A while ago, I had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment after reading Nick Wignall’s article: 4 Things Emotionally Intelligence People Don’t Do. I’d always thought of myself as highly emotionally intelligent, but apparently not. There was one particular point that struck home for me: holding unrealistic expectations.
My insight was not so much around the high, possibly unrealistic, expectations I have for myself and others (which I do), but the unrealistic expectations I used to have for my organisation. And even more than that, how my high expectations may actually have undermined the good work I had been trying to do, as well as having a negative impact on my own wellbeing.
For six years, I was Head of Innovation at an old, hierarchical, public-sector organisation. What a contradiction in terms. Every day I would go into battle, yet there were also moments of pure excitement and elation, when I would hear or see something that suggested good innovation practices and an entrepreneurial mindset were indeed taking hold, that the organisation I cared deeply about was adapting for its future. I once described this bi-polar existence to Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup and the Startup Way. Do you know what he said? ‘Welcome to entrepreneurship’. Hmmm.
Of course, we care about the people (or in my case, the organisation) we have high expectations about and naturally want what’s best for them. As such, it is painful to see them do something that hurts them. Creating a narrative in my head about what they should have been doing, and how much better everything would have been if they had done those things, made me feel better and gave me a false sense of control. But, Wignall asks, ‘What happens when someone inevitably fails to live up to those standards?’ Apparently, ‘you reflexively compare reality to those expectations and feel frustrated and disappointed.’ This is all sounding very familiar…
The bottom line is, we can’t control other people (and certainly not everyone in a large, established organisation like my old company), ‘which means you create a constant vicious cycle of sky-high hopes and grave disappointments and frustrations.’ Even worse, people can begin to resent your attempts at control and eventually deliberately seek to sabotage your efforts (picture the rebellious teenager).
How to break free from this? Recognise and then let go of your expectations. I had to learn to meet the organisation where it was instead of where I wanted it to be. This meant:
Validating the organisation’s current struggles and progress instead of being critical about the pace of progress or fantasizing about its future state or success, and...
Setting realistic goals for the behaviour change I could expect to see, looking for leading indicators that this change was starting instead of expecting perfection.
This doesn’t mean letting go of your vision. It means continuing to strive for a better, alternative future but understanding what is inside and what is outside of your control and being ok with that. As Wignall puts it, ‘Hang on to your hopes but let go of your expectations.’