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Managing Expectations

A month ago you were given a project and a deadline. You juggled things around, figured out how to get everything done within the time allowed, and you even managed to minimize the amount of overtime you’d need to do. All was going well, and with a week left to go – the person who gave you the project suddenly announces major changes to it and expects the deadline to still be met.

If you set aside all other tasks and work 20-hour days for the next 5 days while overdosing on caffeine (this is bad for you, BTW – heart palpitations are a thing), you might get this done. Do you:

A. Compromise your physical and mental health by working 20 hours a day for the next 5 days to meet the deadline? B. Quit? C. Scream into the void and vent about your experience on the appropriate subreddit? D. Take an hour to review the changes that are being asked for, determine what you can do that won’t result in option A, and manage expectations by laying out exactly what you will and will not be able to accomplish given the short notice that you were given?

Congratulations, you have chosen D! D is the sensible option here. Option A should never be considered a viable option, despite what some people may tell you or expect you to do. I’ve done it a few times, and the results were never good. Not only was the work not my best (although it was the best I could do given the circumstances), I also ended up having to take sick leave to recover. Option B becomes increasingly tempting if you’ve experienced Option A several times, particularly when the source is the same person. And Option C doesn’t actually solve anything, although it will grant some momentary satisfaction when everyone agrees that this situation is unreasonable.

So, back to Option D! Option D is focused on managing expectations, a newly popular phrase that has become increasingly common in the lexicon and jargon of the workplace over the past few years, even though the concept has been around for decades. It’s defined (as per Lexico) as, “Seeking to prevent disappointment by establishing in advance what can realistically be achieved or delivered by a project, undertaking, course of action, etc.” Technically speaking, in the above scenario, managing expectations is something that should have been done right at the start of the project – by both parties involved.

When given a task, let the person who assigned it (be it your supervisor or client) know what your work landscape is looking like, and how you will be able to approach the assignment. Take a bit of time to look it over, asses what else is going on, and give them a realistic outlook of what they can expect when. If you’re the person assigning a task, be clear in your expectations, allow for some flexibility, and explain what you need it for and why you need it by the deadline given.

“But this person is working for me, they’re being paid to do what I tell them when I tell them!” I hear the protest.

“But that person is my boss/client, I have to be able to accommodate whatever they need!” I hear the other protest.

Deep breath everyone. We all want the same outcome here – the successful completion of the project. Which means expectations need to be managed. If there’s the possibility that last minute changes will be needed, make sure to let everyone know so that can be accounted for from the start. If the volume of work is such that you’re going to be right up against the deadline (without changes being made), you need to let people know. If you are the one asking for the last-minute changes, acknowledge that you’ve just dropped something on them, and follow up with: “How can I help you succeed? How can I help make this happen?” If you’re the person receiving the request, let the asker know what it will take for you to complete what they’ve asked for. When both parties manage expectations, it becomes much easier to work together (because everyone involved are reasonable individuals). That’s not to say that this will eliminate the need for overtime or stress – but it will help mitigate it.

After all, you don’t want to be the person going through Option A; and you don’t want to be the cause of someone going through Option A. So, manage those expectations and accomplish the thing!

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