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Let Go of Expectations to Improve Your Leadership (and life).

Uncategorized Mar 18, 2021


Let go of expectations and seek agreements.

Have you ever felt disappointed, angry or hurt because someone didn’t meet your expectations? If you’re a leader, is there one (or several) of your team members failing to meet your expectations? Have you ever shared with a staff member, partner or child a statement that starts something like “I expect you to…”? Chances are you can say yes to at least one of these questions and chances are it led to a negative experience. Are you someone who prides themselves on “high expectations;” who often finds others simply don't live up to your exacting standards?  Maybe we should stop having “expectations” of others... How would letting go of expectations improve your leadership?

What a minute!  (insert sound of screeching tires) Am I asking you to lower your standards, lower the bar and just accept whatever happens?  That sounds like a recipe for mediocrity! NOPE – you can still seek excellence, you can still achieve goals, you can still surround yourself with high performing people. I am asking that you step into your leadership in your relationships to build solid communication and connection.

When you let go of expectations and seek agreements instead you employ a conscious leadership skill that can be transformative.

When we have expectations, we are looking for a particular outcome. When we have agreements, multiple parties discuss the desired outcome and make a commitment to get there. When we have expectations, we don’t necessarily have clear commitment from all parties to act accordingly; when we make an agreement, we communicate about our expectations and desired outcomes and people commit to certain actions in order to achieve that end state.

The dynamic of having “expectations” of others is a recipe for hard feelings for everyone involved and generally creates more negative experiences than positive. There are many reasons for this:

First, the truth is, we often don’t communicate our expectations clearly enough – this is a definite set-up for failure. Even something that seems like a reasonable assumption and “obvious” to you may not be so to another. Making sure we have conversations about our expectations or desired vision helps in many ways, not the least of which is that it can make visible the assumptions, internal biases or cultural expectations that we are working from. Sometimes the mere act of articulating our expectations reveals places where WE may need to make change or address an unspoken barrier. This takes some bravery and self-awareness - critical aspects of good leadership. Most of us have experienced conflict where, in the end, after the clash, someone says something like “I didn’t know that was what you expected” or “If I had known that then I would have done it!”  Yup – been there.

Expectations are toxic because they put your satisfaction in the hands of others – your reaction and emotional state depends upon someone else meeting or failing to meet them, and it keeps the criteria for success “invisible.” Because having expectations of others is a kind of top-down, unidirectional experience, it can prompt the natural stress response and create push back instead of partnership and collaboration. Layer on top any of those unspoken biases hiding within our expectations that may set others up to be perceived unfairly without ability to collaborate in determining an expected outcome and we see that expectations are fraught.

For all these reasons, when others hear a leader say (directly or implied) “I expect you to….” they can become defensive or reactive; experiencing the loss of connection and loss of autonomy that authoritative leadership creates. It often results in people feeling psychologically unsafe which we know limits creativity, collaboration and engagement.  Also, unfortunately, many of us have had negative experiences in the past of the shame and guilt of not meeting others’ expectations (often but not always rooted in our family or academic experiences). This means that as soon as someone “has expectations of us,” we are already at odds and may be working with emotions triggered.

On this emotional level, starting with expectations creates neutral emotions at best, and negative, conflictual emotions at worst. Okay, so you met my expectations –meh, fine…  “Meeting expectations” is not generally something that we cheer about. After all, it’s “expected.”  So, having expectations of others means that at best we feel a neutral, “blah” upon completion and at worst we feel disappointment, anger or hurt when others miss our mark. All this while they have an experience that is potentially disempowering, sometimes biased and maybe even shame inducing. Very little upside. How to let go of expectations? Open up to the possibilities that come from agreement.

In contrast, seeking agreement sets up you and your partner for more positive experiences, strengthens and clarifies relationships, improves creativity and problem solving and leads to better outcomes. High standards and excellent outcomes are supported and achieved in collaborative partnership. 

Here’s a very simple example to illustrate the point …

Instead of “I expect this report by Friday at noon”(assuming you communicated your expectation at all – many people would just be angry on Monday morning when the report had not arrived!)  

Replace that by using the opportunity to engage your colleague in a collaborative agreement  “Can we agree this will be ready by Friday at Noon?”  

Agreement achieves a number of things all at once – it starts with clear communication, creates a collaborative commitment between the two of you and signals ownership by the person agreeing. This also provides an opportunity to discuss and problem solve if needed.  The ownership and accountability for various actions are made clear and if clarity is still lacking there is a chance to discuss. This discussion keeps you, the leader (parent, spouse,) informed about context and what is happening “on the ground” in your organization and empowers your partner to use their voice to bring insight and knowledge to the table.  If what you are asking for is unrealistic your colleague has an opportunity to speak up. (Of course, you have to be willing to collaborate too! “My way or the highway” thinking isn’t productive to relational agreements.)  If for some reason they feel they cannot agree, they can share information, ask for resources, or offer other solutions.  “I can get this done by noon Friday if the sales report can wait until Tuesday'' or “If I have someone to crunch the numbers for me” or “This won't be complete by Monday because the monthly report doesn’t arrive until Wednesdays and I’ll need those numbers.” etc.…

Both players are empowered as partners and there is clarity about the context of the work in relation to other things happening in the organization. It may also mean that YOU have to agree to something - providing more support, putting something else on hold etc.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that as soon as you have an agreement to a course of action then there will never be disappointments, it does, however put you in dialogue and sets the stage for a trusting relationship. If the partnership fails to achieve whatever was set out in the agreement, you have a chance to talk it through. Maybe you can help develop that person or maybe you will discover what you needed to do differently.  You can find out what went wrong and make new “agreements” to go forward such as – “let’s agree to be open and honest if things aren’t progressing as expected” or “let’s agree that you’ll ask for the resources you need” or “let’s agree that I will be available for your questions as you work through this project” or even “let’s agree to keep our agreements in the future.” 

Using this strategy of discussion and collaborative agreement builds trust and transparency, helps you understand the people you are leading, the context they are working in and the resources they need, helps them achieve and feel competent in clearly understanding their roles, and empowers them with a voice in the co-creation of outcomes. Overall it encourages emotionally mature, less reactive interactions based on honest communication -key components of conscious leadership.

So, can we agree to let go of having “expectations?”


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