Managing expectations by being intentionally explicit

 In Efficiency, Productivity

A year ago, my banker confidently told me that my car loan would come through within 24 hours.

I made all the arrangements to pick up the car from the dealer the next day, as well as making plans for the weekend. After months of lockdown due to Covid19, the prospect of finally venturing out of town was exceedingly liberating for both my wife and me.

24 hours later, no loan. Now the banker explains, Well, it usually takes less than 24 hours; then continues defensively, This is not in my control because it is a service provided to our bank, and that’s why you are getting such a low interest rate. The last bit, a failed attempt to persuade me that I should show gratitude instead of disappointment, is a great example of cognitive dissonance; keeping two opposing thoughts in your mind. He knows he screwed up, but still thinks he deserves my appreciation.

72 hours later, he responds to my now more intense inquiry with: There should be no problem because I have not received an email from the loan organization telling me that there are any issues. Interesting philosophy.

I think we have all been in these kinds of situations where someone has over promised and under delivered. In this case, all the banker needed to do was tell me on day one that:

1. The bank uses a third party for this type of loan that offers such low interest rates. (In fairness, he did tell me this.)
2. Because it is a third party, we cannot guarantee an arrival date. (He kind of hinted at this — in a fuzzy way.)
3. In most cases it takes about one day, but it could take several. (He completely avoided telling me this. One of his colleagues was more forthcoming.)

The problem here is that this banker was not explicit with me. Imagine how the latter scene would have played out had he been intentionally explicit: I would not have made firm plans for the weekend; my wife would still be eagerly anticipating the arrival of our new car instead of being disappointed – in me; the car dealer would have been unconcerned by the delay if knowledgeable at all; and I would not have had any hard feelings towards the banker – just the opposite. Afterall, he provided me with a very good loan (no entry fee and just 2.1% annual interest).

Unfortunately, the information he provided me was biased. Perhaps it happened so infrequently that a loan would take more than 24 hours that he felt he could risk the light promise. It could be that 9 times out of 10 or even 19 times out of 20, that there have not been problems. The question though, is: why take the risk at all? He knew very well that I was not going to a competing bank (I was explicit with him), so there was no motive for him to make promises he could not keep.

The answer to the question is: He played down any risk because he wanted to please me — the exact opposite of what he ended up doing.

Before moving on to the solution, I want to offer that intentional explicitness is not a one-way street. In certain situations, I would proactively take more of the responsibility and be more thorough in communicating my need to have explicitly clear information. Even though the banker is offering me a service, and part of that service is to inform me in the most accurate and professional way possible, I also share the responsibility in tempering my own expectations. I am obviously aware of the pressure induced by social norms to paint rosy pictures. So, to some degree, we share some of this responsibility. Blame, however, is not the object of this blog. Improving decision making is.

When we are intentionally explicit, we give our communication partner information to form their own opinion, instead of offering a presumption according to our (often limited) experience. Life has taught us that we risk creating tension and disappointment if the information or news we report is anything but positive. We, therefore, look for ways to soften, and underexpose the risk of disappointing others; hoping for the best. But this is a losing proposition because when our luck runs out we run a great risk of being characterized as naïve, ignorant, or worse, deceptive — characterizations that are difficult if not impossible to rid oneself of.

If, on the other hand, we are intentionally explicit, meaning that we consciously avoid sugar coating situations, and leave the interpretation of facts to our communication partner, we can only win. Yes, we run the risk of short-term disappointment, but this is a minor inconvenience, and only emotionally immature people place culpability on the messenger for being sincere and frank.

Rather than playing down the risks, if we state them as accurately as we can, we include the possibility of delighting our communication partner while safeguarding our integrity. By the way, this does not mean we have to be stone-faced about delivering sobering information. We can add expressions of empathy like, I’m sorry if this does not match your expectations. Or just show it on our faces and in our tone of voice. Note here, that verbally communicating potentially disappointing news works much better than providing it in an email or chat. Written communication is not nuanced enough no matter how many emojis you use. ☹

Now, If my banker had told me, It could take as little as 24 hours, but be prepared for it to take a week — or the limit that he would take a 10 to 1 bet on (a great way to calibrate your personal understanding of the risk), I might have been slightly disappointed by the sluggishness of the process, but certainly not disappointed in him. In fact, if the loan had come through in (just) three days I would have been surprised and delighted by my superstar banker. In other words, by being more conservative and less optimistic, you could be delighting your communication partners 9 out of 10 or 19 out of 20 times; and the other times, just delivering to their expectations. Under promising and over delivering, by the way, is the strategy that companies like Zappos have employed to become billion-dollar unicorns.

Think about this the next time you promise a customer, your daughter, or your spouse something. Deal with their minor disappointments in how the world works to avoid their major disappointments in you — even if they happen seldomly. The world will get plenty of chances to redeem itself. You, not so many.

Michael Hoffman

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