What’s wrong with having expectations?

We all have expectations, whether we set them consciously or not.

When Kathy and her team went out for a ‘paint ball’ evening at her previous workplace, they not only had some great fun, it had also been a real bonding experience. So, in her new organisation, Kathy decided to take her team out for a similar experience – fully believing they would also have a bonding experience that would positively impact their teamwork. But this team just wasn’t into paint ball. The evening was a complete flop. Adding in the rain, injuries and dire food, it became an unmitigated disaster. Kathy felt she was to blame and she was devastated and embarrassed as a result.

It’s impossible to recreate an experience. But when we plan something similar to what we’ve done before, the brain automatically generates expectations of a similar outcome. This automatic feature can be quite helpful in many cases, but it can also set us up for disappointment.

Don’t dismiss disappointment – it’s serious business

When our expectations are not met, the brain interprets the different outcome as ‘wrong’; it sends out an alert which results in our dopamine being drained away and the brain’s pain centres being activated. The result is a double whammy of joylessness and pain. It can be a surprisingly devasting experience.

How does this play out in the workplace?

Employees will have expectations of their managers and managers will have expectations of employees. If these don’t align, then someone will be disappointed and that can open the door to blame, claims of unfairness, distrust and disengagement. All because they were running on assumptions.


Some expectations are based on past experiences:

  • Jenna had been bullied in the past which made her overly cautious and even in a new workplace, she didn’t dare to speak up even when she knew she could make a positive difference.
  • João was used to speaking up in meetings but when he did so on a new team, his new boss didn’t like it, ignored him or criticised his ideas. He was shocked by this treatment.

We also set expectations without any previous experience.

  • Terrence was a new employee, straight out of university. After eight months on the job he was angry that he didn’t yet have a promotion – which he had expected after six months on the job.
  • Greta had worked for a large organisation but transferred to a smaller division in a small town. She couldn’t understand why her colleagues weren’t more open, welcoming and friendly – as she had expected from “small-town folks”.

What can we do to mitigate this impact?

  • Be conscious about the expectations you have – avoid unconsciously setting yourself up for disappointment down the road.
  • Set expectations together with colleagues, with your boss, your direct reports, and anyone else you will collaborate with.
  • Have expectation setting conversations with clients – ask them what they are expecting and clarify expectations that you know you can’t meet so you don’t disappoint them unnecessarily.
  • When you set expectations with others, include a conversation about what to do when you notice that you have different expectations from each other.
  • Learn to deal with disappointment. Set inspiring goals, but don’t bet your life savings or your self-worth on them coming true. Put in your effort, but understand that it might not work out.

When we understand how the brain functions around expectations and disappointment, it can help you want what you want, it will help you manage when you don’t get what you want, and it will help you build better personal and working relationships

Hope springs eternal; Disappointment hurts

Liam keeps noticing that business results are not optimal. But he keeps hoping that they will turn around. So, he stays with it, gives it another try, another chance and invests some more…

Why hope?

We need hope. We also need realism. We need to learn to deal with disappointment.

Lady crossing her fingers on both hands

Why disappointment is so devastating

When expectations are not met, we feel let down, it can even feel like a serious betrayal.