We’re a little way into 2022 and chances are, you might be starting to reflect on the intentions you set a few weeks back. Maybe you’re loving your new exercise routine. Maybe you’ve already ditched the New Year’s resolution. Or maybe you’ve lowered your expectations, because in this age of uncertainty, doing so is the most adaptive thing you can do.
The pandemic, in some ways, has thrown most expectations out of whack, so it makes sense that, as a collective, we could benefit from lowering them to avoid continued disappointment. But lower them too much, and we lose something that can actually help us get through the uncertainty. Expectations, which are beliefs about the future that shape and influence our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, can be a powerful tool to help broaden our view, because they represent possibility and help us envision potential.
So what’s the optimal dose of expectations?
To start, it’s helpful to recognize that expectations are driven by societal narratives, which become internalized projections of how things “should be.” These external sources—often displaying people “living their best life”—frequently omit the details of the long journey and struggle of achievement. That can make expectations seem easier to obtain compared to reality. This is why expectations have become harder to manage and meet.
Based on what we know about the brain, we crave certainty and control, and to satisfy certainty we set expectations—drawn from our prior experience and how we see the world. If those expectations are met, the reward centers of the brain are activated, and it feels good. But unmet expectations break the contract we established within our brains and trigger an alarm signal that shifts resources to correct inconsistencies perceived as errors that are overloading our cognitive capacity. When we expect something to happen, certain that it will, and then it doesn’t, it feels terrible.
Focusing on certainty also leads to vague expectations that often muddle our minds, and we can’t make sense of them in an actionable way–meaning it’s nearly impossible to understand the specific ways we want to behave.
While looking for certainty is inevitable, because it’s essentially human to do so, a more helpful approach in this age of uncertainty can be to seek clarity. Clarity helps us understand where to focus, and—unlike certainty—has a degree of built-in flexibility about what’s possible based on the information we have. In fact, teams provided with goal clarity are able to innovate faster and with higher quality ideas. Lately, in this “always-on,” work-from-anywhere environment, leaders who have articulated reasonable response times for responding to emails (within a day) or have said people can reschedule meetings if they have more than three back-to-back, have provided clarity for their employees, eliminating some of the uncertainty.
To start down this path of setting expectations at an optimal level and gaining clarity consider the following:
Envision what could be
Use expectations to broaden your thinking and consider what’s possible. This type of thinking gives us a chance to uncover motives and unmet needs while releasing our grip on certainty.
None of us can be certain about what tomorrow will bring, and if we hedge on the unknown we are likely to experience pain when it doesn’t go as planned. However, if we focus on clarity, we’re able to define what we need and adapt along the way.
Experiment and adjust
Adaptability goes hand in hand with flexibility. Adjusting expectations is the recognition that there will be struggles and things often don’t go as planned, and sometimes you need a different approach. This is where a growth mindset can come in handy, to harness the power of valuing progress. Although we’ve been in this pandemic for two years, progress has been made and innovation has surged.
In the end, our advice is not to ditch expectations, but to right-size them. When expectations are set too high, we have further to fall— leaving us feeling worse about ourselves and others. When expectations are too low, we aren’t motivated to take risks and innovate. When set at the right level though, expectations drive progress and foster growth. And with the unmet expectations and certainty we have experienced in trying to end the pandemic, maybe it’s time to right-size our expectations alongside the pandemic.
Brigid Lynn is an industry researcher at NeuroLeadership Institute.