Unmet Expectations

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I read an article recently about how unmet expectations can be a silent killer in all types of relationships. This particular article focused mostly on marriage, but mentioned the broader implications for other types of relationships. It got me thinking about work relationships and how unmet expectations can affect them.

In observing human interactions in the work place for more than 20 years, we’ve noticed a couple of trends related to unmet expectations. Here’s our top three.

Saying too little.

There is a definite trend in many professional settings to say less. We’re not sure if it comes from people being told they are over-communicative, or not wanting to be perceived as bossy or a micro-manager, but this is a clear pattern we’ve seen replicated across industries and all business sizes. When we walk away from a conversation (whether by email or in person) with a colleague, and things have not been spelled out clearly, it often leads to a failure to meet expectations because those expectations were never stated. Which leads us to number two…


Very closely linked to saying too little, assumptions are what happen when we walk away from those conversations without seeking clarity. Whether it’s out of embarrassment, fear, or being over-confident, many of us make assumptions about what we think are the expectations of the other person. Sometimes we guess correctly, and sometimes we don’t.

Choosing what’s easy over what’s hard.

There are people who are hard-wired to avoid conflict or confrontation of any form. To these gentle souls, even the process of stepping forward to seek greater clarity or ask questions can be daunting. For others, it’s the assumptions we just discussed that lead them to assume they already understand enough about what the expectations are, and they just move forward because asking for confirmation seems like extra work. For others still, the process of speaking up to ask questions may not be daunting, but they may fear looking dumb or like they weren’t listening. When it comes to laying out our own expectations, sometimes it’s easier to let others come to us if they don’t understand, rather than appearing to be too domineering or high maintenance by laying out those expectations more clearly.

Whatever the reasons for it, unmet expectations in the work place impact us. The effects range from mildly irritating or disappointing, to having real consequences for project goals being met.

Think about your own work place. Do you fall into any of the traps we described above? How can you take steps to make sure you don’t let yourself off the hook for improving communication with those around you? We encourage you to identify one colleague, boss or co-worker with whom you chronically experience unmet expectations. Think about one step you can take to improve that situation. Reflect on what your own expectations are for an upcoming interaction, meeting, or project. The clearer you are about those, the easier it will be to map out a more productive way forward. As always, we’re here to help.

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