Do Expectations Push or Punish Us?

A saxophone and sheet music

Early in my ombuds career, I was told that conflict, more often than not, is driven by unmet expectations. Talking with participants in dozens, if not hundreds of large and small conflicts through, I absolutely agree. Almost always, unsatisfied expectations, whether verbalized or not, are at the root of interpersonal and even institutional issues. One might think, then, that we’d be happier without them at all.

So should we just abandon expectations and live each day as it comes? As ombuds I’m in the habit of never telling anyone what they have to do, but I would urge us all to think twice before slinging our expectations into the garbage.

Before I get into expectations, I’d like to share some inspiration. At times, I fear that a) there’s not much new to say about interpersonal conflict resolution and that if there is, b) I’m not the one to say it. After all, others have already written penetratingly about conflict, which is only natural since people not getting along is hardly a recent phenomenon. Attacking the topic from an academic frame, where researchers are encouraged to find a previously untended field to nurture and thus make their reputation, it seems like there isn’t much new to say.

But what if we approach the field like a jazz musician instead of an academic? Hearing Sonny Rollins’s 1958 recording of “Body and Soul” opened my eyes (after my ears). For the full experience, please take a listen if you can.

“Body and Soul,” a pop song written in 1930, has been recorded by many jazz musicians, but the most iconic might be Coleman Hawkins’s 1939 version, which many credit with establishing the tenor saxophone as a jazz solo instrument.  I don’t have the space to describe just how influential the Hawkins recording is, so if you want to learn more, you can read this.or take a look at Stephen Rush’s explanation of the song’s 2004 inclusion on the Library of Congress’s National Registry.

Which makes Rollins’s recording 19 years all the more impressive. Unafraid to step into the shadow of a giant, he plays a very different version of “Body and Soul,” profoundly different from Hawkins’s. We can enjoy beautiful music that, had a more timid improviser conceded “Body and Soul” to Hawkins, never would have existed. (There have been many recordings, but here is a relatively recent duet between Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse, and here’s a version by John Coltrane, to which McCoy Tyner contributes much. Hearing the Rollins version convinced me that even if others have written expertly in this field, I still have something different to say.

Oh yeah—I’m writing about expectations.

Like Hawkins and Rollins after him, I seem to have strayed from the “melody” of this piece while exploring a seemingly unrelated line.  Four whole paragraphs, and not a word about expectations.

Buoyed along by my enthusiasm for “Body and Soul,” which happened to pop into my playlist just as I’d finally stopped procrastinating and started putting pen to pixel (to be honest, the “expectations” idea took a while to coalesce), I stepped away from where I intended to take my reader. I honestly didn’t plan to ignore your expectations like that, but it happened.

Because there’s an implicit expectation that when a column or blog post purports to be about a topic, it follows a formula: a riveting anecdote or two, a few words of received wisdom, and some practical tips to incorporate into daily practice. I’ve never consciously approached writing these pieces like that, but I now realize that that’s the way they tend to go. I’m playing the chord changes in a way that, I think most readers expect.

Which is good, in that it’s truth in advertising. When I say I’ll write about bystander interventions or the potential perils of AI, I do.

The other side, though, is that merely meeting expectations can be limiting. Just hitting the expected beats means no one’s ever truly surprised, which means they might not be really engaged by what you’re saying.

And the raison d’être behind informed informality (for me at least) is to write in a way that’s more personal and takes more risks. So my piece about expectations not following reader expectations actually shouldn’t be unexpected.

Okay, back to the promised melody: expectations, do they push us to greatness or punish us for asking too much?

First, I’ll note that our expectations can be rooted in our experiences, just plain wishful thinking, the product of ignorance, or anything in between or beyond. We may have expectations of ourselves, those around us, and our institutions. And when those expectations aren’t met, disappointment and frustration soon follow.

Since most of us strive to live as free of conflict as possible, we might then conclude that if we have no expectations, we will not have conflict. That may be technically true, but living without conflict would probably, in this case, come at the cost of happiness. After all, if we expected nothing at all from others or ourselves, our lives would be pretty bland. And while there is some benefit to rolling with the punches and adapting to what life brings, it is more of a survival tactic than a recipe for a healthy, well-balanced, and fulfilling existence.

In other words, expectations can help us demand more of ourselves and others, and define what we will and won’t accept.

But expectations can also confine us. We might map a past relationship onto a present one, and expect someone to treat us exactly as we’ve been treated in the past. We might develop overly high (or low) expectations based on limited or faulty knowledge. Or we might refuse to adjust to new situations, instead spiraling into confusion when things start to develop differently.

In those cases expectations do more harm than good.

How, then, to distinguish good (or even great) expectations from self-defeating ones?

If you’re expecting me to provide a neat, numbered list, you will not be disappointed. Expectations that move us forward rather than keeping us mired in avoidable conflict are:

  1. Reasonable. It would be nice to get showered with praise (or cash) just for showing up on time, but is that really going to happen? If others aren’t getting something, is it likely that you will, all things being equal? Protip: If you struggle to verbalize the expectation to someone else, and especially yourself, it probably isn’t reasonable, and you know it.
  2. Reality-based. When psychologists talk about gamblers, they sometimes invoke “magical thinking,” i.e., because I want to something to happen, it probably will. In other words, because I really deserve to win big, I can absolutely blow my entire life savings on lottery tickets. It’s got to happen. Needless to say, a better expectation in this case might be, “I’m going to spend some money on lottery tickets and enjoy thinking about what I would do if I happened to win.” Sometimes, statistics are the best check against a harmful expectation.
  3. Considerate of others. Are people really going to go out of their way just to make you happy? Could getting what you want even cause them unhappiness, discomfort, or injury? In that case, this might not be a healthy expectation for you or especially others.
  4. Up-to-date. Pizza used to cost a dollar a slice. It doesn’t anymore. While it might have been reasonable to expect paying a buck in 1990, it just isn’t happening today. We need to shift with the times and expect to dig a little deeper for our cheesy delights.

When weighing whether we should embrace the expectation or eliminate it, try this four-item test. If you find yourself honestly answering “no” to any of them, you might want to think twice. Bottom line, if you find yourself frequently frustrated or perennially pained, unhealthy expectations might be the cause.

So until next time, expect the unexpected, stay informed, and I’ll stay informal.


Informed Informality: People, Organizations, Conflict, and Culture

Spread the love