Expectation Management



“Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” — Elliott Larson

Isn’t just doing a good job, good enough?  The reality is that a good job is often subjective and doing a good job is in the eye of the beholder.  One way to improve your effectiveness and deliver on expectations is to proactively manage expectations more effectively.  The better you can manage the expectations for yourself and others, the better you can reduce surprises and correct and adjust your course along the way.

In Software Architect Bootcamp, Raphael Malveau and Thomas J. Mowbray, Ph.D. write about why mastering the art of expectation management is key to your success.

Key Take Aways
I think the real keys are.

  • Articulate the risks. It can be easy to get caught up on focusing on all the positive, at the expense of calling out the risks. It’s tough to trust risk-free promises of a great future.Calling out the risks, and demonstrating you have a fallback plan for issues that can arrise is a more effective strategy. It shows you’ve thought through the problem. This also helps set the frame that things can go wrong, and if they do, nobody is surprised.
  • Keep your stakeholders informed. Know what’s going on and tell the people who care. Nobody likes surprises. Involving people earlier versus surprising them later tends to be more effective over time, for both building trust and for managing expectations more effectively.

I agree with the point that managing expectations is key to success. On my team we call it, "perception engineering." While under promising and over delivering is a good rule of thumb, the risk is you underwhelm people and lose their support.

A Powerful Weapon in Psychological Warfare
Malveau and Mowbray write:

"Expectation management is one of the most powerful weapons in psychological warfare. In expectation management, people take their instinctual need to disparage the ideas of others and use the technique consciously, regarding their own ideas as they present them to other people."

I really like how they put that.  It’s basically taking away other people’s thunder to shoot your ideas down, and it demonstrates that you have been thoughtful about the approach and are aware of the risks.

Overemphasize the Negatives
Malveau and Mowbray write:

"The concept is simple. People know that if they announce that an idea will deliver wonderful benefits, others will be dissatisfied should their expectations not be met, and could lose confidence in the promiser’s ability to produce in the future. However, using the technique from expectation management, the promiser will carefully articulate the potential good and bad outcomes, perhaps even overemphasizing the negatives. Then the same idea and having achieved the same outcome, those promised will be pleasantly surprised because more was delivered than they were led to expect!"

In my experience, the people that are good at managing expectations always call out the risks and potential issues.

Under Promise and Over-Deliver
Malveau and Mowbray write:

"This technique is essential for group dynamics (e.g., meetings). One should always promise less than can actually be delivered. In meetings, one should tell people clearly what they are expected to do and explain the caveats (i.e., expectation management), and often they will overachieve."

The opposite approach is to over-promise and under-deliver which is a recipe for failure, even when there are very good reasons for things to go wrong.  It’s all about the expectations.

Perception of Underperforming Despite Performance
Malveau and Mowbray write:

"Ideally, expectation management is a form of truthful disclosure. By telling people the truth about the potential outcomes, a psychological framework of expectations is established. In reality, a person can contribute to the causes of a situation, but cannot control the absolute outcomes. If that person does a good job, he or she is contributing to the desired outcomes. Most times, he or she will be able to deliver upon expectations. Without managing expectations then, one will frequently underperform in people’s perceptions, even with the same outcomes. Applying expectation management is a highly recommended technique; it can be quite useful and provide benefits every day."

The moral of the story here is that just going a good job isn’t enough.  Managing the expectations

as the stakes go up, becomes increasingly important in how your work is received, acknowledged, and rewarded.

Photo by UggBoy UggGirl.


  1. I agree.

    One thing that can make avoiding surprises tough is the idea that it’s more effective to ask forgiveness than permission.

    I’m actually surprised how tough it is to effectively manage expectations, whether it’s your manager, your team, your org, your customers … etc. It’s definitely an area for continuous improvement.

  2. Only if a bloody nose is the best way to learn.
    Surprises because it’s better than expected are the only surprises I like.

    Some have the idea that agile development means loosing a working but unusable product to the customer is step one, then continuously release products until finally one is useful. Humbug. That’s beta testing and shouldn’t be foisted on anyone a usable product.

  3. Excellent summary. However, I don’t like the idea of under-promising. I think to keep the credibility which is so important in expectation management, you must promise what you truly expect to deliver.

    It is then important to adjust those expectations as soon as it becomes clear that you may not be able to deliver that after all. The disappointment will only come when adjusting the expectation, not upon delivery, since the expectation was already adjusted.

  4. @ Niels – Thank you. I think the point behind under-promising is actually about promising what you can deliver with confidence, and not setting expectations around your stretch goals, which may depend on all the stars aligning.

    A lot of people aim past their target, so when they fall short, they still land on target. Setting expectations around the targets versus the high ambitions helps orchestrate activities against a firm foundation, while still making it possible to exceed expectations.

    You’re right — one of the best things you can do is reset expectations as soon as you realize what’s feasible. Stakeholders, although they may be disappointed, tend to appreciate this. It avoids downstream surprises and stakeholders can potentially reshape the scope or priorities given the constraints.

  5. […] In the end, not managing expectations is and always will be the only reason for regarding work or its results as failure. Or, as J.D. Meier put it: “Managing the expectations as the stakes go up, becomes increasingly important in how your work is received, acknowledged, and rewarded.” – or to quote General George Patton: “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” (read more here) […]

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