There is one question that every consultant, manager, or employee—any person, for that matter—should be familiar with. It is a make-or-break question in terms of project success, relationship health, investment return and product or service satisfaction.

It is a question that I always ask my prospects, my existing clients and my wife—often numerous times a day. The first response given is often incomplete or too general, but it is the jumping-off point for eventually getting the question answered.

One of the challenges is that the answer is not static, but a dynamic exchange of past, present and future. The question is, “What are your expectations?”

What We Expect

It is well known in psychology that one's perceptions are mediated by one's expectations. We often “fill-in-the-blank” with our expectations of an event, situation or person. We often see, feel and hear what we expect to see, feel and hear, which may or may not accurately reflect reality.

For example, we may mistake expected enemies to say “mad” when they really said “glad.” As outlined via the confirmation bias, we often look for, and selectively attune to, information that confirms rather than disconfirms our expectations and beliefs.

In terms of initial frameworks to think about, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a form of receiving, often unconsciously, what we expect. There are three main principles:

  1. We form certain expectations of people or events (e.g., see stereotypes, preconceptions, mores).

  2. We communicate those expectations with various cues (e.g., think responsiveness, interest, investments).

  3. People tend to respond to the cues by adjusting their behavior to match them (e.g., want to please you, want you to like them).

The result of the process is that the original expectation becomes true, which creates a circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Our original expectations, which are a combination of our past experiences, our present thinking and memories, and our future outlook, help to shape our world in a way that aligns with, and confirms, our belief system.

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Michael L. Perla is a principal consultant at a sales and marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at