindergarten. Here’s a section of it.

Discontinued Education

These are all crucial to comprehend at an early age but what I found upsetting is that very quickly, once outside of the first few years, curriculums begin funneling into core subjects. Mathematics, reading comprehension, writing, history, and sciences. These subjects are repeated and expanded on every year. Before you learn calculus, you need to know algebra. Before you learn to write, you need to spell.

However these soft skills from kindergarten, disappeared as quickly as they came. Are these subjects so impressionable that we only have to be taught once? Such skills like “adjust to new situations,” “listen while others are talking,” and “work cooperatively in groups” are ones adults continue to struggle with and I’d argue that these are not only invaluable as grown-ups but necessary for any aspiring leader.

Take a moment to consider what attributes you admired most in your past leaders. Were they supportive by listening more than they spoke? Led productive and engaging meetings? Did they treat your team equally despite personal attitudes and assumptions? Did they share credit when it was due?

Today, we might not share toys or make the quiet sign when it isn’t our turn but when leaders exude these skills, we remember. We need more leaders with a heightened focus on their kindergarten lessons but the gap between primary school and leadership is colossal. We’re never graded on them again. A foundation that isn’t built upon and yet we expect everyone in a supervisory position to inherently possess. Taking turns creates self-awareness. Listening to others develops into empathy. Working cooperatively is part of motivation. Getting along with others is knowing personality types and cultivating emotional intelligence.

Welcome to Adult Kindergarten

Injecting this into the workplace isn’t unrealistic as one might think. One company takes their kindergarten skills so seriously, it is embedded in their hiring, how they operate, and how they succeed. Menlo Innovations is a software company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cofounder and CEO Richard Sheridan details the structure and success of their extraordinary company in his book Joy, Inc. Before starting his own company, Richard struggled with the standard software development process. It was rifled with miscommunication, redoing work, crunch time, and overspending. All to produce a product that was not what the client needed or too technical to be useful.

By starting Menlo, Richard cultivated a better culture where developers work in pairs on the same computer. The accountability that it brings to each project is incredible and its byproduct is quality beyond expectations. It all starts with their hiring process where they bring in groups of candidates, thirty to fifty at one time. They’re split into pairs and given a series of tasks to complete. Current employees affectionately called “Menlonians” observe each pairs progress but completion isn’t the primary benchmark. They’re looking for high marks in kindergarten skills. Does one person, in pursuit of their own success, dominate the conversation and execution? These attitudes don’t belong at Menlo. They look for the ones that share ideas, listen, disagree in a healthy way, and shows respect for others.

The company even has a process called Show and Tell where their clients review the work done and present it back to the developers. Menlo is living proof that sharing and caring has a need in the workplace. There are more examples of sharing in the book’s pages such as project management through index cards and daily stand-ups with a Viking helmet.

Emotional Health at School

If a company can prioritize these skills, so can we within our teaching. It is not that the core subjects aren’t important. I read and write everyday. Math is mandatory in my career. I can apply the scientific method to unknown situations. Where I believe the opportunity exists for exposure to emotional health and leadership is within these curriculums.

History walks us through past events to better understand our current world. We write papers on the different battles of the Revolutionary War and the Civil Right Movements but all in third person. Could we still measure comprehension if the assignment was in first person? Telling the events of the Revolutionary War through a soldier in George Washington’s army? Marching along with MLK Jr.? When we’re unable to experience an event but can connect to the same thoughts and feelings from our own experiences, it is empathy.

Writing gives us prompts from creative writing where the more imaginative and outlandish the better to book reports on Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye. For a moment, the prompt can be “How are you feeling today? Describe how that is impacting you.” A moment for self-awareness.

Science teaches us the rain cycle, the physics of motion, animal kingdoms, and mixing compounds. School labs are usually in pairs or groups but to further deepen motivation and cooperation, could one student owns the instructions and the other completes them?

Another early artwork. Is my house on train tracks? Those rain drops are larger than the roof. Scale is subjective you know.

Arranging the Mental Boxes

Kindergarten was a very long time ago and the artworks, letters, and activities are either lost or tucked away in an attic box for another generation. Those first lessons could also be shoved in a corner of our mental attic. Behind the Pythagorean Theorem, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election year, noble gases, and MLA format. It’s worth it to rearrange our boxes to where self-awareness and personal skills are brought to the forefront and can be practiced daily. The demand for better leaders is a constant one. Reinforcing emotional health beyond primary school is our way of increasing the supply.

Questionable to Credible

When we’re exposed to certain situations, we’re bound to have differences of opinion. On a team, opinions come from different perspectives and great teams ensure that each are valued. However, leaning too far in one direction by disregarding any evidence that speaks to the contrary, is damaging.

Opinions Through Facts

Let’s be clear, facts and opinions are dichotomous. Facts is the perceived reality while opinions are interpretations of that reality. Interpretations require information that can be obtained through the absurd amount of sources in today’s world.

At times we might believe that the source of those facts lacks credibility. In a workplace, it might be rumors or misinterpreted top-down information. Outside of work, media outlets likely come to mind. We might view the source as biased, filtered, and censored and cherry picking information within that source is worse altogether. We can’t discredit information against us and credit information in support of us simultaneously. We are in effect then, filtering sources through our own biases and by doing so we discredit ourselves for the very same reason we decided the source was unreliable!

Leading into Common Ground

As a leader that should hear out varying opinions, we must be aware of this pitfall. To pull ourselves and teams out, repetitiveness and probability are needed to dilute biases. Multiple matching sources yields higher credibility. Misinterpreted information becomes clear when reviewed over and over. Secondly, we can revert to statistics by asking a simple question: “What are the chances?” Rumors are squashed when one considers its likelihood is close to 10%.

When different opinions based on individual’s perceived realities become a debate topic, even healthy debates, it’s best to validate sources and work to remove biases through repetitiveness and probability.