The Goldilocks Approach to Managing Expectations at Work

Managing Expectations

Have you ever poured your heart into a project only to find it fell short of others’ expectations? Or you’ve gone the extra mile only to feel exhausted at the end of the week?  Finding the balance between meeting, exceeding, and avoiding unrealistic expectations is crucial to a fulfilling and sustainable work life.

Understanding Expectations

For years, my fear of inadequacy led to a habit of over-delivering at work. I would eat lunch at my desk and log back on in the evenings to deliver on the great expectations that I had created. The result was multiple cycles of burnout and a persistent feeling of “winging it”.


The breakthrough came when I learned that managing expectations leads to a more concentrated and higher-quality output.


Expectations are a person’s assumptions about what will happen in the future. For example, your manager might have expectations about the format and quality of the presentation you are preparing to deliver. Your customers might have expectations about the quality and usability of the product they are buying.


Managing expectations means doing your best to communicate what is going to happen, be created or be delivered so the other person doesn’t make unrealistic assumptions about what you can do.


One effective way to check if you’re aligning expectations is by asking plenty of questions early on. Find out the due dates, key features, and the primary focus of the task. Take the initiative to clarify your understanding by summarising and seeking agreement. This initial investment in communication sets the stage for a smoother collaboration.


The Why: Benefits of Managing Expectations


Understanding the why behind managing expectations is crucial. It’s more than good workplace manners; it’s a core skill that will support you regardless of industry or role. Why is it so essential?


  • Achievable Goals: When effectively managing expectations, goals become more realistic and attainable. Avoiding unrealistic goals safeguards your well-being, maintains the quality of your output, and preserves relationships within the organisation.
  • Reduced Workload Stress: Unmanaged expectations often result in an overwhelming workload and tight deadlines. This stress impedes your ability to make informed decisions about task prioritisation and organisation. Managing expectations allows you to take on responsibilities strategically, providing room to breathe and evaluate your progress.
  • Better Working Relationships: Relationships are the cornerstone of a successful career. Meeting or exceeding expectations builds trust, making it easier to seek support when needed. Consistently falling short, however, creates uncertainty and erodes trust over time.


The Goldilocks Principle: Striking the Right Balance


To effectively manage expectations, it’s helpful to categorise them into three levels:


  • Meeting Expectations: This is the sweet spot for most of your work. It means aligning your deliverables with what people expect. For instance, if your task is to make sandwiches, meeting expectations would involve delivering the right number of sandwiches with the correct ingredients and having them ready on time.
  • Exceeding Expectations: Going above and beyond is commendable, but it should be selective. Identify areas in your role where exceeding expectations can create a more enriching experience for the people you work with or your customers. In our sandwich scenario, this could involve presenting them on a beautiful platter or adding a tasteful garnish. If you are unsure, discuss your work with your manager to identify the most high value and visible tasks you are responsible for.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: This level involves surpassing expectations but without sustainable resources. While it might seem impressive, it can lead to burnout and compromise the quality of your work. Consider the available resources – time, budget, support – before committing to such efforts.


Effective Expectation Management in Four Steps


Now, let’s break down the process of managing expectations into four actionable steps:


  • Understand the Task: Take the time to understand what is expected of you. Clarify deadlines, key features, and available resources. Download this guide with six examples of clarifying questions to use at work.
  • Assess Your Workload: Consider your existing workload and due dates. Evaluate how taking on new responsibilities might impact your current tasks.
  • Decide on the Level: Determine whether meeting expectations will suffice or if exceeding them is warranted. Be intentional about the areas where you choose to go above and beyond.
  • Communicate Regularly: Keep your key contacts informed about the progress. This not only manages expectations but also opens avenues for help if needed.


Related Reading: How to say no at work


Conclusion: Be Better at Managing Expectations


If you want to improve how you manage expectations, this is your opportunity to begin. Take the time today to examine your upcoming tasks. Do you understand what’s expected for each of them? Are you on track, or have unforeseen challenges derailed your progress? Prioritise aligning expectations by communicating with your key contacts.


Managing expectations well is not just a skill; it supports enhanced productivity and reduced stress. Refining this skill benefits your professional life and nurtures a healthier, more sustainable work environment.