The Head's Tales: Managing Expectations

Sometimes expectations can pose a major challenge for organizations and for individuals – they can grow, shrink, change shape and/or direction.  In fact, expectations shift constantly and they shift easily.  A person's relative satisfaction or disatisfaction is contingent upon two things:  expectations and performance.  If satisfaction could be expressed as a calculation, it might look something like:

Although satisfaction is influenced by a multitude of factors (some of which are not always within our control), the above calculation is a reminder that both expectations and performance will influence satisfaction.  Everyone expects things to work properly, to meet their expectations and needs, and to have that elusive value of a “quality experience.”  But that in itself does not necessarily bring about satisfaction.  In fact, it is the process of engagement or personal connection that can sometimes address differences in expectations or individual perceptions around performance.  As such, the elements of engagement and personal commitment contribute significantly to satisfaction.

This was clearly demonstrated at the CAIS (Canadian Association of Independent Schools) Conference I recently attended, where the audience had the privilege of hearing Simon Whitfield, a Canadian triathlete, speak about his experiences at the last four Summer Olympics – an incredible accomplishment that deserves recognition irrespective of results.  Regarding Australia, he talked about the preparation and the process prior to qualifying for the Olympics.  Initially his goal was to represent Canada (a dream he had when he was in his early teens) and to hopefully stand on the podium and sing the national anthem.  There were no external pressures as to how Whitfield might place.  During the race, in the last stretch to the finish line, he decided that he hadn’t worked so hard to place fourth and as such decided to push a little harder (believing that a bronze was still a medal deserving of recognition).  When he realized that he still had “enough in him” to overcome the front runner, he decided to push past the pain, which resulted in him getting to the finish line first! He reluctantly disclosed that it was his fear of just missing a medal that motivated him to draw on the “extraordinary,” leading to that inspiring performance.  

In his second visit to the Olympics, this time in Athens, with the hopes of repeating his past performances, he was also confronted with higher internal and external expectations. He stated that he focused on the outcome  of the race and not on the process or the hard work he had achieved to get to this point.   As such, he stated, “I ran for the wrong reasons and ended up in a disappointing 11th place. All I wanted to do was finish the race and did not appreciate the effort or the importance of drawing from past experience and the application of race strategy to run your best race.”  Four years later, in Beijing, he was able to able to replicate his high standards to earn a silver medal drawing from his previous experiences and the lessons learned.

In his final return to the summer Olympics in London, his focus was much different.  He was much more appreciative of the opportunity to represent Canada, with a renewed respect for the process leading up to the race as well as his competitors’ talents. He approached the start line focused on the race itself and less on the finish line and placement.  Although he had a crash at the start of the race, he stated he was satisfied and content with his efforts, and did not measure his success on the final results of the race. In fact, he said that he was able to enjoy the Olympic experience with his family the next day at the local playground playing with his children and celebrating the successes of his Canadian colleagues.  In all four situations, his level of satisfaction was influenced by both expectations and performance – some of which was impacted by his own perception of effort/success as well as his willingness to accept those things he could not control.  He spoke about being committed to the “process” of achieving your personal best and not getting caught up in the end result as it only measures the very last part of someone’s hard work, i.e. reaching one’s goal.  The ability to shift your perspective, taking what could be perceived as a disappointment/disadvantage and turning it into a positive/advantage, is sometimes the difference between a “winner” and “loser”! In fact, sometimes the real winner is the person who has learned a life lesson, achieved something unexpected, helped a fellow competitor, or discovered a new brand of courage, yet has no external “medal” to show for her/his efforts.

“Everyone who does the best he or she can do should be considered a hero.”
Josh Billings

"I am moving onto the next adventure with wonderful memories, friendships and experiences that I will hold close forever."
Simon Whitfield, announcing his retirement Oct 23, 2013


Written By Cathy Thornicroft, Head of School


Suggested readings:

Managing Expectations: Working with People Who Want More, Better, Faster, Sooner, NOW — N. Karton

David and Goliath — M. Gladwell

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