How to Manage Expectations

Expectations are an unavoidable aspect of life, and they need to be treated with care wherever they crop up. Expectations that are too much or too little can lead to confusion, hurt relationships, miscommunication, and much more. A little bit of expectation management can help to mitigate drama in relationships, at work, and more.

Believe it or not, just a little bit of experience with expectation management can go a long way. Expectation management is a desirable leadership skill, and it might just help you navigate some problematic relationships in the future, too.

This guide will teach you what you need to know about expectation management skills, as well as how to go about building them.

Why Do Expectations Cause Problems?

As human beings, we naturally place expectations on various things. For example, if a new video game is releasing that you’ve been anticipating for a while, the game might not live up to those expectations that you’ve held for so long. This is why keeping our expectations in check is so important.

The expectations we set are influenced by our experiences as we age and mature. For example, a child may have expectations about new things that vastly differ from an adult’s.

Consider how many children are afraid of monsters in their closets or under their beds, for example. A child might have expectations that there’s something scary in the dark places that they can’t see. An adult, however, expects that there’s nothing there. This is something that naturally changes as the child grows and gains more life experience.

However, because the expectations we develop change based on how we grow, everyone’s expectations can be different. It’s common for expectations to differ from adult to adult. This is where the difficulties with expectations originate from!

Consider two new friends, for example. One friend might have expectations that the friends hang out every other day and spend a significant amount of their time together, while the other friend might want a little more time to themselves than that. While the second friend doesn’t mean any slight to the first, the first friend might take it personally, thinking that the second doesn’t enjoy their company.

This is just one of many examples that can cause expectation-related issues. Expectations can cause problems in a work environment, too. Let’s consider an individual who’s moving from one workplace to another. Because of their previous job, they might have certain expectations about how they’re expected to behave and perform at work. However, the new workplace might have very different workplace rules than the previous one.

Essentially, the issue with expectations is that there’s no set rule for what your expectations should be. Someone who has found it difficult to fall in love, for example, might operate under the assumption that they can’t fall in love at all.

In the same way, someone who’s been well-loved and charismatic for most of their life might expect to be liked by everyone. They might experience confusion and hurt when someone does not like them because of this preconceived notion.

You Know What Happens When We Assume

Essentially, the difficulty that comes along with our expectations is that they’re based on assumptions. Making assumptions is a natural evolutionary adaptation of human beings, so we tend to do it without thinking a lot of the time.

Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, surviving a bad experience made us less likely to fall prey to the same scenario next time. As such, our bodies and minds have learned to rely on split-second decisions and assumptions over thousands of years.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in practice, but nowadays, these instincts aren’t as life-saving as they were thousands of years ago. Today, assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful, especially if we make a particularly egregious one.

A great way to avoid assuming your way into a bad situation is to ask plenty of questions. Firstly, consider the context in which you’re making your decisions. Are you handling a delicate project with future implications at your place of work? If so, you might want to devote a bit more time and effort to it than you would normally.

The best way to determine the context with which to make your decisions is to ask as many questions as necessary. You might feel hesitant to ask too many questions, but rest assured that this isn’t the case. Anyone in a position of authority knows that working under the wrong assumptions and needing to redo something later wastes far more time than asking a lot of questions does.

The questions you ask should always be based on the situation at hand, but there are still some general questions that provide an excellent place to start, too. Some examples of these include:

  • How much should I be communicating for this project?
  • What is the timeline for this project?
  • Is the timeline flexible?
  • When is the delivery date?
  • What’s expected to be in the final product?

More than the above, you should be committed to asking whatever questions you need to deliver an excellent final product.

Assumptions can come into play in our nonworking lives, too. Relationships are a shining example of this. For instance, on a date, one woman might assume that the man should pay for the meal when they go out to eat. However, if the man believes that his date is paying for her portion, this could lead to misunderstandings.


Communication piggybacks off of the above point since part of making sure no egregious assumptions are made is to make sure communication is clear. However, excellent communication should be maintained throughout any relationship, whether working or otherwise.

You have probably heard that communication is key in relationships. This is a famous phrase for a reason! This is true for any relationship, not just the romantic ones, but it’s the most obvious in these close relationships.

This tends to be the case because two people in a romantic relationship often live together. They’re in each others’ space much of the time, and this can (and will) eventually cause issues between the two, even in the most understanding of relationships. Instead of glossing over issues and letting them build-up, the key is to communicate in order to resolve them.

Communication in platonic and working relationships is a bit different but no less critical. We’ve already illustrated how vital communication is at work. If you, your boss, and any other people involved with your work aren’t on the same page, deadlines could be pushed back, work might not reach the expected quality, and essential features could even be missed altogether.

Communication in a friendship works similarly to a romantic relationship, but with a few caveats. It’s much easier for a platonic relationship to persist despite miscommunication between both parties. However, things tend to go much better when both sides are on the same page.

Let’s reuse the friend metaphor from before. Two people might have entirely different ideas on how much time spent together is appropriate, and this can cause friction if their expectations aren’t the same. However, a little communication can clean this up quickly and neatly.

The whole point of communication is to reconcile the expectations between both parties. Compromise is the key here. If the two friends have different ideas of how much time they should spend together, the most logical solution is for them to meet in the middle.

Wear Someone Else’s Shoes

When communication isn’t possible, a great way to manage your own expectations is to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. You’ve probably heard the saying, “walk a mile in their shoes” before.

Essentially, the meaning of the phrase is to keep in mind what someone else is going through before you start blaming others. Every person is unique, and their understanding of a situation could differ from yours for any number of reasons. It could be influenced by how they were raised, their current position in life, or even something as simple as what they were told beforehand.

When we fail to think about how things might look from someone else’s side, we tend to place blame where it really shouldn’t be. Sometimes we end up blaming ourselves, and other times, we might project it onto others who aren’t responsible. Either way, this warps the situation at hand and can lead to conflict.

Let’s return to the example of the two friends again. The first friend might want to spend more time together, but perhaps the second friend has problems at home that require more of their time. The first friend might interpret this as the second friend not being as interested in or devoted to the friendship when, in actuality, that’s anything but the case.

This is why imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes is such a valuable exercise. It only takes a moment to do, and it has the effect of giving you a lot more clarity on a given situation. The things you’ve been taking for granted might really surprise you!


Reflecting on your own expectations is an exercise that everyone should undergo from time to time. Over time, we can get used to certain expectations that we deal with every day. Taking time to reflect on your personal expectations from time to time helps to keep them at a reasonable level, especially in new situations.

If everyone managed their own expectations, the world would be a much more understanding place. There are many different ways to do this, but the easiest is to simply take some time to yourself and think about your expectations – especially after something’s gone wrong during the day. However, if you don’t have time every day, you can plan reflection for some other times, too. Consider things like:

  • Meditating once or twice for a week
  • Yoga classes on a weekly basis
  • Weekend hikes away from civilization

Let’s return to the same metaphor again. If the first friend were to consider what the second friend had on their plate before making assumptions, they might not end up in the same situation. On the one hand, you might think it’s the first friend’s responsibility to consider the second’s situation. While this is true to an extent, both parties need to have the goal of excellent communication for it to be successful.

However, taking the time to reflect on your own communication is a great way to prepare yourself, too. After all, you can’t always depend on others to reflect on their own expectations. Taking it upon yourself alone to do so might seem unfair, but it might be worth it in its potential to mitigate a lot of unfortunate miscommunications.


The next step beyond managing your own expectations is to work on the expectations of others. This is undeniably much more difficult than managing your own expectations, so we don’t recommend doing so until you have your own firmly under control.

Predicting others’ expectations is similar to imagining yourself in their shoes. However, prediction takes it a step further. Imagine yourself in their shoes, then further imagine the expectations that might arise because of their personal situation.

Prediction is challenging for several reasons. For one, you need to have a strong bond with and understanding of the person you’re working with. Secondly, you need to have a decent understanding of expectations in general. If you don’t have a proper knowledge base to build from, you won’t know how to predict others’ expectations.

This knowledge base comes about mainly with age and experience. The more people you get to know, the more your knowledge base will grow. After all, everyone is different, and the more people you can predict, the better off you’ll be.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t solve every expectation management issue. Not everyone can be predicted, after all, and part of the process is always learning new things and growing in your predictions. Not to mention that there’s a fine line between predicting and accusing to begin with; if you get too liberal with your predictions, you could just as quickly end up back at square one.

However, as long as you’re careful to keep them at a reasonable level, the art of prediction can be beneficial. It can give you that extra edge when interpreting the actions of others, but it’s not something you should rely on entirely.

The Pushback

Once you’ve figured out where expectations are going wrong, the next logical step is to push back against the wrong ones. This can be a bit of a delicate process, so it also requires a bit of knowledge. In this case, an intimate familiarity with both the situation at hand and the person you’re negotiating with is helpful.

As we’ve been doing, let’s go back to the initial metaphor about the two friends. In this case, if the second friend doesn’t believe that they can fulfill the expectations of the first friend, the best course of action is to push back against them. In a polite, constructive way, the second friend should let the first know that they cannot( or will not) meet their expectations.

We already talked about seeing the situation from the other person’s side, which is very important (and very helpful) when dealing with unmanaged expectations. However, both parties should be contributing to the management and pushbacks of improper expectations, not just one.

Standards vs. Expectations

It’s disturbingly common for people to confuse expectations with standards. Unfortunately, this can cause issues with relationships in the workplace, at home, and with friends. Standards and expectations work similarly, but they’re very different things and should be treated as such.

You already have a good idea of what expectations are by now. Expectations exist everywhere – society has expectations for us, the people around us have expectations for us, and we set our own expectations, too. It’s also our job to keep expectations at a reasonable level and to manage them properly. If our expectations are too low, too high, or don’t match, misunderstandings are quick to ensue.

Standards, on the other hand, work a little differently. Our standards come about as a combination of our own ideas and what those around us expect from us, and standards aren’t meant to be changed by other individuals. Two people can hold entirely different sets of standards and still work and associate together just fine.

You see, standards are more of a personal metric than expectations. Technically, your criteria don’t need to be based on anyone but yourself, even though our environments often work to shape them in various ways. Standards are not “standardized” in any sense of the word.

Expectations, on the other hand, as their name suggests, are things that are expected of us. Ironically, they tend to be much more standardized. Generally, in a given workplace or in a given relationship, expectations placed on a particular individual will be relatively similar. This isn’t an ironclad rule, of course, but it’s definitely a visible trend.

Consider any workplace, for example. While you’re on the clock, certain things are generally always expected of you, regardless of where and what your workplace is. These expectations include things like:

  • Arriving to work on time
  • Staying off your cell phone while at work
  • Performing your job promptly and without distraction
  • Wearing any required uniforms or safety equipment on the job
  • Clocking out at the proper time
  • Cleaning up your workplace or workspace before you leave

While workplaces differ widely, of course, regulations like the above tend to be a staple in any workplace. As such, knowing about these expectations before landing a new job is a great way to get a leg up on the competition.

As we’ve talked about, you should be prepared to alter your expectations when you enter into new scenarios or situations. However, this is the opposite of true for standards. Your standards are not something that should be altered willy-nilly. You and powerful, positive influences in your environment should be the only things to change your criteria.

If a workplace or acquaintance ever asks you to change your standards, the best thing to do is to take a step back right away. While changing your expectations might be in order, changing your criteria never is.

Anticipate Problems

Anticipating mismanaged expectations, in general, is a great way to stay ahead of them, but that shouldn’t be all that you’re doing to take care of errant expectations. You should be ready for the results of these expectations to be a bit off, as well. It’s always a good idea to be prepared, and being prepared for a disadvantageous effect caused by wrong expectations definitely falls into this category.

All sorts of issues can come about because of mismanaged expectations. Precisely what problems come about depends on the situation you’re in. Consider a work environment, for example, where this is unfortunately common. Let’s imagine that you and a coworker have been assigned to a specific project together. You know that your coworker doesn’t work at the same pace as you do.

The worker who’s prepared for their partner to do a slow or inferior job already has an advantage over all of their peers. If they want, they’re in a position to make up for the lack of participation by the other, or if they decide not to, they’re in a place to show that their partner was not pulling their weight. Either situation is advantageous to the employee who’s prepared ahead of time.

However, instead, let’s imagine that the same employee doesn’t know that their coworker tends to work at a slower pace. While the two might plan out the speed of their project beforehand, if the lazy employee continues to be tardy, they could affect the progress of the project as a whole. This could end up with both employees in trouble as a result.

As you can see, even if you can’t successfully influence the expectations of someone else, if you know that this will be the case, you can work around it. This might not always end up being the most convenient situation, but it’s often better than the alternatives.

Advantageous Expectations

Unfortunately, expectations tend to get tangled and misplaced more often than not. However, sometimes, expectations can also be taken advantage of. For example, you should always be prepared to take advantage of your own expectations!

Taking advantage of others’ expectations can be tricky, and it’s not always the most morally clear thing to do. However, your own expectations are well within your own authority, and you should use them to your advantage whenever possible. Taking advantage of your own expectations involves knowing yourself and your habits well, inside and out.

Let’s assume, for example, that you tend to have a habit of getting distracted at work. Are there common offenders that tend to distract you and affect the quality of your product? If left to your own devices, you might get used to this new state of events, and it could end up affecting your career and your future.

Instead, take advantage of what you already know. Is it the radio that makes it hard to focus while you’re working? Is it social media? Maybe a game on the computer? By removing these distractions from the equation, you might be able to produce a higher volume of work at an even better quality than you could otherwise.

Taking advantage of your own expectations doesn’t have to take the above shape. If you have the will and the energy, you can train yourself to form expectations around what you need to do. For example, if your work sometimes follows you home, you can train yourself to snap into a “working mood” by sitting at a specific desk at home or performing a particular action while getting ready to work. This is a great way to stay productive while making the most of your time.

Let’s return to the metaphor of two friends for a minute. Imagine that the first friend, who wants to spend more time with the second when possible, knows the second can’t handle that expectation.

The first friend knows that spending time with friends is uplifting and makes them happy. They can take advantage of their expectation for social companionship by spending time with other friends when the second friend is too busy. By doing this, the first friend is happier as a whole, and the second friend isn’t burdened by the first’s expectations, either. It’s a win-win situation!


As you can see, managing expectations is a team effort. While it’s essential for you as an individual to keep your own expectations relevant and in-check, it’s impossible for you to manage all expectations on your own. This doesn’t mean you should slack in your duty, of course, but spreading information and awareness about correctly managing expectations is just as important as doing it yourself.

To this end, we return to the most critical point: communication. Always communicate, no matter what! Let others know when you have questions, and especially when you think your expectations don’t match with theirs. If you do, you’ll find that mismatched and mismanaged expectations are a problem for you far less often than you might think.

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