This past winter few fans missed the chance to watch the much anticipated Spiderman: No Way Home. The film earned $1.8 billion in box offices, making it the sixth-highest grossing film of all time.
With such a massive audience, the internet has been abuzz since the movie’s release with memes, jokes retold, and explanations or speculation on the film’s ending. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Among the online chatter, one quote that drew significant attention comes from Spiderman’s girlfriend MJ when she says, “Expect disappointment and you’ll never be disappointed.”
On the surface, that quote may seem contrary to most (if not all) conventional leadership advice, maybe even coming across as defeatist. After all, if a manager were to tell their team they are expecting disappointment, that hardly communicates confidence in their employees, their product, their company, or themselves, which is not an advisable leadership tactic.
That said, there is some hidden wisdom in MJ’s words that lies in the paradoxical truth that by expecting disappointment, we save ourselves from being caught off guard by the inevitability of said disappointment. In other words, by anticipating imperfection, we spare ourselves the emotional fallout that comes from dashed expectations and instead are able to accept people and circumstances as they really are, not as we wish they were.
When we plan for the snafus, shortcomings, and obstacles that will come, we are empowered to meet them with resolve, adaptability, and resilience, much like MJ.
Managers Who Expect Perfection
By having high standards, managers encourage employees to grow and reach their full potential. It’s important, however, to note the difference between high standards and expecting perfection. When managers communicate expectations of perfection (Sorry MJ, no disappointment allowed here!), they are essentially setting the bar to an unobtainable level. High standards are motivating and confidence instilling. Pie-in-the-sky standards, on the other hand, are sometimes demoralizing and often lead to negative effects.
When managers demand perfection, it can easily be interpreted to mean that avoiding mistakes at all costs is more important than, say, creating a stellar product or finding new ways to streamline a process. This runs the risk of unintentionally reprioritizing employees’ focus. Because employees recognize that obtaining perfection is an impossibility, they focus on managing their image so that they at least appear perfect. As a result, when mistakes happen, as they inevitably will, employees are more concerned with covering them up than fixing them.
For employees who are eager for constructive feedback, unrealistic expectations make it difficult to decipher what can reasonably be adjusted. As bestselling author Ron Carucci points out, when it comes to perfectionist managers, it’s challenging to know where unrealistic standards end and shortcomings begin, making any improvement unlikely.
Additionally, there are a multitude of ways a boss’s impossible-to-please expectations can be harmfully internalized by both parties. For employees, it’s easy to feel inferior and like they’ll never measure up. They may develop a “why try?” attitude or constantly feel paralyzed by their manager’s hypercriticism. Moreover, as Ron Carucci again observes, teams may feel fatigued by their boss’ hypercriticism so that when a crisis does arise, they’re already depleted of the resilience and “we got this!” attitude they might have exhibited otherwise.
For managers, accepting nothing less than perfection ironically enough leads to increased disappointment and decreased positive results. Unrealistic standards can undermine the value and purpose of setting expectations.
When Setting Expectations, Plan for Disappointment
When managers set expectations, it’s important to be realistic and, like MJ, factor in the disappointments that may arise. At Campfire, we encourage managers to have frequent, dedicated conversations to address expectations.
Managers often rely on the job posting and its list of responsibilities to communicate employee expectations. However, as we said in a previous blog, managers can be uncomfortable discussing expectations, opting instead to operate on assumptions.
But why do managers feel discomfort in the first place when discussing expectations?
A likely reason is that discussing expectations is much more than ensuring employees understand their role and responsibilities. Behind expectation lie hidden hopes and fears. As a result, the practice of setting expectations can be charged with an undercurrent of powerful emotions, ergo the discomfort.
When discussing expectations, managers are trusting their employees with their hopes for the future. In doing so, they’re also exposing themselves to the fear that their employees will possibly fail to fulfill these hopes, leading to feelings of disappointment. Because setting expectations involves managing hopes and fears, at Campfire, we recommend that any discussion about expectations also addresses these two high-impact emotions. Fortunately, we’ve already provided a guide on how to best navigate that conversation.
One way to address the fear that lurks behind every expectation is to openly discuss the connection between expectation and disappointment. By discussing possible disappointments, managers and employees are letting go of any demand for perfection and inviting the other’s humanity into the conversation. Both are essentially saying, “Shortcomings will happen. Mistakes will happen. This is how I will feel. You may feel like this. Either way, this is what we can do when they occur.” By proactively addressing potential disappointments, managers and employees are creating an action plan for foreseeable problems and issues while also taking steps to prevent possible feelings of blame, surprise, anger, etc. that could arise from unmet expectations.
MJ’s Secret Superpower: Growth Mindset
Expecting and remaining undeterred by disappointment is the essence of a growth mindset..
According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and professor at Stanford University, those with a growth mindset are characterized by a commitment to growth. They consider abilities, skills, and talent a matter of dedication and hard work. By contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe their skills, intelligence, and talent are fixed and that, by extension, success is largely dependent on talent rather than effort.
The distinction between those with a growth and fixed mindset becomes most apparent when faced with setbacks. While those with a fixed mindset might fall into despair, those with a growth mindset find setbacks motivating because they’re informative and serve as wake-up calls on where to direct efforts.
When managers approach setbacks and disappointment in the same way, they’re also practicing a growth mindset. As Carol Dweck says in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and development--both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.”
Managers who understand disappointment and how to handle it operate on the belief that challenges and setbacks are a necessary part of growth and innovation because they reveal areas to improve or provide opportunities to develop beyond the status quo.
So next time you sit down to discuss expectations with a team member, be sure to talk about disappointment, because if you do, like MJ says, you’ll never be disappointed. Instead, you’ll find ways to grow, persevere, and succeed.
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