Expectations play a critical role in our lives. They shape our beliefs – consciously and unconsciously – about ourselves, others, and how the world works. These notions influence our views on everything from our destined profession to our ideas concerning justice, relationships and personal responsibility. We make significant assumptions and important decisions based on these core beliefs, and yet all too often they go un-examined or discussed.
In my work as a coach and an advisor, one of the most valuable things I can do for clients is help them uncover their expectations about themselves, what expectations they hold for the people in their personal and professional lives, and which ones constitute being his/her best self. The terrain is often a minefield of “shoulds”, littered with un- or ill-articulated assumptions and desires. It’s the place inside us where dreams go to die, as they lay underdeveloped or unvalued.
Expectations are incredibly powerful forces. They work by narrowing possibilities – bounding your efforts, directing your actions, and influencing your thoughts. Your hidden expectations eliminate many options in your life by unconsciously putting them into the “impossible” column. Additionally, research indicates that expectations often act as self-fulfilling prophecies by establishing imagined outcomes of a particular situation and influencing your behavior in a way that makes the particular outcome you imagined come true.
I challenge you to do the hard work to reveal your hidden expectations and acknowledge those that are conscious – the ones you have about your life path and the people in it. Do they serve your core purpose and highest values? Do they bring out the best in others and make you proud of how you show up? If so, great. If not, now is an excellent time to rewrite the narrative to allow all the elements (characters and plot) to come together in the most powerful and positive way.
Shaping Our Relationships
A place where unarticulated expectations can wreak serious havoc is in interpersonal relationships, when we are afraid to clearly state what we want, what we fear or where our limits and boundaries lie. Most people are not mind readers, and yet we often expect those close to us to “get” us and intuit our thoughts. Issues occur particularly around the topics of money, frequency of communication, and our beliefs around responsibility. I’ll address this in more detail in part two of this topic, which deals with expectations in organizational settings. For now, it’s important to flag how critical it is to have the clarity and courage to address what we want (or expect) in order to minimize unintended stress and damage to our relationships.
So, how do we uncover these unconscious and powerful drivers of our thoughts, words and behavior? How do we align our actions with our true desires? First, do some honest digging. When you are ruthlessly candid with yourself ask, “what did I really want to be when I grew up?” Forget the titles and labels – where are your greatest talents and what are your deepest desires? How do they manifest themselves now, and what might you do to bring more of them to your personal and professional life?
Shaping Our Roles
For example, my childhood dream to be a dancer bumped up against the limits of my talent (oh well!). But, that hasn’t stopped me from dancing. At parties. At home. Or even in the aisles at the grocery store! However, I also had unconscious expectations about my role/profile as a primary provider that interfered with valuing all of the contributions made by the adults in a family. It gummed up the gears of my relationships and made it harder for me to be openhearted and open-minded.
One of my coaching clients was miserable at work. She had reached the pinnacle of her field, and was spending most of her time doing administrative work that was deadening her enthusiasm and sapping her spirit. But, boy was she doing what society expected someone of her stature to do! We worked to reconnect her to her creative side, recasting her professional responsibilities in a way that allowed for more hands-on work, and less paper and politics. She let go of her assumptions, released the expectations about what someone “like her” should be doing, and rewrote the script to allow for a more generative definition of her life.
Another client needed to carefully examine his expectations of who could serve as a role model for him as he built his business and civic engagement activities. He was from a very male-dominated culture and expected for that personal guide to be of that gender. Interestingly, it turned out that his daughter-in-law provided the very best examples of integrity, focus, compassion and professionalism. His path since has been incredible, filled with more connection and more success.
The opportunity to re-imagine the story of your life is ripe if you can unearth assumptions and reveal your expectations about the who/what/why/how of its narrative arc. At minimum, you will greatly enhance the chances of having a happily ever after.
Now let’s take a look at how these powerful dynamics impact organizations…stay tuned for Part II.