by Sharon Billings

We were all together in the conference room, waiting to meet our new boss. We were prepared with our introductions and highlights for our respective teams.  We wanted her to know we were glad she was there and were ready to do our part to help her succeed in her new role. We imagined what our future might look like under her leadership. The future looked bright. We couldn’t wait to meet her.  We were ready for change. Expectations were high.   

She entered the room, sat down, said hello and proceeded to tell us about her background, her vision and her priorities for her first 30 days. She fielded a few questions, said “see ya next week” and left… without even asking our names. 

WTF! We were deflated to say the least. That’s NOT what was supposed to happen! The disappointment was palpable. We felt awful.  And our frustration lingered well past that day. 

We had expectations for what this meeting would be. We had emotional attachments to our vision. It seemed so obvious to us.  But we neglected one simple but important fact. Our new boss had expectations, too.

This happened long ago, but it left a mark. The bigger the gap between what you expect and what you experience the more intense the response. Disappointment like this happens all the time in the workplace and it has an impact, in small ways and sometimes in huge ways. We ALL have expectations and when ours don’t align with others, someone is inevitably disappointed. 

To learn from disappointment, we need to start with expectations. 

Our expectations are defined by the data our brains collect throughout our lives.  We internalize what we experience and what we observe. We look for signals. What keeps us safe? What is rewarded? What is punished? What got us the result we were looking for?  What didn’t?  Our brains are pattern matching. If x, then y. How we interpret the signals influences our expectations. 

We’re often not conscious of what our expectations even are, but we sure don’t like it when they’re not being met! That is when we feel disappointment. The more firmly rooted the expectation, the more intensely we feel disappointment when reality falls short.  

How tightly we hold our expectation can be attributed to: 

  • The volume of evidence we gather over time 
  • The intensity of the signals (positive or negative) 
  • The level of trust we have in the data source of the signal itself 
  • The attachment we have to a certain outcome 
  • Or likely some combination of all the above 

Our expectations often go unchecked.  They’re so obvious to us that it doesn’t even occur to us that someone else would have different expectations. This thinking causes us to miss each other  over and over again.  This often leads to judgment, resentment and frustration.  That was  certainly true for our team meeting.  We didn’t pause to think, or better yet to ASK what our new leader’s expectations were for our intro meeting. When our expectations were not met we just vented our anger and disappointment amongst ourselves. We didn’t try to understand what was really going on. We missed an opportunity to learn.  

We accelerate learning when we accept that people have different expectations. 

When that moment of disappointment hits (and it will), pause to remember that every human has been collecting unique data throughout their lives. So it’s logical that everyone has unique expectations. Understanding this reality alone can help to diffuse emotions when your expectations are not being met.  The thought, “oh…you just have different expectations”  vs. “what the hell were you thinking?!” is far more productive and more likely to help you work through the disconnect.  Curiosity vs. judgment is the key to learning and positive forward movement. 

We think our own expectations are “right” because they feel so obvious to us. We assume others know exactly what our expectations are and expect them to act accordingly.  When they don’t we’re surprised and we don’t like it one bit! I’ve seen this play out countless times in both personal and professional scenarios. It’s a recipe for disaster that can only be mitigated by taking personal responsibility for your own expectations.  Are you clear yourself?  Are you communicating your expectations clearly and explicitly with others? Or are you making assumptions that your expectations are the same? 

Learning requires personal responsibility, curiosity and action.

Making an effort to understand expectations (yours and others) can mitigate disappointment.  That’s a great start. But going deeper and exploring the WHY of it all is where the rich learning happens. You heighten awareness of self and others.  

The BIGGEST payoff is when you build clarifying expectations into your organization’s systems and reward active learning. This sends a clear signal as to what YOUR expectations are as an organization.  This can strengthen relationships, save time and accelerate progress!

How to learn from disappointment:

Consider a time in the recent past where you were disappointed.  Imagine walking through these steps and what might have happened if you had taken this approach. Or maybe you did?  Fantastic!. Keep this in mind going forward and experiment with taking these steps.  

  1. Recognize disappointment by the emotion it evokes – sadness, anger, frustration, resentment, judgment. (This is often the hardest step, but it’s the MOST important)
  2. Seize this as an opportunity to learn. Pause. Take a step back. Get curious. Be open to what you don’t know.
  3. Ask: What’s my expectation here?  Why is it my expectation? Am I willing to update?
  4. Ask: Have I communicated these expectations clearly? Is there value in doing that now?
  5. Ask: How can I better understand other’s expectations? Take steps to do that.  
  6. Ask: What can I improve going forward to ensure expectations are clear across all parties involved? 

How to operationalize clarifying expectations:

The most efficient way to operationalize expectations for your business is to build it into your organization’s design.  Ensuring expectations are clearly defined and cohesively aligned across your organization saves time, improves results and accelerates progress!

I created a FREE Organization Alignment Assessment to help get you started.  

Turn Disappointment into LEARNING

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