Dealing with Disrupted Expectations?
In a crisis, much expectation is placed on leaders. Besides expectations to meet business outcomes, leaders are also expected to convey composure and confidence, as well as compassion and clarity for others. Amidst these demands, what if the leaders themselves are also in the pit, dealing with their own disrupted expectations and personal disappointments?
Imagine this: an executive who has just taken on a role at a new company, having moved countries for it. She expected to hit the ground running, bond with her team in person, and check off key milestones within her first 100 days. Then, the coronavirus happened.
Or, a manager who has been working tirelessly since 2018 on several business leads. By early 2020, a positive outcome – clinching a key deal that would accelerate the company’s growth, not to mention secure the manager’s promotion – was imminent. Then, the coronavirus happened.
Or, an expatriate who has been living in a host country for four years. After the coronavirus hit, he and his family are abruptly recalled by his employer back to their home country. Within six days, they had to leave what had by now become home, with no time to bid farewell to friends. This was not how they expected the international assignment to end.
In all these situations, the leaders’ expectations have been disrupted.
Have your expectations been disrupted?
Perhaps, your expectations too have been disrupted by the coronavirus or other unforeseen circumstances. As a leader, you know you are expected to remain calm and purposeful, convey confidence and empathy, all while providing clarity and direction. And outwardly, you do so, for your team at work and your family at home. By and large, you have accepted and adapted to these new realities in quick time.
Yet, there may still be moments when you feel personally disappointed, frustrated or saddened by these disruptions. You may recall what could have been and compare these with what life has thrown you. And even as you dwell on these frustrations, you feel guilty for even thinking these thoughts, when your lot is already ‘much better’ than many others’.
What do you do with this inner dissonance that pops up now and again? What do you do with your disrupted expectations that have not been completely laid to rest?
Review your story again
In these moments, you may want to look back to help you re-centre yourself. Grab a pen and paper to sketch out your lifeline. On a chart like the one below, plot your major life and career experiences. Mark out the experiences that were positive above the horizontal axis and ones that were negative below it. Do this exercise reflectively, jotting down key words or images that come to mind.
You may end up with something like this:
As you look at it, it is clear that your life story has its ‘high’ and ‘low’ points. As you look at the trajectory it has taken, you may recognise how your initiative, diligence and perseverance had helped you work yourself out of the lows and achieve your highs. You had taken calculated risks, put in the work and achieved certain outcomes and rewards. In this context, it is reasonable to have expectations about the future.
But, the impact that the coronavirus has had on all spheres of life is a reminder that we in fact have less control over our lives than we may have assumed. And yet, even as you think of your disrupted expectations, look too for the good which may have come unexpectedly over the course of your life.
Go over your lifeline again. Dwell more deeply at each point. Consider if, in each situation, was it really just you and your efforts, or had you also received unmerited goodness and favour? These gifts of goodness could include:
- The parent whose occupation and hobbies had shaped your knowledge and decisions, giving you an early foundation that you may not even have realised.
- The anonymous donors who funded the bursary that put you through university.
- The mentor who cared enough to give time and advice when you were at your most rebellious.
- The friends or even strangers at the hospital who supported you through your surgery and subsequent treatments.
- The spouse who took on additional financial responsibility without complaint when you went on a career break – and extended it.
- … …
If it feels like life has dealt you a bad hand today and derailed your expectations, remember the unmerited favour it has also given you in equal, if not greater, measure over the decades. Let the surge of gratitude overpower the dissonance of the moment.
Look forward with expectancy, not expectations
It is good to pause and look back, but in life, one still needs to look forward. Here, it is useful to differentiate between two similar words, ‘expectation’ and ‘expectancy’, for they connote two different mindsets.
As writer Kate Maria Pennell points out, an expectation is an outcome that we have fixed in our minds. When we build expectations, we build dreams ‘set in stone’. And if we are truly honest, such dreams are often more centred on ourselves and our desires.
Conversely, expectancy is not about outcomes set in stone. It has defined parameters – what a person hopes for, or is working towards – but it is fluid and open to unexpected disruptions, as well as opportunities. Expectancy continues to believe in the good that will come, but lets go of fixed expectations about what that ‘good’ must look like, how it will come about, and when it will be realised. We relax our grip over a situation and are more inclined to look beyond ourselves.
Closed expectation: “I want that job in three years.”
Open expectancy: “I want to grow in my career and am open to different pathways by which this could happen.”
Closed expectation: “I want to check off these milestones within my first 100 days in this role, so that my stakeholders will be impressed with me.”
Open expectancy: “I want to take stock and take action in several key areas, within an appropriate timeframe, in order to create real impact.”
When you next think about your disrupted expectations, check yourself for new expectations that may again be starting to form. Reframe and put on a spirit of expectancy instead.
Out of the pit
During a crisis, leaders have many things to do, especially for others. But leaders are also human beings, and you are allowed moments to just ‘be’.
In your time alone, if you are feeling downcast over disrupted expectations, would you look back on your life with gratitude, and look forward to the future with expectancy? Try and see if this may lift you out of the pit you currently find yourself in.