Expectations: Yours, mine, everyone’s

There’s a part of the working experience that doesn’t get talked about very often, but I think it highlights one of the most important skills that one can learn in a job: managing expectations. Your own, and others.

This issue comes up in any job, really, because how you fulfill the responsibilities of your job may not always be aligned with how others expect you to carry out those responsibilities. And there’s no such thing as anyone being 100% right or wrong when it comes to THEIR expectations. YOU may think your boss or client is being a completely unreasonable pain in the neck about what she or he wants you to do; THEY may think they’ve been super-clear about what they expect you to do and how you should do it; but NEITHER of you has a direct path to changing the other person’s expectations. Usually, what you have to do in situations like that is “manage expectations,” meaning, try to get into a space (ideally, in partnership with your boss or a mentor) to do the work of aligning what YOU thought you’d be doing (and are actually doing) with what THEY thought you’d be doing.

We bring all sorts of expectations to our daily existence, most of them informed by our cultures and our backgrounds and lived experiences. Just one (slightly embarrassing) example: I read a shit-ton of romance novels and Sixteen Candles was one of my favorite movies as a teenager: this resulted in some very skewed expectations on my part when I first embarked on my own romantic adventures. (Jake Ryan is never coming to pick me up in his red Porsche, wearing his sweater vest.)

Work is no different, when it comes to our collective tendency to front-load with expectations, sourced from goodness knows how many places. I started my work life in children’s book publishing, thinking of all of the wonderful authors I would have the chance to meet, all of the free books I would be able to take home. This came true only in a limited sense, and I was unprepared for the day-in, day-out drudgery of answering phones, managing correspondence, and reading through what was known as “the slush pile,” of unsolicited manuscripts. Every job I had after that, I eventually came to realize, was going to involve a process of managing expectations: my own, and then figuring out whether my expectations aligned with the ones my colleagues and boss had of me.

In communications, managing expectations is a particularly fraught and complicated experience, simply because the outputs of communication activity—messaging! A new blog post! A new campaign! A new website! A new video! A new multimedia interactive piece!—often feel so bright, shiny, and alluring when rolled out (if done well). I wrote about this in a previous blog post, but people’s appetite for communications often outpaces their need to prioritize and think strategically.

So communication people, in particular, have to be really, really skillful at managing expectations. They have to say, politely, “Well, yes, we can come up with a plan to communicate about this big research report you’re about to complete, but we have to first agree on: key findings, core messages, key spokespeople, and what’s the best strategy for positioning it in this media environment. And yes, I can put together the plan, but no, I can’t design and produce the report. Yes, we could think about a video as part of the media package, but actually, we don’t have the budget or capacity to produce one, so that would have to be solved before we do one.”

I talk with my kids, who are now 21 and 18, and with my younger colleagues, about managing expectations in work life pretty regularly. (I also talk with my kids about managing expectations in life, in general, but that’s another thread.) I tell them that in the beginning of their careers, this is the time when you really, really want to exceed expectations—your own, and, the people who hired you. People who hire young people in entry-level jobs don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to have a full-blown set of skills and experiences to bring to bear in those sorts of roles. Therefore, expectations at the beginning of one’s career should look something like this: the manager should give the employee opportunities for learning and development and exposure to future career opportunities, on top of giving them kindly-couched and specific feedback on how they’re doing on their actual work responsibilities—positive and “needs work.” The employee should do everything possible to perform excellently on the basics: showing up on time, willingness to pitch in on things not in the job description, and timely and thorough execution of the tasks assigned, so they can then ask (if they’re not already being given) for more interesting projects and experiences to work with.  

The way I hoped it would work for me, in that first job in publishing, was that I would answer phones and deal with correspondence diligently and faithfully, and in return, I might have the chance to sit in on editorial and book list development meetings. With that job, the expectations did NOT align. I kept soldiering through with administrative tasks, day after day, and was given no line of sight into the more interesting work of actually, you know, publishing books. I even came up with two ideas for books which eventually made it onto the lists, and I was still given no access into the editorial or design process for the resultant books. The publishing industry, back then, had all too many young people from privileged backgrounds, willing to serve as vastly underpaid administrative assistants for the chance of maybe one day getting an editorial slot. So after two years, after the expectations stayed out of whack, I left.

I think that’s the most important lesson of all: to remember that sometimes, the expectations will stay unaligned. That sometimes, no matter what you do or say as an employee, or how well-intentioned the employer is, the forces that be will keep things out of whack. This is why you hear of toxic organizational cultures that persist for years and years until a Big Reveal happens, and then, when the company announces it’s “taking steps” to address the issues, everyone’s all like, “Yeah, but it’s been that way for years.” Sometimes, people forget what they ought to expect from a job—what they are supposed to give, and what they are supposed to get—and employers forget what they ought to expect from an employee—what they are supposed to give, what they are supposed to get. And then unhappiness ensues. And no amount of free snacks is going to solve that problem.

Sometimes, mis-matched expectations can be solved by finding a better organization with a more positive culture. Sometimes, there’s a message embedded in the mis-alignment of expectations, if you can get past your pain and anger to decipher it. For example: with my children’s book publishing example, not only did I realize that I sucked at being an administrative assistant, I also would far rather BE an author than be in the business of editing and publishing authors. I ended up publishing a book of my own and then moving into the social sector and communications, which I also found to be fulfilling and satisfying in a way publishing never would have been, for me.

Mis-matched expectations usually cause a lot of unhappiness—on both sides, although it feels like the employee suffers more than the employer. I’ve had more people bring me their unhappy work situations in the past several years than I can ever remember. And usually, the advice I give them, after listening to them carefully, has to do with expectations. I ask them what they expected from the job. I ask them whether they thought what was expected of them in the job has changed in a way that feels unreasonable or even abusive. And then I ask them whether they feel empowered to do anything to manage or shift those expectations—their own expectations, and also, other people’s.

Sometimes, people don’t feel empowered or able to do that, which I get completely. But if you don’t have the will or capacity to help bring expectations into alignment (and if your employer is not going to meet you halfway on this sort of thing), then your choices, sadly, are not great. It’s either stay, and reconcile yourself to your work conditions, or leave, and begin the process of aligning expectations all over again, at a different place.

In the consulting/freelance world, which I’m in now, the management and alignment of expectations has to happen with every client, on a project-by-project basis. And while I am a great deal more forgiving of mis-aligned expectations in the consulting space than I was as a full-time employee (when you don’t have to attend as many meetings, your well of patience is less likely to run dry), I still do have some ground rules when it comes to expectations. Like, I expect that my clients will communicate with me and connect me to the right people so I can do the job they hired me to do. If my clients start ghosting me for no good reason, or if I start getting a whiff that the organization is really Going Through Something, and are not going to let me complete the project, or if they ask me to do things way out of scope, then I’m out. Those expectations are not going to align anytime soon and as a consultant, I am not well-positioned to try and align my expectations to those from a wholly dysfunctional organizational culture.

My main point is, managing expectations is a part of life, and it is especially a part of work life. It is also a delicate and complex endeavor—I’ve managed people’s communications expectations for so long now, at age 53, I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of it. I’m finally starting to have that critical distance of experience where I can say: hmmmm, maybe this person doesn’t wake up cranky every single day, maybe we’re just on different pages about what she or he expected me to do, and what I expected to do. I am hugely sympathetic towards my younger, less experienced communications colleagues who feel less able to parse and process what’s going on when expectations fall out of alignment.

And, I hope it goes without saying that managing expectations has gotten even weirder and more complicated during these pandemic times, when you’re on Zoom all the damn day long, and you have no idea whether you’re expected to stay onscreen or not, and how you’re supposed to feel about your colleagues’ guest appearances. In retrospect, the BBC News Guy was a harbinger for us all about how expectations might have to change in a pandemic world.

One of my favorite resources for navigating these sorts of situations: the column Ask a Boss, which is published regularly by The Cut (an offshoot of New York Magazine). Alison Green, who writes the responses to readers’ questions, does an excellent job of affirming or debunking expectations on both sides, the employee and the employer.

Expectations can change, but it’s a part of the working experience to get them to change. I will share a story that I have probably told before in a blog post, but I think of it often: I used to work at a place that offered lunch to employees, which was a big upside of its culture. They used to offer a lavish dessert spread as part of this lunch but then changed to more health-conscious options, like jello and low-fat cookies. The low-fat cookies were sadly unlike the previous cookies offered, it almost seemed better to have no cookie at all (which is actually where I ended up going, and I became a big jello fan), but then someone suggested to me: “Think of it as cookie-flavored bread, not as a cookie, and then it will make more sense.”

It really did make more sense that way. Expectations can be magical, once they shift appropriately.