Healthy expectations at work provide much-needed (and desired!) clarity, and in turn, this eliminates ambiguity and confusion that can lead to undue anxiety at work. In fact, if organizations could increase the number of employees who knew what was expected of them, it could reduce turnover by 22%, reduce safety incidents by 29%, and increase productivity by 10% (Gallup).
Unfortunately, not all expectations are created equal. If you’re currently struggling with unrealistic expectations in the workplace, whether from your boss, client, or coworker, then read on to learn more about why it’s important to stand up for yourself and manage those expectations, as well as learn a few tips on how to do so tactfully.
Why Is It Important to Manage Expectations at Work?
First, let’s define what unrealistic expectations at work can look like. The most common unrealistic expectations may not fully consider the facts, be formulated without understanding the bigger picture, or be based on a past experience that is no longer relevant. They may even be unspoken, thus creating the need to “read the other person's mind” regarding what they want, when they want it, or how they want it done.
As you can imagine, trying to meet these kinds of expectations can cause all sorts of problems, including reduced work quality, increased absenteeism, low morale, low engagement due to repeated failures, missed targets and deadlines, loss of respect, and increased turnover (Robert Half). For these reasons, managing expectations is an important skill one must learn, whether you are an individual contributor, frontline manager, or senior leader.
How Do You Manage Expectations at Work?
At this point, you’re probably wondering how exactly you manage expectations at work? We’ll be honest with you; it can be daunting since it is not an exact science. How you manage an executive’s expectations will differ significantly from how you manage a coworker. It all depends on your relationship with them and the circumstances. It also requires you to strike the right balance of honesty, confidence, and compromise.
However, there are a few guiding principles that you can follow to get started managing expectations.
1. Remember, You Have the Authority to Say No
Saying no at work can seem taboo. But rest assured, you have the authority to say no and manage unrealistic expectations. Moreover, you must do it regardless of how difficult it is. That’s because if you do not learn to say no, you may find yourself burning out, failing, and underperforming, which is not something you or those setting expectations of you genuinely want.
2. Ask clarifying questions
Before jumping into managing an expectation you suspect is unrealistic, ask the other person some clarifying questions such as, how much of a priority is this? If this isn’t done by a specific time, what are the consequences? Is this urgent or important or both? Once you have answers to these types of questions, you’ll be able to decide if you need to manage the expectation and compromise or if the expectation is realistic, and you can work with it.
3. Don't Rush to agree
A simple yet effective way to manage expectations is to ask the person, “Can I get back to you on this once I review all my current deliverables?” This is a much more respectful tactic to take than blindly agreeing to an expectation that you only later find out you can’t deliver on. Instead, this gives you a chance to review the expectations regarding your current workload and identify any potential consequences that need to be addressed before moving forward.
4. Propose a reasonable compromise
Once you have asked clarifying questions, reviewed your current to-do list, and weighed the potential consequences, you may conclude that the original expectation is not feasible. In which case, try not to say flat-out “no.” Instead, you might say something like, “Given my current workload, I do not feel I could meet your expectations to the best of my ability. What I can do, is…”
5. Explain the consequences
At this point, if the person to who you presented a reasonable compromise to is unhappy with your answer, try explaining the consequences of meeting it. For example, you might say that it would jeopardize another urgent task, require you to work overtime, or need additional budget/personnel. Using logical and factual evidence may help the person realize why their expectation is unrealistic and what they can do to make it realistic if they’re unwilling to agree to your original compromised solution.
The reality is that you will never be able to eliminate unrealistic expectations at work. They will be something you face throughout your entire career. This makes it much more critical to gain the skills, tools, and confidence as early as possible to manage expectations. Fortunately, a combination of coaching from your leaders and mentors, communication training, experience, determination, and a little trial-and-error, will get you there.