Success Is as Much about Managing Expectations as It Is about Results

Interestingly, we humans have a very strong psychology connected to our expectations. We are remarkably willing to see most outcomes as positive if they exceed our expectations—even if the outcomes are frankly not very good. This is an important realization for senior managers and leaders.

In this vein, the comic strip character Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes, employed a very effective modus operandi with his parents. He purposely strove to be mediocre, average, even below average at times. Even as a little kid, he knew that by doing so he could impress his parents any time he wanted simply by being better than mediocre.

The same psychology exists in professional organizations. There is an art and a science to creating expectations that you are usually able to exceed. As an example, Southwest Airlines has brilliantly mastered something that the legacy carriers (American, Delta, etc.) are truly miserable at doing: managing flight delays. Any delay is bad, right? The airline has failed to deliver on the contract. However, at Southwest, when there is a delay, the gate agents will announce a delay time that is almost always longer than the actual delay! I don’t know what formula they use, but if they say the flight will be delayed for 35 minutes, it is usually delayed for less time, say 25 minutes. The customer suddenly thinks their flying experience has greatly improved and the airline has delivered, even when the flight is late!

As managers and leaders, to a great extent, our own success is similarly tied to our ability to manage expectations as much as it is connected to our performance. Let’s be clear that this is not about being “Calvin” from the comic strip. There are big downsides to consistently managing expectations downward. However, whether we are managing expectations to those above, beside, or below us in the organization, there is significant value in carefully finding a balance between what might be optimistically achieved vs. what is likely to be achieved. Relatedly, have a look at this post to see the big downsides of telling your boss or bosses what you think they want to hear vs. what you believe is true.

If five things all have to go right to achieve a goal, a budget, or any other outcome, and you lead people to believe you will succeed, then you are putting an exceptional amount of risk into the expectation. Likewise, if you commit to an extraordinarily high target of some kind, even if you experience excellent performance and come close, you will have “failed” to deliver. Using the airline example, people hate legacy carriers because they say a delay will be 35 minutes and it almost always turns out to be much more than that. It’s less about the number than it is about the fact that the expectation wasn’t achieved.

On the other hand, if you say that you are confident that you or your team will achieve something in the future because you are already at the target, then you are being disingenuous. Moreover, you cannot “lowball” expectations forever. The expectations you set have to be credible.

In short, there is no “upside” in building overly optimistic expectations. You may get some brief kudos for making people think you will deliver huge results, but if you don’t deliver, then you have two problems—you didn’t succeed and you lose credibility. You are better off generating expectations that show meaningful performance, but that are more likely to be achieved than not. At least as importantly, you want to have some un-committed “operational levers” in your back pocket, which is discussed in another post.

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