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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.

This past, present and future model is an integration of the economic ideas of rational and adaptive expectations, the former being more retrospective and the latter, more prospective.

Pick almost any event or situation and we probably have some expectation for how it will unfold. Examples might include a business meeting, a date, or an interview. If we haven't had the experience, we often ask—or read about—others who have in order to feel more comfortable with what might transpire.

Ultimately, we want to predict what might happen so that we can feel in more control of the situation. Think of all the superstitions that people have, or the famous “buffalo dance” in which tribesmen danced until it finally rained and were then reinforced for what was an inevitable result.

We want to feel as if our actions count and we can control our world. An unpredictable world outside of our grasp is a scary place.

The Past

Most of us have what we call experiences. We may not be fully aware of our experiences or be able to find patterns in them, but we all have a library full of experiences that orient us to what the world is like and how it will unfurl.

Given the heritability (our genetic inheritance) of certain traits, such as political orientation and optimism, we also have to mix these experiences with how they transact with our own innate preconceptions or predispositions. Psychologists often call this nature-and-nurture integration an active-active-active model, or the blending and interaction of phenotype, genotype and environment.

Experience does not write itself on a blank slate; it leaves an imprint or impression on what is genetically soft and what's available in terms of our memory.

In understanding peoples' present expectations, we must understand their past and path, what they remember (e.g., note “flashbulb” memories), what's recently happened to them (e.g., the recency effect) and what they might have inherited in terms of viewpoints and predispositions.

In terms of the last area, studies have shown that we become more like our parents as we age in terms of viewpoints and general outlook.

The Present

In the present, we often expect what we think is “normal” or most available in our memory. I've previously written about the availability heuristic; suffice it to say that we often invoke and remember what is top-of-mind or available in our memories to explain what is happening (versus what is rational or logical).

We can look at attribution theory (the reason we attribute for things happening) to understand how people ascribe cause and potentially construct their expectations. If we go back to our age-old drive to control our world, we find that the fundamental idea of attribution theory is that people make hypotheses about why others behave as they do because such hypotheses help people to comprehend, predict and control their world.

Although there are different models and theories regarding attribution theory, one of the primary instances revolves around three conceptual building blocks:

  1. Consensus: Is the behavior typical (high consensus) or atypical (low consensus)?

  2. Distinctiveness: Does the person act dissimilar in situations (high distinctiveness) or similar in situations (low distinctiveness)?

  3. Consistency: Is the behavior consistent across many situations (high consistency) or is the behavior inconsistent across situations (low consistency)?

In general, if the behavior is consistent with the person but not the situation, then the observer is likely to attribute the person's behavior to an internal cause. If the behavior is consistent with the situation but not with the person, then the observer is likely to attribute the person's behavior to an external cause. Over time, these causal explanations can become unconscious and reflexive and shape our expectations of other people's behavior.

In summary, then, a person's present expectations are a mix of past experiences/memories, genetic imprints, current explanations around cause and one's normative frameworks.

The Future

We often have predictions or projections about how the future will unfold. For the most part, many people see the future as a repeat (or at least a rhyme) of the past. We often extrapolate the current state to predict the future.

For example, in five years or so, we will have more of this or less of that depending on current trending. Everyone's future is a previous present, so what we see today may be more of a reflection of wanting to see our future predictions come true (e.g., self-fulfilling prophesy) than any current expectation.

In a nutshell, in determining peoples' expectations in the present, ask them how they think the future will unfold. What do they see in 3, 6, and 12 months, and 3, 5, and 10 years? What will be different and how will it emerge? Depending on how they describe the future state, and the transition path, we should gain a better understanding for how they construct their present expectations about their world and how they might act or react in the future.

Conclusion

Although this article doesn't explicitly talk about business or marketing, the implications in those areas are significant.

For example, an effective and adaptable customer-centric organization must have a continuous dialogue (see the ubiquitous use of satisfaction surveys) with their customers around expectations of value (a key factor for developing a compelling value proposition), while marketers should be crystal clear as to what their internal and external customers expect from them, at each relevant point in time.

At the end of the day, we often term something a problem when it is in conflict with our expectations (the formula: Satisfaction = Perception minus Expectation).

The first question you should always ask is this: “What's your expectation, and how did you arrive at it?” It is the starting point for uncovering areas of value, of dissatisfaction and of need. Without knowing what our customers, partners, investors, colleagues and employees expect from us, we'll be looking for clarity without the lights on.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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