Ever get mad at someone because they did something you didn’t expect? Of course you have, we all have. They’re not something we directly think about every day, but expectations are a key component of what drives many peoples’ behaviour – including our own – all the time.

When we sit down at a nice restaurant, we may expect that the waiter or waitress will be agreeable and helpful, that our food will be served in a reasonable amount of time, and that it will be reasonably well-tasting. If those expectations are not met, what follows may be a reaction ranging from disappointment to confusion to even, in extreme cases, anger or a feeling of being personally slighted. In many ways, unmet expectations are one of the most fundamental causes of interpersonal conflict, because our expectations speak directly to how we view and value the world. When someone does not meet our expectations, it can take great maturity and wisdom to not emotionally respond and instigate conflict. Our ability to balance our and others’ expectations is directly related to our ability to prevent conflicts before they even occur, and to understand and resolve them when they do.

Especially at work.

There are many different kinds of workplace “environments”.  Many people work in offices with separate cubicles, desks, etc.  Some are always on the go – flying around the country and world interacting with clients and partners. Some are in shops. Others in eateries. Some work outside. But amongst all of the varied ways by which people work, there are usually a few consistent workplace dynamics, and with those dynamics expectations that come with them. For instance, most people have a “boss,” most people have “co-workers,” and some people have team members they lead.  Each relationship comes with different sets of expectations regarding how individuals act relative to one another. There are many forms of each working relationship – many different ways that people interpret their role and thus define their roles with others. And that’s all well-and-good, but at the end of the day there is usually at least a system of interconnected expectations of how we interact along organizational pyramids, and it’s important for all of us (on every level of the pyramid) to be able to successfully manage the expectations of ourselves and others based on our place in that hierarchy. Some call this “managing up,” or “managing down”—there have been many books on this topic. But with the vast amount of material out there on expectations management all of the insight can become muddled, and hard to apply in our everyday working lives.

And that’s why I’m going to keep it simple. From both research into the subject and from professional experience, I have developed for myself three straightforward  “precepts,” which I use every day to balance expectations in my working relationships. I remember one main point for each of the three levels I outlined above: those leading me, those working parallel with me, and those on teams I am leading:

Expectations With Our Leaders

Regardless of the character of the relationship, many people spend more time each day worrying about the demands of their boss than of their family, and that means that the expectations of our leaders can have drastic effects on not only our professional efficacy, but also our well-being. If I had to give one tip on how to effectively manage expectations with superiors, it is this:

Foster an Expectation of Honesty. Some people espouse the “low-balling” strategy with their bosses – they say that a good way to “get ahead” is to pretend that tasks are more “difficult” than they are, so that when they deliver realistic work-product their supervisors are continually impressed. Put simply, while it may work in the short-term, over the long-term that strategy can be disastrous. Honesty is the basis of most healthy relationships: Without honesty, there is no chance to develop mutual respect and rapport. Now, I can’t account for personality idiosyncrasies in supervisors, but what I can confidently say is that the vast majority of people on this planet prefer being told the truth to being told untruths or only shades of truth. And even if you are able to low-ball your boss in the short-term, if the supervisor is anyone worth their salt, they’ll probably eventually figure it out. Not being completely honest can lead to what I call the progressive “three D’s”: Distrust→Disrespect→Discord.  That “discord” means unpleasant conflict for the employee, not the supervisor. On the other hand, if you are completely honest about what your supervisor can expect regarding your assignments, hopefully he or she will come to trust and know that they can rely on you for honest advice –which is one of the most valuable assets any effective manager can have. Honesty can make you positively stand out as well, especially because all too often subordinates prefer to “pass the buck” when possible, rather than simply be forthright.

Expectations With Our Peers

Ahhhh yes, our work peers. Our colleagues. In many ways, the people we work with are some of the closest ties we form. Sure this doesn’t mean that our work peers necessarily become personal friends (although some of course do); nevertheless, our working peer relationships can be some of the most important determinants of our personal and professional efficacy and satisfaction. So, what can we really “expect” from our peers beyond their willingness to work with us and get along? Is there any sort of mutually beneficial understanding we might reach with them? I think there is. If I had to give one piece of advice that I think too few people heed regarding their working peers, it’s this:

Develop an Expectation of Reciprocity. “We’re all in this together” is a colloquialism so over-used it’s become a bit corny – but it applies to most of our lives more than we may realize. Everyone has different workloads – and indeed, workloads that vary in intensity depending upon what projects we’re on and what time of year it is. Because sometimes life gets in the way – with all of the demands of family and living, we can never truly predict what kind of limitations we might face in trying to complete our work. It’s important to realize that no one can do everything, all the time. (Yes, that includes you!) All too often I encounter professionals who take great pride in their ability to be “self-sustaining” and to work completely independent of others. And to be sure, these qualities are important attributes of many successful workers in their fields, but being largely independent doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when we could use a helping hand. There will inevitably be times when we could really use one of our colleagues to step-in for a missed meeting, conference call, or assignment. It’s important to establish expectations of reciprocity with our peers, because we never do truly know when we may need to call-in that favor. Find peers with whom you have positive rapport and offer to fill-in for them when you are able; find common functions that you both know how to accomplish and develop an understanding that at times one may need to fill-in for the other to complete those tasks.  This goes both ways.  Make sure that you are available to help them when they need help.  All too many people seem to feel irresponsible or “weak” if they have to occasionally rely on others to help them accomplish their goals. But the reality is that sometimes we all need a helping hand – and sometimes they’ll need it from us. By sharing the load, this helps everyone find balance, which in turn reduces tension, builds team rapport, strengthens working relationships, and leads to less conflict in the work place.

Expectations With Those We Lead

For many people their role as a leader is one of the most difficult in their lives.  When we’re someone’s “boss,” we inherently hold some powers of decision-making over them, and in many cases have much control over whether or not they advance in their careers. That can be intimidating to those we lead: It can be truly scary to have not only one’s income, but a large portion of one’s sense of professional self-esteem in the hands of a single human being – someone who, oftentimes, was a complete stranger before the working relationship began at all. And while there will always be a need for an element of distance and discipline between ourselves and those whom we lead, that’s no reason to not balance those realities against a genuine desire to foster respect and openness within the ranks. Managing expectations with those we lead isn’t just about motivating the team to work hard, it’s about establishing effective patterns of communication so as to not only avoid conflict, but also to help everyone work more effectively and happily. From both my experience as a supervisor and from my research, I’d have to say that the one piece of advice regarding our expectations as managers is this:

Encourage Expectations of Respect– Bidirectionally. While it’s of course important to maintain genuinely respectful relationships in all areas of our lives, it is particularly important to do so with those on teams we lead. The primary motivator for many employees to do top-notch work lies not in the salary they bring home (although this is important), but in how much they enjoy and respect their work and their co-workers … especially their leaders. Respect entails many things, and goes well beyond simply being “nice” or adopting a positive affect when interacting with our team – because people can smell out when concern isn’t real. We can’t fake it, and often subordinates take offense and feel distanced from us when we try. They realize that they’ll never get a feel for who we “really” are as leaders.

Respect instead comes from a genuine sense of concern about our team members’ well-being – a genuine desire for them to be successful, and for them to flourish while contributing to team goals. It’s about being comfortable enough with ourselves as leaders  to not feel “threatened” by subordinate’s successes, and about being genuinely open and caring with those under us while also being able to maintain the “distance” necessary to be an effect delegator. And this all works both ways – it’s okay for subordinates to expect respect from you. In fact it’s crucial to developing valuable working partnerships with them. My experience is that some managers don’t get that. If those under us are too intimidated to address us frankly when there are conflicts or problems, it’s often because we’ve trained them to anticipate not being respected when they previously tried. Maybe we were “too busy” or, pretended to care but really didn’t. Maybe we smiled and nodded and then told them to simply try to “work it out” without doing what they really needed from us – listen empathically. All that said, if we’re able to truly integrate a bidirectional respect into our relationships with those we lead, it’s amazing just how much energy team members will be willing to put in to help the team succeed. When we respect and genuinely appreciate those we lead, they more often than not return the favor – and remember, every ounce of respect and appreciation we project to our teams feels like a pound of it to them (and the same goes for dysfunctional dynamics we create as well). Encourage bidirectional respect, foster engagement and openness with your teams, and not only will incidents of conflicts decrease, but those conflicts that do arise will be much more readily handled, and everyone on our teams will be more satisfied, motivated employees.

by Zachary Ulrich

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.