The Founder's Paradox: How to Thrill People Without Setting Their Expectations
February 18, 2021

The Founder's Paradox: How to Thrill People Without Setting Their Expectations

by Brian de Haaff

Our minds are powerful and expectations can move us. Our anticipation of what is to come can be a true driver for action. What we believe will (or should) happen in the future helps us sustain motivation today. But what about this phrase? "I want to set your expectations." I am sure you have heard it a few times before — maybe even this week. I can guess what kinds of emotions it brings you.

Someone is communicating what they are going to do and they assume it will disappoint you.

Now, the intention is usually good. Most of us want to help others and ultimately please them. And so to avoid unhappiness, you think it will help to be really straightforward about what you think someone might not want to hear. Because if you tell them what you cannot or will not do upfront, then they should not be frustrated later. Everyone knew what to expect. Right?

My issue with “setting expectations” is that it is often used as an excuse for not doing something you think the other person actually needs or wants. You might think you are working in their best interests. But it is mostly about you. You know they will not enjoy something you are going to say or do. So you want to preempt it to avoid any unpleasantness that will be directed back towards you.

It is almost always designed to keep someone from being disappointed by something we do not want to do.

Merely reducing someone's expectations will not ensure that everyone is happily aligned — even if they seem to nod along. And besides, you probably will not feel good about the outcome either because you know you have let them down.

Let me give you an example of how this came up recently. We have a vendor who wanted to change how they support us. Rather than continue to provide access to an account person, they moved all support to a contact center. They "set our expectations" ahead of time with a long email.

We were displeased with the change because we thought the quality of service would decline. They knew that we would be, so they tried to preempt our misery by explicitly outlining the change in support. (And yes, the service is now lousy and we are starting to look at alternatives.)

But let's imagine that the new service was actually better — more responsive and just as helpful. That email would still have led us to distrust them because they told us they wanted to set our expectations. It primed us for perceiving the shift as a loss. And this leads to my secondary issue with "setting expectations."

It casts a negative light on what you are willing to do. No matter what action you take, you predispose the person to think that you are not going to give your best for their benefit.

There is a fine line here because more info provides better transparency in any relationship. Knowing what someone else is willing to do can help us evaluate what we should do next. And sometimes someone is just not listening to what is really possible.

But let me suggest how you can delight most people most of the time — by doing your best and being honest about it. The guidance below is best suited for back and forth conversations, but you can apply the same model to written communication as well:

Repeat what you hear

Listen closely first. Do you assume you already know what the other person wants? Ask them and then repeat what you hear. This helps them understand that your suggestions are in response to their request.

Explain how you can help

Start with what you can do. No one wants to be told what is not possible as a starting point. Lead with the positive. There is almost certainly something you can do to help and you should be positive about how you think you can contribute.

Determine if it is helpful

Make sure your suggestions will be useful. Assumptions can lead to dissatisfaction. The other person does not feel heard and you miss out on an opportunity to gain more understanding. Ask if what you have offered will truly benefit them.

Discuss any disconnects

After you establish everything you can do, it is important to discuss what might not be possible. It is reasonable to show that you understand where your solutions might not fully satisfy their needs. Showing that you see those gaps can build stronger relationships.

Consider all solutions

Your work is not quite done. It is time to listen deeply again. Perhaps you did not consider all the ways to potentially satisfy their request. If you still cannot fully deliver what they want, then explain why as transparently as you can.

People need you every day. Take time to appreciate your ability to be useful and do everything you can to help.

Start with what is possible and avoid trying to over-simplify the needs of others. Use the basic concepts shared above to position your solutions in the best light.

We are all better off when we focus on what people say they need and work to support them.

Read more of The Founder's Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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