5 Steps for managing unrealistic expectations

by Gerald Leonard

Does your boss have unrealistic expectations? Mine did. Merriam-Webster defines expectations as the act or state of expecting or anticipation. So, then, unrealistic expectations are having the wrong ideas that things will be accomplished or will take place, but without any factual evidence. 

In other words, unrealistic expectations are someone’s vision of the future that is made up and based on their thoughts, desires, and fantasies. 

I’m sure somewhere in your past, definitely, in mine, you’ve come across or had to work with a manager or a boss who had unrealistic expectations. What I’ve learned is that unrealistic expectations are the results of what neural scientists call an amygdala hijack. An amygdala hijack happens when we become overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear. 

We start making unrealistic assumptions for ourselves and others. It’s basically controlled by fear, worry, and doubts, so we try to project or force our will, opinions, and thoughts on others to accomplish what we want, but what we want is not based on reality. This can cause undue stress for everyone…all around the organization. Yes, even your boss is stressed!

The next time you find yourself working with someone who has an unrealistic expectation and is experiencing an amygdala hijack, try these five steps, which can help you cope in an unrealistic workplace environment.

5 Steps to managing unrealistic expectations:

  1. Manage your stress responses: When we’re in an environment controlled by unrealistic expectations, our bodies start producing cortisol and adrenaline; it’s part of the fight or flight syndrome. These are neurotransmitters that our bodies produce when we feel threatened. Since we’re no longer being chased by saber tooth tigers or in fear of being eaten by a mountain lion, we need to calm ourselves and take control of our thoughts and bodies. And by thinking rationally and taking a few deep breaths, we can reverse the flow of these neurotransmitters, and bring our stress levels under control.
  2. Find common ground: When you’re presented with an unrealistic expectation, somewhere in those expectations are common ground activities that you and your boss or manager can agree upon. This reminds me of a story I call the 15 days till liftoff. It’s based on a situation where a new team was brought together, I was assigned as the lead consultant, and we had 15 days to complete a proof of concept of two enterprise systems that we needed to integrate. However, nothing had been ordered or installed, and the team had never worked together. My first job was to calm myself and find common ground with the executive making the request. We were able to work together as a team and deliver the proof of concept on day 14, coming in one day early. And we did it by finding common ground, calming ourselves, and working with the executive to meet his objective.
  3. Identify quick wins: Whenever you’re faced with an unrealistic expectation, one of the ways to buy yourself and your team more time is to identify within those common grounds a few quick wins. Quick wins are items or tasks that can be done quickly. They show that the team is making progress and give the executive confidence that we’re taking his request seriously. Delivering on a quick win will normally calm down unrealistic expectations and give the team some additional time to get things done.
  4. Develop a detailed action plan: By providing a detailed action plan with dates and times for task completion, you will quill the executive’s amygdala hijack. The action plan will also show them the big picture roadmap and provide confidence that things can get done. The detail action plan gives the executive something concrete to hold onto and is based on realistic expectations.
  5. Invite them to a daily standup meeting: One of the best ways to show an executive or manager how the team is progressing towards their expectations is to invite them to your daily standup. Let them know that a daily standup meeting is only a 15-minute meeting, where everyone stands up and gives their status. The team quickly discusses what was accomplished, what work is planned to be accomplished today, and if there are any impediments. That’s it.  The team is getting work done on the action plan and keeping things moving forward. By participating in daily standup meetings, the executive will see and hear first-hand the effort and progress the team is making.    

It can be stressful for everyone when you work with someone that has unrealistic expectations, these five steps can help to alleviate some of the stress for everyone.


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