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Dr. William Glasser, author of choice theory, taught that when we have a difference between what we want and what we have it often results in a brief burst of emotional pain. This pain signals that something’s not right and prompts us to act to close or eliminate the gap.


Expectations that aren’t fulfilled the way we perceive they should be can set us up for emotional pain.

The risk for frustration with respect to expectations can be magnified when we set them in isolation. For example, expecting a raise this year because you worked hard may seem realistic. However, without a plan with your direct manager, context on how well the organization is doing financially and company policies regarding raises, it’s not realistic to set financial expectations.

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One challenge with setting expectations in a vacuum is the risk for setting oneself up for disappointment. Disappointment is a powerful emotion typically expressed in displeasure or sadness, because we perceive someone has failed to meet a hope or expectation.

Another consideration to reduce risk for disappointment is accepting that people who make agreements aren’t perfect, can get distracted, and sometimes forget to follow through. That doesn’t by itself mean they don’t care.


Setting expectations is normal. What’s helpful to keep in mind when setting expectations with another person is that you can be accountable only for your own actions. People typically do what’s most important to them. If someone continually fails to follow through on what they say they will do, this is a sign they likely have no intention of honouring their agreements.

Therefore, it’s wise to be careful when setting expectations that all parties are clear, to help reduce risk for disappointment.

Avoid the temptation to create an expectation isolation. Be clear on the expectation and the desired experience, and accept that if someone fails to meet your expectation it doesn’t mean they’re bad. However, if they keep failing to follow through, they just simply may not care as much as you do.


Wanting something we think we care about is a normal part of being a human being. One challenge is when what we want is depending on another person.

At the core of a large percentage of frustration with respect to expectations is when someone simply fails to do what they say they’ll do. Whether dealing with a co-worker, family member or partner, be careful when setting expectations that you and they are aligned.

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Tips for setting expectations:

  • Get agreement up front — Before you set an expectation, be clear of what it is and what you expect will fulfill the expectation. Be specific. Listen carefully to how the person responds. For example, often when a person says they’ll try often means they’re not sure. When someone agrees to an expectation it’s helpful to keep top of mind that even the best of intentions sometimes may not be enough; things happen. Anticipate this and request that if they can’t follow through for any reason to please let you know by a specified time so you can make alternative plans.
  • Avoid jumping to a negative conclusion — There may be times that a person drops the ball and doesn’t follow through. Breathe, avoid the urge to judge, get upset or assume they don’t care. Allow the person to share their reason for failing to fulfill on the agreed-upon expectation. Many times, there’s a good reason. Don’t create a secondary issue by getting upset and saying something you may regret or must try to take back.
  • Know when to let an expectation go — One of the hardest things a human being can do is to stop trying when they deeply care and want something. Perhaps it’s expecting to get your own office but ending up in a cubicle with no clarity on if you’ll ever get an office. The gap between what you expected and your actual experience is what can drive disappointment. It’s best not to overreact. Take time to be clear on your motivation to follow through on the expectation you agreed to. If there’s no motivation, your choices are to get upset and hold disappointment or to let go of the expectation. Letting go of an expectation drives us to evaluate what we really want. This influences our decision. Sometimes the best solution is to simply stop trying and to drop an expectation.

The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: This series of articles supports the award.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2019 at this link.

Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

You can find other stories like these at

Download our e-books: Inch by Inch, Make Life a Cinch; Little Steps to Big Change; Staying Afloat.

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