The Terror of Implicit Expectations
“I live with the terror of implicit expectations,” my client told me. Just hearing him say that conjured up several memories of tripping over others’ implicit expectations only to find myself on the receiving end of their anger when I didn’t perform to expectations they never explicitly expressed to me. Once we’ve experienced being blindsided by the implicit expectations of others, the anxiety of continually waiting for the other shoe to drop can indeed build into a mild state of terror.
Who are you unknowingly putting in this position? We all have implicit expectations of others both at work and at home unless we are intentional about being explicit. We’re in such a hurry, and the expectations are so evident in our minds, that we don’t take the time to make sure there is shared understanding of the desired outcome. Then, when things don’t go as envisioned, disappointment, frustration, or even anger seeps into our voice as we look at the results. The implicit message is, “Why didn’t you read my mind?”
I’m reminded of when my kids were teenagers. One evening I said to the three of them, “Would you do the dishes after dinner, please,” then walked in the kitchen later to find the dishes still on the table. I’d say, “I thought I’d asked you to do the dishes,” only to get them blaming each other: “It’s his (or her) turn!” I hadn’t been clear about who needed to do the dishes, and they hadn’t read my mind. I learned to be more explicit in my request: “Son, would you please do the dishes,” I asked the next evening after dinner. Sure I’d solved the communication problem, imagine my surprise when I came into the kitchen to find the dirty dishes stacked by the sink. “I thought I’d asked you to do the dishes, son.” He replied while staring at the television, “I’m going to do them when this show is over.” Another learning opportunity for me to be more explicit in my requests. The next night I was sure I’d get it right: “Son, would you please do the dishes right after dinner, before you do homework or watch TV?” Later, I walked into the kitchen to find the dishes done, but the pots and pans still dirty. When queried, my son responded, “You told me to do the dishes, not the pots and pans.” Are you getting my point of these stories?
Making transparent requests takes intentionality. Be specific about what you want to be done, who is to do it, and the timeframe and outcome you are looking for. And be aware of assuming a shared understanding of terminologies and context. I had a young direct report who I encouraged to be proactive, meaning for her to look at the work on her desk and find efficiencies without me having to do it. I encouraged her to be proactive every week in our one-on-ones over the course of six months. Finally, she came to my office one day to tell me she had found a better way to do a task. I beamed and said, “You were proactive!” Her reply, “Oh, is that what proactive means?”
You may be thinking making clear requests sounds like micromanaging. The cure for to prevent this assumption is to provide context. “I need this task done, and to make sure we are both on the same page, I’m going to be explicit. My request may sound like I’m trying to micromanage, but really, I just want to be clear about my expectations so I can help you be successful.” Better that than inflicting terror.