Employee Development

Cautionary Advice for the Expectation Formula

In a previous post, we referred to a principle of psychology often cited in the business realm, particularly among operations and customer relations functions.

expectation

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The principle is: “expectations minus reality equals disappointment.” In other words, the difference between the expectations one sets for a customer (this can be an external customer or an internal customer such as a boss or team members) and the actual deliverable represents the level of customer disappointment or frustration.

If you promise customers a new product will be able to do A, B, and C, and it really only does A and B, they’re going to be disappointed. If you promise that it can only do A and, instead, it does A and B, they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

But we need to be careful not to take this simplistic formula to its logical extreme. Psychology Today’s Raj Raghunathan explains: “according to this formula, a failsafe way of sustaining high happiness levels is to maintain low expectations. This formula is based on the idea that one’s happiness levels are inversely proportional to one’s expectations.”

2 Flaws

Raghunathan provides a couple of potential flaws with this formula. “First, although setting low expectations may seem easy in concept, it is nearly impossible in practice. This is because our expectations are formed, in large part, by subconscious processes.”

He gives the example of becoming accustomed to large portion sizes at restaurants having spent years living in Texas. Regardless of what a restaurant does to try to set expectations, to some extent he has already set his own subconsciously.

He continues, “the second reason why managing expectations isn’t a reliable way to boost happiness levels is that, even if we somehow learned to control our expectations, it is not obvious that having consistently low expectations will enhance happiness.”

Avoid Underwhelming

From a business perspective, this is important in the context of marketing and sales. While we don’t want to overpromise, we shouldn’t swing so far to the other end of the spectrum, that we are underwhelming potential customers with a meager sales pitch. Even for existing customers, it’s disheartening to consistently expect the underwhelming.

In general, the “expectations minus reality” formula should be appreciated for what it is: an intentionally simplistic mnemonic to help people avoid the trap of overpromising and get into the habit of setting realistic, meaningful expectations.