People as Expectation Machines

by Braden

Over the years I’ve come to think of humans as “expectation machines”. How you experience life, or how people experience you, is highly dependent upon ones expectations. Consider a scenario where you have a 9AM coffee meeting with someone:

  1. You both arrive at 9AM, stand in line and get coffee together
  2. One flakes on the meeting with no notice
  3. One arrives early and already has a coffee for both of you

When things are at expectations people are satisfied or happy. When things are below they get angry or sad. When they are above someone’s expectations they experience excitement and joy. The basic framework I use is that of an investment where there’s an expected return and risk variance (standard deviation). That risk variance represents the odds around a range of outcomes. The larger the risk variance the more people get anxious, surprised, etc.

This simple framework provides three key insights:

  1. When you are angry or sad it’s probably because your expectations weren’t met in some way. Before reacting it’s best to recall your expectations. Where they wrong to begin with, did you not set them well, or did the other person fail to meet them?
  2. When dealing with others, especially managing people. providing clarity around expectations will reduce anxiety and increase the odds of getting your expected (i.e. desired) outcome.
  3. If you are constantly getting a different outcome in dealing with others you’re not meeting their expectations. In this case you need to ask yourself: how are their expectations set, were they reasonable, and do you need to change anything to meet (or exceed them)?

This leads us to ask how people get their expectations? I think there are few basic ways:

  1. People set expectations based upon what they want
  2. People set expectations based upon what they think they can do
  3. People get their expectations from others (i.e. you give or they ask)

If you think humans are expectation machines and want to take control of your life you will opt #3. In which case you are constantly trying to clarify expectations for you and others in order to reduce stress and increase the odds of getting the outcomes you want. And people really appreciate that.

The So What: In order to achieve great outcomes and reduce stress in collaboration with others you should strive for clarity in expectations. If there are anxious or angry feelings there’s a gap. If there’s a gap consider where the gap came from — poor expectation setting or lack of execution. If you want to delight, set lower expectations and execute excellently.

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