Not-so-great expectations?

by | Dec 15, 2020 | Leadership

A few months ago, I wrote a post called Befriend reality about how holding on to expectations about how things should be, rather than how they are, can cause us unnecessary suffering.

As I write this, we’re waiting, at least in the UK, to see what Christmas will look like for us in the Covid world of 2020 – the message to accept what is rather than rail against it seems very relevant.

However, the sorts of expectations I want to talk about in this post aren’t our own – and may not even exist! – but can also cause us undue stress. Recently, I’ve had a string of conversations with finance and tech professionals who have either just taken on or about to take on new leadership roles.

There’s a common theme for these individuals : the belief that the people around them at work have Great Expectations of them.

  • “There’s alot expected of me – I need to pick everything up really quickly”
  • “I need to add value from the get-go”
  • “My new team/client/colleagues will expect me to know the answer.”
  • “I should know about/have a view on x subject”

The perceived expectations they’re holding onto are causing them alot of stress as they drive themselves to meet them. Yet when I probe further, these individuals have often assumed what’s expected of them – they don’t actually know for sure what their line manager/stakeholders expect.

And because they’re high-performers who want to do a great job, the expectations they’re assuming are very high! 

The double-bind is that, because their progression has been grounded in technical expertise, “knowing stuff” makes them feel comfortable and confident so the idea of “getting-up-to-speed” is even more appealing.

Yet the problem is that they’re rising to levels of leadership where they can’t know everything, where they are going to be in situations where they need to have opinions and make decisions without having all the facts. Ironically, if they don’t feel the know the answer, they may not speak up and therefore will miss the opportunity to add value!

If you identify with this problem yourself, here’s a few questions that may be helpful to reflect on :

  • What do YOU think is important about what you focus on in your role? Put the noise aside of what you think people are thinking and tune in to your own experience and wisdom.
  • How do you define “adding value” and what value do you bring beyond what you know? I have a feeling that the reason you’re progressing goes way beyond your technical expertise. For example, you may be adept at bringing people together to work through complex challenges. Or you may be valued for the insight you bring to help your organisation make sound commercial decisions.
  • Where do you really need to get up-to-speed? One of my coaching clients identified where she felt she needed more context and has allocated a few slots a week to read relevant articles.
  • And let’s turn the tables – you are not solely responsible for success : What do YOU expect and need from your line manager/stakeholders/employer to help set you up to succeed?
  • Finally, what conversation do you need to have to clarify what key stakeholders want from you, and to ask for what you need? I think you may be surprised to find that their expectations of you are grounded in more compassion than the ones you are holding for yourself.

A final quote to leave you with from German philosopher, Martin Heidegger : “We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.”

What do you think? Drop me a line at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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