Book a call

Escaping Expectations.

Nov 02, 2023

It was 2004. I’d only been in the professional workforce a few short years, but I was on a fast track in the philanthropy sector. I was still learning about this career – which most people didn’t quite seem to understand – and how to build the plane while I was flying it. Fundraising goals needed to be met, results needed proving, and impact needed reporting.

As I stood in front of a mentor explaining my shock and confusion at a mess unfolding between the organization and a significant investor, they calmly shared the best insight I didn’t know I needed. “Never assume,” they said. “When you assume, you lose the ability to manage expectations. Of yourself, of others, of outcomes.”

At the time, I took this to be tactical in nature. Cross every “T” and dot every “I”; always ask questions; leave no stone unturned. Twenty years later, the true meaning of this insight has shown through.

When left unmanaged, expectations have the power to make even the best strategy, with the most assured outcomes, become an exercise in disappointment and defeat.

I was recently asked what I believe to be the biggest challenge facing mission-driven organizations and their staff. My unequivocal response was expectations.

The assumed, and oftentimes unrealistic, expectations we have of ourselves, of each other, and of our leaders. The expectations we have of our community members, of our funders, of our vendors, of our partners in government. These expectations are setting us up for an unproductive approach to purpose-driven work we want to do.

Why? Because the work of pursuing a greater good in this world is complex. Purpose becomes entangled with mission. Passion becomes entangled with impact. Perseverance becomes entangled with solution-hunting. This is what makes it so extraordinary! Expectations, on the other hand, leave no room for the messy entanglement that reveals the beauty and magic. They are generally either met or not. High or low. Good or bad. Rarely do expectations allow for creativity and perspective-shifting. 

This cycle of entanglement and expectation-assumption is difficult to break. The strong belief and steadfast dedication to fulfilling our own purpose and the mission of the organization simultaneously, can cause us to consciously or unconsciously place high expectations on everything and everyone involved. Because we are committed, passionate, and persevere, everyone else will obviously follow suit. Because we possess unwavering confidence in our organization’s ability to achieve the desired change in the world or outcome we seek, everything will most certainly fall into place. Because we start from a place of honesty and transparency, others will absolutely make decisions using the same matrix.

These expectations aren’t about naiveté or plodding ahead with blinders on. They come from a place of genuine, authentic goodness. I’ve seen this proven time and time again. Unfortunately, many of us face pressures to out-perform last year’s results. Accomplish something record-breaking. Conquer a new frontier.

While aspirational goals are inspiring and motivating, they must be contextualized. Without an introspective assessment of what is reasonable to expect from yourself, your partners or from your best laid plans, our assumptions can lead to disappointment, frustration, and exhaustion.

There are hundreds of things – scarce funding, economic and political forces, low engagement, distrust – I could have said in response to the biggest challenge facing organizations and staff that would cause similar feelings of burnout and defeat. The difference is that they are all external in nature. If we look inward first, we are better equipped to ease the strife of the challenges we face.

What am I striving to achieve in this endeavor? What will success look like for me? For the organization? For the team? What is the standard I want to set for my performance on the journey? What do I expect to own, and what do I expect others to own? How will I help others to understand the expectations I’ve set for myself? How will I seek to understand the expectations of my partners in this initiative?

If our mindset is one of leading with gratitude and good will, pursuing our purpose with optimism and hope, balanced by our expertise and experience which tells us that obstacles are sure to come, we can ditch the mantra of under-promising and over-delivering. We won’t need to under-promise because we’ve identified our own bias in placing expectations upon ourselves and others that may be unreasonable. We’ll promise exactly what we know to be our individual and collective intention. We will deliver our intended outcomes even if the path takes unexpected turns. We will not be deterred in our pursuit, and we will not be broken by disappointment. Now that’s a cycle I can get on board with.

Michael Macrae can help you easily navigate the steps to simplicity.

Start here with a free consultation.

Schedule a free call

StayĀ Connected

Get resources, motivation, and actionable insight for you and your team delivered to your inbox weekly withĀ Michael Macrae'sĀ Mentor Minute:
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.