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.

Morphing Mistakes into Motion

Mistakes Will Be Made

It is inevitable you will make a mistake. And another, and another. The consequences will range from miniscule to nuclear meltdown. You can anticipate where mistakes may happen, account for them in a timeline, but the specifics such as where, when, and how are shrouded in mystery. Agonizing over a situation that is a guaranteed unknown leads to anxiety – an anticipatory emotion with it’s own dangerous side effects. The positive? The sooner we accept mistakes will happen, the sooner we can prepare for what comes next. How to react.

Putting It Into Motion

When it becomes a reality, there are specific steps you can make to rectify.

  1. Mobilize
  2. Manage
  3. Make Amends
  4. Move On

In order to walk through these, let’s apply a real-life scenario that happened to me:

I was handling a project that required adjusting go-live dates in the system that was based on variable labor levels during the peak of the COVID pandemic. At one point, I forgot to push out a date which affected multiple business locations, generated hundreds of unnecessary orders and took hours to reverse. It took three days to discover the mistake and what was worse is that I wasn’t even the one to find it.


Mobilize

This is the root cause phase and our first call to action. Since the mistake is now reality, we can backtrack the potential steps that lead to the mistake. For example, I missed pushing out a go-live date in the system. How? Simply put, I forgot. Digging deeper, I prided myself on not having to write miscellaneous tasks down.

Manage

Manage the situation. We know how, now we need to repair. There’s going to be a short term solution, a band-aid, that can resolve a situation quickly. They’re necessary but ugly to look at. What’s more crucial is the permanent solution preventing a repeat. Band-aids are meant to be ripped off when wounds are healed. In this case, the band-aid was a few hundred orders manually cancelled…one by one.

At the time, there was nothing systemically we could do to completely prevent. It was a mental mistake. Other times, different checks can be inserted into a process to streamline. Don’t be afraid either to completely rebuild if a process is convoluted. Simplicity is repeatable.

My permanent solution was simple – for a simple mental oversight – I wrote it down! Put in my calendar. Additionally I created a tracker of daily orders for if it ever happened again, it would not take three days to find and I’d be the first.

Make Amends

This is the last action and for good reason. We don’t have time beforehand to type or craft a formal amend. We’ve been getting s*** done. I use the word amend over an apology as amends means to improve upon, to better. Mistakes will happen, grow from it. Making amends lays everything out and communicated to all parties affected with the apology at the end.

Here’s what happened. Here’s why. This is what’s been done to temporarily fix it. This is what’s been put in place for future prevention. Apology.”

There’s a lot packed in there. Initiative to manage the situation. Opportunity to better yourself or the process. Humility and maturity to accept your part of the mistake.

Move On

The most important step for your emotional health but perhaps the hardest. With nothing physically left to do, we’re left emotionally feeling guilty or ashamed. We believe others are judging us for our mistakes and may consider us incompetent. None of it’s true. No one is ruminating except you. Everyone else has moved on. Self-worthiness is so important here. Your mistakes don’t measure your worth, how you managed it does.

Show Up Sunday – Gratitude

Gratitude. As cliché as this word can be, especially around holidays, very few practice it regularly. Yet, taking time to reflect on what’s going well allows us to be in the present and combats the negativity so prevalent in our news and social media. However, expressing gratitude can feel awkward and uncomfortable in the workplace.

One reason for this is that we hardly see it. Gratitude can’t propagate within a team without an example, something to emulate from. It takes courage to be the first. It may not come out right the first few times and that’s ok.

I have felt almost childish at times, lacking finesse with my tone being too “Great job, have a cookie!” I have found using specifics help professionalize my tone. Additionally, being specific is more meaningful. It shows you payed attention and are being purposeful. Here are some starter sentences.

“Great job speaking up when you…”

“I appreciate how you…”

“What is great about you is…”

“Thank you for…”

If you’re not ready to verbally do it, write it down. You don’t have to share it. Let’s make a goal this week to show, or record, gratitude at least seven times, once a day.

Resolution to Evolution

As we celebrated the start of another year with champagne and midnight smooches, many also declare a New Year’s resolution – “New Year, New Me” right? I’d like to go on record and say if you’ve waited till now, you’re late to the party.

Resolutions

First, resolutions around New Year’s day is a social concept. So many people fail these false commitments as we’re expected by others to have one. The reality is goals pushed by external pressures often leads to disappointment or worse, a deflated self-esteem. Don’t wait for a new year, make your goals when it matters most to you.

Secondly, let’s challenge the word itself. Resolution means making the decision to do something or not. For me, that gives a sense that its broken and needs to be fixed. It conveys a negative tone that can lead to self-deprecation. “I’m going to eat better” can be a goal but adding a feeling of brokenness turns it to “I’m going to eat better because I am fat.” Not great self-talk.

Evolutions

Rather than resolution, make it an evolution. This changes the idea from not a fix, but a continuous improvement to the habits and actions that lead to positive outcomes. It also gives the right to make changes gradually, allowing for flexibility. As an evolution, it happens over time rather than a resolution that is absolute and rigid.

As you work through your own goals, consider the mental shift from a resolution to evolution. Believing that it is an evolution gets you over the social concept, through January, and beyond the first couple times you “slip.” If you agonize over your progress you’ll lose hope too quickly. Habits take time to form and you need the mental strength. Even upward trends have ups and downs and so will you.