Keeping Expectations in Check

(This article was originally published by Elsevier in Nurse Leader).

Most of us know that there is a time and place for well-crafted expectations. For example, clear expectations are necessary components for leading a successful team. When the manager shares expectations with team members, and those team members can ask questions, clarify, and sometimes re-negotiate, both the manager and the team members are better able to fulfill their responsibilities.

But how many of us are mindful of the role that expectations play in our many other professional interactions? This poignant question came to life when I heard 2 unrelated, but strikingly similar stories. Camila and Ashley live in different parts of the country, and they are both smart, accomplished nurse managers who “know their stuff.” By any measure, both Camila and Ashley are considered more than competent by their colleagues.

But both Camila and Ashley are challenged by their relationships with their bosses. In her years as a manager, Ashley has received consistently positive evaluations and support from all corners of her organization. But to her dismay, she has learned that her position is being eliminated.  Although there is not a date certain, she has known for months that she will be losing her job sometime in the next year.

Ashley has an intellectual understanding of the circumstances that led to the decision to end her employment.  But she is having great difficulty emotionally accepting that her job will end. She is also having a hard time accepting how she was told about this very significant event.

The other manager, Camila, is not losing her job. But Camila feels she has received little to no recognition for her contributions to her team’s accomplishments.  She says her boss  does not acknowledge her for the articles she has written, awards she has won, and the consistent leadership she has shown both inside and outside the organization.

What do these situations, and the leaders who are in them, have in common?  Here are a few similarities:

  1. Both Ashley and Camila are disappointed in how their respective supervisors are treating them, and they both want more recognition.
  2. Camila and Ashley are both clear that if they were in their managers’ shoes, they would do things differently. They would acknowledge and respect the successes that their subordinates have achieved, and Ashley says she would handle a valued employee’s termination much differently.
  3. The realities of not feeling recognized for significant achievement and suffering a job loss are painful under any circumstances. But both Camila and Ashley are assuming that these actions are about being disrespected when disrespect may not be a factor in either of these situations. Just one possibility is that these supervisors do not know how to manage more effectively.

Both Camila and Ashley are aware of being angry and hurt, but neither can see that she is assigning meaning to her boss’ actions that may not be accurate. They do not realize that their feelings are worsened by their unacknowledged expectations that their bosses will treat them the way they would treat others.

The story of outsized expectations is not just a story about Camila and Ashley. It is a story about many of us who have expectations that may not be conscious or spoken, but they are powerful enough to inflict real emotional distress on us and others.

There are many examples of ill-advised expectations. When we are harboring them, our internal dialogue might sound like one of these statements:

  • My manager should manage the way I would manage.
  • If people behaved the way I would behave, they would treat me differently. They would ask my opinion and honor it—or they would at least listen and understand it when I offer it.
  • When people hear what I have to say, or when they realize that they are approaching a situation incorrectly, they will see the light and admit that they are wrong.
  • When people understand that “I am right,” they will acknowledge me and the validity of my position.

So what is the solution?   Is there a remedy for misplaced expectations?  It’s very easy to say “just let them go,” and if we can do that, life will surely be different. But for some of us, that is not so easy, so here are some ways to lessen our distress and become more effective as leaders, managers, and subordinates.

  1. We can expand our self-awareness. When others don’t do what we want and we feel hurt, we can identify the true cause(s) of our hurt. Is it the actual situation (like Ashley’s job loss)? Or, is the way we are interpreting others’ actions causing us to feel troubled for reasons that may not be accurate.
  2. We can be gentle and compassionate with ourselves. The hurt that both Camila and Ashley feel is natural. But, as they become aware that their pain is amplified by their unspoken expectations of their bosses, they can see these expectations for what they are. In the process, they can honor and sooth their feelings of true grief and loss.
  3. We can own our part of the problem. When we expect others to be excellent managers, and they are not, how can we deal with that in a way that is helpful?
  4. When our bosses do not behave as we would, even if we are “right,” it is our responsibility to address that in a way that works. To start, we need to objectively consider the facts rather than unintentionally filter those facts only through the lenses of resentment, hurt, and how “we would do it.”
  5. We can consider what action, if any, we want to take.  Do we need to talk about what is occurring?  Do we want to ask for something? As we become clear about problems that are ours to own, we can also become clear about what we will do to resolve or at least live with them more peacefully.
  6. If we are still having trouble letting go of ill-serving expectations, we can ask ourselves what it will take to release them. To experience the benefit of this question, we need to be truly honest when we answer it.

I revisited Camila and Ashley recently, and both were more aware of what they had contributed to their problems with their bosses. They were both less focused on the errors of their bosses’ ways and more focused on pro- actively addressing their own challenges.  Most important, both had learned that their natural emotional reactions had been unnecessarily intensified by their unstated and unfulfilled expectations of others.

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