Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations

Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations


by Stephen Bishop



We have all been there….  That moment when we are expected to do the impossible. For some reason, your customer, boss, spouse now believes you are the one to deliver miracles. How do you deal with it? What can you do?

Relax, we can get through this.

You, my friend, are an all-star and it is time for the big leagues. You were made for this moment. How do I know this before I’ve even met you?

You would not find yourself in this moment had you not delivered on expectations in the past. 

Just as compound interest grows on an account, so do expectations as you achieve. 

Here is how I approach situations when a request seems overwhelming.  

First, work to identify your own perceptions to ensure that your understanding of the request is correct. Challenge yourself with questions that start with “Why” to make sure you are clear on the end goal that is being asked of you and the reason why it’s important to achieve it. You must also ask whether you are viewing the request holistically.

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For instance, if your boss asks you to improve profitability, don’t focus solely on revenue without also thoroughly reviewing expenses. While an in-depth evaluation of existing revenue streams should be performed, also consider the possibility of new revenue streams or innovative ways to use an existing product.

Likewise, don’t purely focus on internal cost/headcount. Complete an in-depth review of vendors and ensure that the agreements in place with your vendors serve your business strategies. You have been successful; don’t limit yourself by doing things the way they have always be done. With the correct focus, what seemed unrealistic, should seem much more attainable.

Find creative ways to “Yes,” rather than sticking with your initial visceral reaction of, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Similarly, work to channel empathy to understand what is driving the situation. Aim to determine where the expectation is coming from and ask what is creating the current perception of the person making the unrealistic request. Work to gather data that shows the true situation. Perception is a person’s reality, but that does not mean perception is a correct or complete view of a situation. Find the details that support and tell the accurate story. Once a situation is understood, expectations can be level-set with both you and the requester.

In this step, ask specific questions that start with “How” or “When” – such as “How do you see margins improving by 15%?” or, “When will you be ready to move forward with the new software?” When working to understand a different perception, craft your questions in a manner which avoids leading with “Why” – as it causes people to be defensive. Use an inquisitive approach to gain understanding, and you’ll never get a negative emotional response.

After creating a clear view for yourself and the aspects of the request, solutions are usually apparent. However, even after some introspection and inquisitive fact-finding, you may still find yourself feeling frustrated by a seemingly unrealistic expectation.

An additional technique you can use is to opt for the proverbial Moonshot. 

The entire basis of a moonshot is to embrace the pursuit of what seems to most as an unattainable goal. Two authors I enjoy (Ben Nemtin and Tim Ferriss) have speculated that 99% of people do not believe they can achieve truly great things, so they aim, instead, for realistic goals. This means that your realistic or safe goals have the most competition. To put a finer point on this concept:

Nemtin and Ferris propose that while the moonshot goals seem unrealistic and unattainable, your chance of success is higher than if you play it safe – because that is what the vast majority of others are doing.

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My own career playbook includes instances in which I have employed each of these suggestions. The first two happen daily as I work to understand my own and others’ expectations. Moonshots tend to have a longer cycle, and probably the best example is my own career.

I grew up on a farm where expectations were low. I drove 30 miles to high school and most assumed I would be like everyone else – settle in the same area, get married marry by 20 and start a family. Instead, I went away to college, started my career miles away from my childhood home, and was then questioned by friends and family – who defined me as a farm boy – on why I would quit my secure job to go to pursue graduate school.

While it may have been difficult for concerned family members to understand, at the time I was pursuing one of my first moonshot goals. Once I completed graduate school, I worked for some of the largest companies in the world, and now currently manage an $80 million P&L, leading an organization of 100 employees.

If you find yourself facing an unrealistic expectation, take a step back and consider the reality. Has the stress of the situation caused you to misread the expectation or is the source of the expectation created from an incomplete perception? Don’t be afraid to go well beyond the “reasonable” box and take a moon shot.

Go find your solution and make today’s unrealistic expectation tomorrow’s success.

What unrealistic expectations are you facing? What business challenges do you see in 2020? What is your moonshot goal for the next year? Leave it in the comments and let’s discuss!


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