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How to Manage Expectations at Work

How do you define success for yourself at work? Is it making a lot of money, having a great work/life balance, getting promoted, doing meaningful or fulfilling work, or finding joy in the journey? All these things are great, but regardless of how you define success for yourself, your company defines success for you in one way: it’s a math equation.

That equation is simple: Success = Performance / Expectations.

While most people focus on increasing and managing their performance, too few pay attention to expectations. It’s the ratio of these factors that truly matters. For example, if I’m performing at a 2 and the expectation of me is a 1, I’m doing awesome. But if I’m performing at a 3— even better! However, if my expectation is at a 4… I’m in trouble.

That's why managing expectations is crucial. If LeBron James scored 4 points in an NBA game, would he be considered successful? Absolutely not.

But if I scored 4 points in an NBA game, would I be successful? Yes.

You need to manage both your performance and expectations over time, ensuring they increase consistently and that one doesn't get too out of whack. The first step to managing expectations is reducing ambiguity about what's expected of you.

Typically at work, you have a stated expectation - your boss says they want something from you. But beneath that stated expectation, there’s also an unstated one. While the stated expectation is pretty clear, unstated expectations are highly ambiguous but real nonetheless. Those unstated expectations exist, even if your boss or your company doesn't communicate them. To reduce ambiguity, expand upon the stated expectations by asking clarifying questions to ensure you understand what's required.

“Hey, boss, when do you need this by?”

“What distinguishes a B- from an A+ on this assignment?”

“Have other employees completed this assignment before, and if so, how did they succeed?”

“Are there any mentors who could help me understand how to excel here?”

While these clarifying questions might not provide all the answers, they will reduce much of the ambiguity.

But what if your boss assigns you a task, you reduce ambiguity, and you understand what's expected, yet you feel the expectations are unreasonable?

First, avoid reacting in the moment because doing so may lead to emotional rather than logical responses due to incomplete information. Take some time, sleep on it, and reflect. You might discover that, with time and thought, you can indeed meet those expectations. But what if you've taken the time, slept on it, and still believe the expectations are unreasonable? What then?

It’s simple. You walk into your boss and you tell him or her that their game plan is stupid. Just kidding. That’s a bad idea.

Consider this: What's the easiest way to get a toy away from a baby? It's not by taking it abruptly; it's by offering a bright, shiny new toy!

Many managers, when assigning tasks, don't thoroughly plan or consider the implications. They know they need something done. So they take a few minutes and give you their best shot. If you invest an hour or two in carefully thinking through how to complete the assignment and then present your well-thought-out plan to your manager, it's likely they'll appreciate your initiative. This approach also provides flexibility in terms of timelines.

That's all for today. Now go out there and manage not only your performance but also your expectations.


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