Expectation Shapes Reality



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

How much do your expectations shape what you get?

A lot.

According to the Pygmalion Effect,  you get what you expect.  However, the latest research is showing that your expectations and attitude play a larger role in your perception than we previously thought.

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz write about how your expectations and attitude shape your reality in their article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, in strategy+business magazine.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Ask others better questions.  If you’re a mentor, ask insightful questions over giving conclusions.  The right questions can help other people follow along and get to the same conclusion or expose alternatives and better ideas.
  • Test drive different mindsets.  Your mindset is your foremost filter.  It shapes your experience of everything you do.  If you’re not getting results from the training you take, change your mindset. If you think nobody can teach you anything — you’re right. If you think they can, you’re right.
  • Bake time in for reflection. I think reflection and introspection are a way to have more frequent insightful moments. For example, for my team we use two practices for this.  First, we send a Lessons Learned mail around where individuals add their insights. Second, each Friday is our reflection.
  • Ask yourself better questions.  To change yourself, ask more insightful questions.  Some of the most effective questions I ask myself include: “How might that be true?”, “How can I make the most of this?”, “How can I test that and analyze my results?”
  • Test your assumptions.  It’s super easy to fall into the trap of your own experience and shut down new approaches before testing them.   Find simple ways to test your assumptions, which forces you to figure out what your assumptions actually are.  Testing your assumptions is how you learn and grow and inform your decisions.
  • Use a “Do It, Review It, Improve It” loop.  The least effective people I know fall into an “Analyze It, Argue It, Don’t Do It’ approach.  Without doing it there’s no first-hand experience to analyze and if they ever get to actually doing it, they only get to do it once, and it’s hit or miss.  To put it another way, they spend 80% on the problem, and 20% on the solution.The most effective people I know use a “Do It, Review It, Improve It” loop.  This lets them cycle through multiple times and learn along the way.  To put it another way, they spend 20% on the problem, and 80% on the solution.  By test driving solutions, they learn more faster because they’re engaging their body, mind and emotions versus just intellectual analysis paralysis.

Mental Maps Play a Big Role

Rock and Schwartz write:

“Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s mental maps, their theories, expectations and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood. This can well be demonstrated by the placebo effect. Tell people they have been administered a pain-reducing agent and they experience a marked and systematic reduction in pain, despite the fact that they have received a completely inert substance, a sugar pill.”

You Get What You Expect

Rock and Schwartz write:

“The fact that our expectations, whether conscious or buried in our deeper brain centers, can play such a large role in perception has significant implications. Two individuals working on the same customer service telephone line could hold different mental maps of the same customer. The first, seeing customers only as troubled children, would hear only complaints that needed to be allayed; the second, seeing them as busy but intelligent professionals, would hear valuable suggestions for improving product or service.”

Cultivate Moments of Insight

Rock and Schwartz write:

“How, then, would you go about facilitating change? The impact of mental maps suggests that one way to start is by cultivating moments of insight. Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This in turn requires some kind of events or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expressions more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.”

Individuals Have to “Own” Their Change

Rock and Schwartz write:

“That is why employees need to “own” any kind of change initiative for it to be successful. The help-desk clerk who sees customers as children won’t change the way he or she listens without a moment of insight in which his or her mental maps shift to seeing customers as experts. Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognize, encourage, and deepen their team’s insights.”

If you’re not getting what you want, change what you expect.

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Photo by Mike Mozart.


  1. Hi JD

    Some interesting insights.
    I seem to often ask myself “what am I feeling and why?”


  2. Dude,
    your latest posts are hit parade!
    I am taking this one with me this time: “Do It, Review It, Improve It”

    I think Edison would say:
    – “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”
    – “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”
    – “There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

    Good stuff!

  3. It really is all in the attitude, isn’t it?

    I just wish I would’ve known all this 25 years go!! Oh well, I’ve still got a few years left in me. 🙂

  4. @ Juliet

    Along those lines, Tony Robbins suggests proactively setting your expectations on a scale of 1-10. The example was before he went on a run with a friend, he wanted the experience to be a 9. The punchline is it ended up a 9 … and that setting expectations up front reshaped the experience.

    @ Alik

    Thank you. I think I actually leaked a bunch of little ideas from my book along the way, but, hey, it’s all good.

    Edison is the man. Michael Michalko (THINKERTOYS), actually made me realize how methodical Edison was. I thought it was random genius, but Edison actually had invention quotas and systematic ways to go from idea to results.

    @ Jannie

    It is all in the attitude. If there’s one pattern I’ve seen lately, it’s how much attitude shapes things from happiness to confidence to you name it. It’s your macro level filter of the world.

    I had never thought of happiness as a decision and mindset, I thought it was a learned achievement. That alone is such an eye opener.

    You’re a fine wine and time is on your side.

  5. My favorite is “Ask better questions?” That is the key to getting better results.”

    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

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