The Expectation Trap


Image by Shutterstock

Shakespeare once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

Meeting expectations can be hard. Whether they come from bosses, spouses, parents, relationship partners, colleagues, friends or your internal expectations, you cannot exceed them before you first meet them. To meet expectations, you must first begin with consistency of your word. Do what you say you are going to do by when you say you will do it. Consistency builds trust. Deliver on what has been promised. Then do it again. Then do it one more time. If you are doing it right, the bar should constantly rise with increasing efficacy and experience. Know what you can do and be able to communicate that clearly. It is imperative to not make the mistake of overstating your availability, efforts, intentions and abilities to accomplish something you set out to do.

It is a pet peeve of mine when somebody tells me that something will take X amount of days, and then that date or time passes and it takes much longer. At that point, the quality of the deliverable could be excellent, but my disappointment on having a promise broken lowers the perceived value of the service, person or group that provided it.

For example, let’s say you and a friend go to a movie. If you expect the movie to be just OK and it turns out to be great, you feel really happy. If you have been looking forward to the movie with high expectations and it is just OK, you are disappointed. The reality of the situation is not what creates happiness; it’s the reality compared to the expectation. In any situation, your happiness is dictated by the reality of the situation stacked up against your expectations.

One of the first expectations I give new staff members on my team is “under-promise and over-deliver.” Overpromising sets you or your team up for failure. Overpromising is telling me you can do something that is not possible. When you over-promise, the damage you do is mostly to your career and your reputation. If you consistently miss expectations, you can expect to find yourself in the “out-group” with more scrutiny, possible micromanagement, lowered expectations and fewer opportunities coming your way.

Under promising is telling me what you know is 100% achievable and has the possibility to be exceeded. Under promising is making a time commitment or accepting an assignment, and always giving yourself a buffer to beat the timeframe you committed to, or at the very least, meet it. This is an easy opportunity to exceed expectations, yet for whatever reason, most people over-promise and then cannot deliver, creating unnecessary disappointment. When you deliver more than what they were expecting, the perceived value of the work increases. Your value increases.

As a supervisor, set realistic timeframes. If you give a project deadline of Friday, but you are thinking, “If I were doing the work, I’d have it done by Tuesday,” and you don’t convey this feeling to the employee, you are setting them up to fail. If you want your people to meet and exceed your expectations, always set the deadlines you really want. Better yet, work with your people to determine a deadline that is achievable and acceptable. If you want your team to go beyond simply completing the minimum requirements of their job, you need to communicate and describe to your team what it would look like to achieve success. If they clearly know what the expectations are, it is easier to exceed those expectations. For the employee, it’s important to speak up if you are not clear on what the expectations are or if they are unrealistic.

If people are not able to consistently meet your expectations, look at possible skill gaps, knowledge gaps or conflicting priorities that act as barriers to effectively do good work. It may simply be the person cannot adequately perform the duties of the position. In this situation, as long as expectations have been clearly established, it should make it easier to document and remove the person from the team, which should be a last resort.

Unfortunately, most people over-promise and then cannot deliver, creating unnecessary negativity and disappointment. The good news is if you and your team can communicate well, establish priorities appropriately, act with integrity and generally get the job done right, you will be an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity and avoid the heartache.

Matt Beck
Matt Beck, MS, CPRP, RCRSP is currently an associate director for the department of wellness at Oklahoma State University. Matt’s expertise is rooted in recreation programs and facility management with specialties in leadership development and project management. He has worked in campus recreation at multiple institutions in the roles of associate director of programs, and associate director facilities and operations, as well as serving as a parks and recreation director for two different communities. Matt’s collegiate recreation service has included the NIRSA Assembly, NIRSA State Director, NIRSA Professional Registry Commissioner, NIRSA Wasson Award committee, NIRSA Campus Engagement Coordinator, NIRSA Mentor Program, Oklahoma State Workshop Planning Committee Chair, NIRSA State Student Leader, Director of Officials and Officials Committee member at numerous NIRSA tournaments, as well as a presenter at the NIRSA National, Regional and State level conferences. He is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in health, leisure and human performance at OSU. Matt can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *