“Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations” (Blaine Lee, The Power Principle)

To avoid relational frustrations and mistrust, expectations between people need to be clarified. This is true at home as well as in business or dealings within other organisations. “Clean up your room and the bathroom before going out” sounds pretty straightforward – it’s an instruction, right? It sounds clear and very attainable. When the mother walks into the room and adjoining bathroom now that her sixteen-year-old son is out with friends, however, she becomes exasperated and angry as the rooms look like a World War 2 battle zone. Dirty washing has been thrown into a corner of the room and not into the washing basket, shoes lie strewn across the carpet and the bed is literally unmade – the blankets and sheets having just been pulled up hastily to almost reach the pillow – clearly not good enough!

In the above example, the mother’s standard of “clean” and the son’s understanding of “clean” differ quite dramatically. The word “clean” needed clarification for there to be an optimal result. To avoid expectation disappointment, the mother could have said: “Let’s clean the room and the bathroom together so that we can discover what clean means in our family.” Upon completion and after some negotiation, the mother could then have said: “In future, when I ask you to clean the room and the bathroom, this is what I am expecting. I want your room to reflect what I want our home to look like.”

Assuming that expectations are understood causes people to guess, wonder, or believe they know what the desired outcome needs to be. Stephen M R Covey (The Speed of Trust) notes three principles for clarifying expectations:

  1. Quantify everything – What result? By whom? By when? At what cost? How will we measure it? How will we know when we have accomplished it? Who is accountable – both in terms of benchmarks and final results? Bringing understanding to measurable milestones brings clarity to the minds of everyone involved in a project and reason subsequently gets applied to decision-making – e.g., if we take this course of action, how will it impact our budget?
  2. Look at three variables: quality, speed, and cost – Covey suggests that you can usually pick any two, but not all three, saying: “If you want high quality and you want it fast, it’s usually going to cost you more. If you want fast at low cost, you’re probably going to have to give up quality. If you want quality and a low cost, it’s likely to take longer. So, to get two, you must give up one. There are always trade-offs, but if understood and accepted, mistrust won’t develop.
  3. Set a delivery time – this is a tough expectation to clarify, but setting a realistic delivery date is better than giving people the false promise of what they want to hear. It is much better to clarify delivery time up front than to disappoint others later.

It takes ability to identify the desired results in a way that everyone involved understands. Covey insightfully notes: “If you are on the left side of the curve, to some degree, you are not being sufficiently clear. On the right, you may be too detailed, too activity oriented, too close to interim adjustment if needed, or too distrusting.” Finding a place between these two extremes is optimal to avoid mistrust and confusion.

Clarify expectations to avoid mistrust. Covey concludes: “Disclose and reveal expectations. Discuss them. Validate them. Renegotiate them if needed and possible. Don’t violate expectations. Don’t assume that expectations are clear or shared.”

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