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An Equation to Remember


Battle of Musgrove Hill State Historic Site, Clinton SC, USA - Taken 17 November 2022



I have been thinking a lot in the past two weeks about an important equation that helps me, as well as provides tremendous benefit to the teams and individuals I coach. I haven’t formulated it so much as an equation before, but have had it come to find in that format recently both for keeping it in front of me and the simple, soothing pleasure of saying it.

So hear it is…

Frustration = f(Unmet Expectations)

Frustration is a function of unmet expectations.

Say it once. Then a few times. The little bit of rhyme makes it a bit catchy, and fun to say. Almost like a Dr Seuss book.

Now, think about it.

Think about the last time you were frustrated (include angry and hurt to that).

Most likely the emotion was caused by unmet expectations.

It may have been that someone didn’t do or act as you expected them to, such as…

… the colleague whose work was sloppy and incomplete.

… the spouse who came home late when you’d made an amazing dinner.

… the child who didn’t pick up their room as you’d expected.

… the boss who didn’t acknowledge your hard work to meet a crazy deadline.

The toughest emotional reaction for me is when I haven’t met my own expectations, myself.

When I have to accept, once again, that I’m a fallible human being. I can’t think of, plan, prevent, and do everything. But boy, do I have a hard time when I don’t.

Frustration = f(Unmet expectations)

Thankfully, my husband has become quite good at reading the warning signs of an im- or ex-plosion coming. He’s learned to ask me: “What did you expect?”

With that question, I move back into my rational mind. Instead of sticking in the infinite loop of self-flagellation, I can realize why my expectations might be flawed, where I might have communicated poorly, or where (God forbid) things are just out of my control.

It’s the first step in working across conflict or emotions, whether in teams or personal relationship.

Ask: “What did/do you expect?”

By asking it to yourself, you might be able to recognize whether your expectations are realistic or not. You also might consider whether they are understood and shared. A caution here, even if you think they are, most of the time they aren’t.

That leads us to the next question, “Are the expectations clearly understood and accepted?”

They so often aren’t.

Even in teams of similar age and culture people. Even in marriages of 20+ years. Whenever we have differences, we have different perspectives and different priorities.

While most of us working internationally know rationally about different cultural behaviors around time, how many times are we still frustrated when a colleague shows up late to a meeting?

Frustration = f(Unmet Expectations)

It gets even harder when we go into differences that aren’t readily known or acknowledged. Things like how a boss in China is supposed to behave, what is the role of a Scrum Master in Sweden, how a German colleague should disagree with our idea. What we expect and what we get frequently aren’t even understood, let alone aligned and agreed. (If you want to know more about these differences, consider taking my self-paced video training: How and Why We Misunderstand Each Other)

When I work with teams in conflict, whether the conflict is within the team or between the team and stakeholders, asking this question usually leads to “Yes”, “Of course”, and “Well, yeah.” The reality, when I start digging into items covered in a Team Charter, such as how do you define a good job, who are your stakeholders, what do you deliver to them?, they either can’t answer at all or can’t agree.

This leads me to the final question, “What are we going to do?”

In some cases, both the easiest and hardest thing is fix it within ourselves. I say easy, because we only have to agree and negotiate with one person. I say hardest because that is often the toughest person with whom to negotiate. It often requires seeing something in a different way, changing our mindset and outlook. I find a coach or a sounding board to be quite helpful in this. I also hope that this is one of the greatest values that I give as a coach, helping someone see that the mental block is within, not with someone else.

In other cases, we need to influence and be part of change around us.

There are definitely behaviors we shouldn’t personally put up with. There are outcomes that affect our projects and our companies that we need to fight for. Then, we need to communicate and work with others. Asking our colleagues, our customer, our suppliers, “What do you expect?” can lead to understanding, then discussion, and solutions.

Within teams, working on the Team Charter is a tremendously valuable way to clarify and agree on expectations.

As most of the world is heading into the highly stressed period of holidays, travel, and high expectations, both at work (finishing projects, meeting year-end goals, and delivering) and at home.

When you find yourself frustrated, remember:

Frustration = f(Unmet Expectations)

If you would like coaching or training to work on resolving unmet expectations, reach out! Just contact me or book me for a free, 30 min session to get started.


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