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Careers Café

Disappointing Expectations


While the rewards of work can certainly outshine the challenges, sometimes the challenges take centre stage. This week, a normally calm, philosophical friend put a giant mock grin on her face and asked, in a game show host voice, “How many people am I disappointing right now?”

In her case, the real answer was probably that few people, if any, were disappointed. But her question is still a good one. Work/life balance is much talked and written about, but work/work balance ranks right up there in terms of difficulty. When my friend asked her question, the concern behind it felt so awfully familiar. But I wondered, in my own work life, how many times I’d taken the time to assess whether I could, in fact, cut back without letting anyone down.

When I started in a managerial job, I was desperate to be useful to the people who reported to me. In hindsight, some of the things I did were useful – but I bet that others were either neutral in terms of impact, or got in the way of people doing their work.

An extremely conscientious friend with an intimidating pile of marking is pondering whether to provide specific examples of how those research papers need to change or to just state, “the argument needs more evidence” beside the offending paragraphs. The latter feels to him like cutting corners. Some students might perceive it this way – others might not. It might even be useful to have the experience of struggling through without a ready-made solution.

It can feel strangely contrived to ask someone what their expectations are of you, and risky, because it might imply that their expectations should drive your behaviour. But at least the expectations will be out in the open, and can be discussed or negotiated.

Finally, I can’t help but think of advice a poet once offered me, between sips of whisky. After I grumbled about what I saw as someone’s unrealistic expectations, she paused and said, slowly, “If I were you, I’d establish myself early on as exactly the sort of person who disappoints expectations.”

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Munesh Singh / December 5, 2013 at 00:33

    Expectations are often difficult to handle. Both from the side of the person who expects as well the person from whom it is expected. Expectations at times could be challenging and may lead to higher productivity or on the flip side they may lead to such extremes as nervous breakdowns. Its better to replace expectations with encouragement unless it is too urgent.

  2. Shona Welsh / December 14, 2013 at 01:35

    I like Munesh’s perspective that encouragement is a great approach. I disagree that expectations are difficult to handle, however. Not discussing expectations just leaves everything open to interpretation. Experience has taught me that most conflicts in life, workplace or otherwise, really rest on a crisis of expectation – one expected someone else to say or do something, and it didn’t happen. On the other side, it’s hard to live up to expectations of which you are unaware. Liz mentioned surfacing expectations gives you the opportunity to negotiate them and I fully support that. It doesn’t mean you will agree to all expectations but it does give you the opportunity to be clear about what you will and won’t do.

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