Managing the Expectation Gap at Work: A Guide

In nearly every experience at home, work, and school, we have certain expectations for others. When someone makes a commitment, we believe that they’ll come through  on that commitment.

What happens when those expectations aren’t met?

You had certain expectations and now a gap has opened between what you thought the performance was going to be and what the actual performance was. When faced with these gaps, we have two choices.

Dealing with Unmet Expectations

The first choice is to talk it out. The second is to act it out.

So many times we find that people are choosing this second choice – that they act out rather than talk out their concerns.

The ability to confront others and talk about these gaps not only improves our organisations and work environments, but our relationships as well. A number of scholars have studied how couples that report the most satisfaction in their relationships get to that point. We often think it is how much we have in common or how much mutual love we have that determines satisfaction in our relationship.

Those things are important, but what predicts the success of happiness is how we handle the negative emotions – the gaps in our expectations. One of the researchers found that if he could help people talk through these situations, he could reduce the divorce rate by about 50%.

“It’s better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem” – Japanese Proverb

Crucial confrontations are often complex. We believe that just because we’re talking, we’re solving the problem. We want to make sure that first of all we’re wrestling with the right problem. Sometimes that can be difficult. Here’s a skill to help you get to the right problem before you get into a confrontation.


Usually you think of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in terms of resuscitating a person. In some ways this is similar. It’s how we resuscitate a relationship that’s broken because of patterns of missed commitments. CPR in this context stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship.

Content problems tend to be issues that we experience the first time. Maybe you’ve made an agreement with someone and they didn’t follow through for the first time. You can address that issue knowing that it is a content problem. Unfortunately, most of the chronic problems that we experience in organisations are not Content problems.

Patterned problems are issues that are recurring. If someone is continually letting you down, then a pattern is probably developing. This issue will need to be addressed differently than a content problem – a first time occurrence.

There’s also the relationship problem. Patterns left unchecked eventually spill into the relationship. Trust issues can develop and the relationship is fractured. Now what makes all of these issues, situations and circumstances so tough is that sometimes we have all three.

A helpful trick is to be able to distill the expectation gap down into one sentence to gain clarity. You can then decide if you have a content, pattern, or relationship issue. If you can do this, you’ll find that many of the problems that seemed unsolvable are now more likely to be solved because you’re dealing with the right problem.

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