Often, it's not the end result that matters - instead it's the end result compared to the expectations. It started out with sports: one person would say that a team won and another would reply back with "yeah, but did they cover the spread?" Now, we've seen it play out in politics with the New Hampshire primary - had Barack Obama not surged to a double digit lead in the polls leading up to the vote, the results would have helped his campaign instead of giving Hillary Clinton all the positive media coverage.
But that's the way life is. How else could two students come home with a B on a test and one (a "C" student) receives praise while the other (an "A" student) is punished? Why do people find upset victories so fascinating? Why do people that consistently perform above average feel like failures? The answer: expectations.
Managing expectations is a topic that we all need to master. No matter where you want to succeed, you need to understand the expectations as well as the desired result. That's the reason why so many people are conservative when they provide estimates. They know it'll take them three hours to do a task, but it could take four. It's better to say five and if they do it in three (or even four) they look like a hero.
Results that don't keep up with expectations is a problem that leads to misery on the job, in relationships and in business. An expectation is set that someone will do something within a set of given parameters. If the person does it within the desired parameters, they're in the clear. But if even one of the parameters is not met, sometimes regardless of whether they exceed every other parameter, they look bad.
Life is always changing, which further complicates matters. Let's say in your job or business, you're asked to estimate a task. You estimate the task to take two weeks and begin working on it. One week into the project, you find that you're 75% done and communicate it to your boss or client. During the second week, you run into a snag that sets you back but you're still able to complete the task as promised by the deadline. However, your boss or client feels like you let them down because you inadvertently raised their expectations when you told them you were 75% finished at the halfway mark – even though you still met your original deadline.
Interestingly, the reverse also works. Had you hit the snag early and told your boss or client that you were only 25% done at the halfway mark but still managed to finish on time, you'd impress your boss or client. It's surprising how the same amount of work and the same result can be perceived both positively and negatively depending solely on the expectations.
So does this mean that you should always pad your estimates and lower expectations so you can look better? Absolutely not. If you're constantly lowering expectations for yourself and overestimating tasks, you'll create a negative expectation around your work. If you own a business and you're always estimating that a job will take longer and cost more than your competitors, they'll start to get your business. At work, if you're always saying that things will take you longer than what your coworkers are estimating, then your boss may wonder if you're inefficient.
So what do you do? You need to communicate carefully. Make your estimates as accurate as possible but also plan for setbacks. Communicate up front that you expect something to take a certain amount of time and that if you avoid some setbacks, you may get done sooner. Also put the caveat in that there are unforeseen problems that could always delay the effort, but from your current vantage point, you don't see them as a threat.
As unfair as it is, successful results can be eclipsed by expectations. But by being aware of what your expectations are and communicating carefully to effectively manage those expectations, you can succeed.
© 2008 James Feudo
James Feudo is a speaker, author and trainer specializing in communication skills. James has developed a series of programs to help people improve how they communicate with themselves, others and to groups. You can learn more about James at www.jamesfeudo.com and visit his blog at blog.jvf.com where you can sign up for free tips delivered to your email inbox.