Therapist Column: Expectations Management for Leaders

What Can Therapy Do?  


Expectations Management for Leaders, by Douglas Newton, LMFT

Few phenomena can shift emotions quite as powerfully as expectations.  According to Buddhism, suffering comes from expecting what we don’t get or getting what we don’t expect.  Life circumstances have a way of delivering both situations on a daily basis, personally and professionally.  A part you need doesn’t arrive on time due to supply chain issues, holding up production.  A phone call from a close friend delivers the news that a loved one has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease.

Seeing expectations everywhere

Expectations are woven into the way our brain attaches to rewards and avoids potential dangers.  Understanding what we can reasonably expect has a basic survival use that is woven into our experience and reinforced over time through our DNA (genetic heritage).  Expectations layer into almost everything we do.

All our travel plans, for example, rely on functional cars and airplanes, amenable weather, robust infrastructure and people showing up to help us get from place to place.  Life is tricky, as we all know.  One accident on the highway, one flat tire, one atmospheric river or one airline strike can change our plans and trigger various emotions.  Frustration, pain, consternation, angry phone calling, high blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol flow through us.  Stress can become anxiety and anxiety can lead to panic.  Acute stress is tolerable, but can lead to physical health problems without regular and adequate recovery.

Awareness of expectations in a workplace culture

In the workplace, understanding what we can expect from employees and colleagues influences delivery schedules, product launches, overall reputation and client satisfaction.  Do your reports know when they can and cannot contact you?  Do you have a clear idea of what you can expect from them?  Are those expectations flexible enough to account for unforeseen issues or complex dependencies on partners and processes?

Do what you say and say what you do.

Communicating what you expect and what others expect from you can exert a soothing influence on your relationships.  Clear expectations can increase a feeling of safety that informs a workplace culture.  This in turn can diminish stress, burnout and confusion, improving the internal value proposition for employees and increasing retention.

A focus on expectations can provide useful data, such as subjective and objective measures that define focus, priority, work-flow, and team logic that optimize structure and processes to get things done.  At the same time, anticipating how things may go wrong can provide the elasticity people need to deal with the adventures and lessons along the way.

Pay attention, harvest lessons, and stay flexible

In the publishing world there is an expression, “When you’re 99% done you’re halfway there.”  There’s the bug in the program, the part that didn’t arrive, the colleague out with Covid or the need to seize a new opportunity and shift priorities.  When it comes to expectations, perhaps a leader needs what a body needs, according to Thomas Richardson, “dynamic structural flexibility.”

Learning lessons, and remaining agile requires flexible expectations.  So does your relationship with yourself, others, your business, your job, and society in general.

Your therapist can help you understand the relationship between healthy boundaries and expectations.  Your therapist can help you explore how rigidity in your thinking may be impacting your colleagues and your culture at work.  Your therapist can help you foster psychological safety at work. By reflecting on expectations, and the dynamics that inform them, you can increase your influence as a responsive, respected leader at work.

If you don’t yet have a therapist, consider employing the experts at SF Stress & Anxiety Center.  Clear the fog.  Find and expand your center. Get the help that makes a concrete difference in your life and how you relate to yourself, others and the world.  Click the button below to schedule a time to speak to a Care-Coordinator.


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