Archive for the ‘Managing Expectations’ Category

Flat is the new up

I write a lot about managing expectations in part because I believe that happiness is not dependent on our external circumstances but is instead dependant on how similar our external circumstances are to what we expect them to be.


If I see life as a bumpy road, with happiness and satisfaction coming from how well I weather the bumps, those bumps aren’t disturbing in and of themselves. How well I handle them is what matters. If I see life as a path to navigate smoothly, and define my success by how calm and uncluttered my ride is, every bump becomes a major roadblock for happiness and satisfaction.


One of my favorite mantras of the new (read, crappy) economy is ‘flat is the new up.’


It’s all about managing expectations. As a business, no one expects the kind of growth we’ve come to depend on over the past 10 years to take hold next year. In fact, it may be several years before 10-20% year on year growth is the norm again. Instead, if you can see maintaining the status quo or a flat growth curve as the acceptable goal to shoot for, you might find yourself ‘successful’ in the coming year. Holding ground is success. Gaining ground is phenomenal success.


We go through phases of ‘flat growth’ with the monkeys as well. Monkey #2 has been in an especially hard phase lately. When I’m interacting with him, ‘not ready to kill him’ is the new ‘enjoying our time together’. I’ve come to count any time that he’s not screaming or whining incessantly as quality time together. Mr. Daddy hasn’t yet come to this conclusion and is often frustrated by his interactions with this monkey.


Part of the reason I’m ok with it, is that I know it’s a phase, and that soon, ‘having a good time together’ will be the new ‘enjoying our time together’. And I’ve learned (finally) not to hold out for my ideal of what should be happening, but to calibrate what a good day looks like based on what’s going on in our lives right now.


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I finally had the chance to chat with a fellow preschool mom who I’ve been wanting to get to know better. We’ve talked about work a couple of times at pick-up and drop-off, and have been trying to have coffee for oh, about a year. Her work schedule makes mine look like, well, a part-timer who works from home most of the time. But today, on a fluke, because she missed her flight to China, she had a few extra hours. So we had coffee.

We talked about the usual stuff: kids, husbands, office politics, the juggle. And then she brought up one of my favorite theories ‘the big job theory.’ The idea is that even when two parents work outside the home, and even with a great nanny, it’s difficult for both spouses to have big jobs. If one partner has a demanding job, the other needs to cut back, or pursue promotions less aggressively, so that he/she can pick up the slack at home. If both partners are career oriented, what seems to happen is that the big job shifts, from person to person, as each partner’s career develops. Sometimes couples do this on purpose. And sometimes it just seems to happen over time. But I can’t think of one family I know where both partners have a ‘big job’.

So, my friend was telling me that her prior job, the one where she had line responsibility for a very big and very public part of a public company, was such a big job that she can’t believe she did it for so long with small children. And she did it with her husband’s support, because his job was less demanding. Now, she’s shifted to what she calls a ‘less demanding role.’ No P&L. Just a bit of travel: 10 days in Asia this month, 10 days in South America next month, 5 days of travel in January and February. And her husband is free to pursue his career goals more aggressively. At the time, I agreed, and we discussed how nice it was to be able to trade that role back and forth. But later, as I thought about it, I almost laughed out loud.

Most people, who hadn’t had her prior job, would think of my friend’s current job as a big job. And her former job, well, I don’t know how they would think of it. Impossible? I think of her current job as a big job. But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s all relative. And if it feels manageable to her, well then, it’s managable.  Secretly, though, I’m still impressed.

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A friend of mine is reading a book to help him understand his three year old. One of the main points, at least from the introduction, is that 3 year olds often don’t know what they want. And they want exactly what they want, even if they don’t know what they want. (If you think that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Trust me, I live with two of them.)

The result: kids who are constantly changing their minds about what they want and then getting angry when they don’t get what they want. In our house, it has a particular manifestation that, I have to admit, I think it is pretty funny: the do-over. When something doesn’t go as a monkey wants it to go, he simply reverses his steps and repeats the transaction according to his preferred script.

Yesterday, Monkey A wanted to get out of the stroller himself. Of course, he didn’t tell me that, so I helped him out of the stroller. After screaming about this injustice for a minute or two, Monkey A took matters into his own hands. He climbed back into the stroller and climbed out all by himself. That really showed me.

They like to get me involved in the do-over, too. If I come downstairs without them when they wanted me to wait, or in front of them when I should be behind them, they’ll try to forcibly push me back up the stairs so we can do it over again, according to their script. Funny. Sometimes annoying. But remarkably consistent.

I’ve been noting this behavior for a few weeks without quite understanding it. Then the other night, right before bedtime, we got into a battle of the wills over the monkeys putting away their toys before going to bed. I wanted them to, they didn’t want to. I may have yelled a bit. It didn’t help the situation.

After getting them to bed, I realized my folly. If only I had made clean up a game, instead of an ultimatum, we would have gotten a lot further. And bedtime would have been more fun for both of us. All of the sudden, I wanted a do-over. I managed to prevent myself from waking them up to try it again, and waited until the next night to try a better strategy, replaying the interaction according to the script in my head. It went much better. No fighting and they cleaned up most of their toys.

Unlike my monkeys, most of us don’t have partners, colleagues, or clients who will allow us the ‘do-over.’ We can’t just hang up the phone, make the call again, and say the right thing the second time. We can’t impose our desired script on other people. And with adults, it isn’t so easy to erase a prior interaction by just having a new one that works better.

What we can do, though, is do it differently the next time, the next day, in the next hour. Paying attention to when something isn’t working and consciously trying to to make a situation go exactly as planned next time is actually a pretty good strategy, and not just for 3 year olds.

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If you search for women and domestic life and overwhelmed on Istockphoto you get a bunch of stereotypical parenting images. Like this one.  Funny.

Or Sad.

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Someone found my blog yesterday by googling “hit new husband with rolling pin.” I am so proud.

The search tracking capability of wordpress is great because it allows you to see the digital wake that your writing leaves. Themes, posts and comments all merge together in this wake in a way that the writer can’t control. So if you want the right people to find your stuff for the right reasons, you need to generally be conscious about the types of posts you write and the language within those posts.

This makes me think of another wake metaphor that my team coach, Sarah Singer Nourie, has talked to my team about. She talks about how people, like boats, have a wake. Often times, the higher a person is in an organization, or the bigger their personality, the bigger their wake. Just like boats. What this means is that even your intentional actions – walking through the office, stopping or not stopping to talk – have unintentional consequences. The leader who is always running and never walks sends an implicit ‘hurry up’ or ‘oh, no, the company is on fire’ message. The leader who always walks the same path, stopping to talk to the same few people, sends a message about who is important and who is not.

As a parent, I can see the results of my wake on my children. When I’m stressed about getting them to school on time so I can get to a meeting, they tend to be high anxiety, too. Especially in the house. The minute we get outside and we are headed where we’re going, we all visibly relax. And if I’m calm and intentional, they’re more likely to act that way too, with me and each other.

The more intentional we are about our behavior, the more our wake has a desirable impact, not a destructive one.

Of course there are exceptions. I kinda like this post  about making sure that expectations and standards are aligned to foster good communication. The wake: ‘jeans that make your butt look good’ is one of the most popular terms that people search when they find my blog. I just hope they’re not too disappointed.


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A colleague of mine had a former life in community organizing and development. In that role, he spent much of his time running meetings and getting organizations with various agendas to cooperate for the greater good of the community. He is an expert facilitator and one of the best people I know at working an idea through an organization.

One of the things I’ve learned from him is to pre-wire my meetings. He’s taught me when I need to get buy-in for an idea from a management team, I should make sure that all the players are on board with the message before we meet about it. 

Typically, if you have an idea you gather the group that needs to hear it to discuss it. But I’m sure you’ve all been in meetings where new ideas are met with resistance, fear, territoriality, and suspicion. All of which can be great responses to strengthen the idea and push it forward. But if all those issues come up in a public setting, the idea is more likely to get killed than adopted.

Pre-wiring the meeting involves meeting with stakeholders as individuals before you meet with them as a group, to hear and respond to objections in private. With those conversations out of the way, the idea has a chance of succeeding in the meeting. Instead of a heated debate, the meeting can provide an opportunity for consensus, collaboration, and moving forward.

It’s true that the presentation of insights loses some of it’s ‘wow’ factor if many people in the room have heard the findings before. But in exchange for drama, you’re more likely to walk out of the room with action and implementation. A worthwhile trade-off, I assure you.

I also use my colleague’s advice to manage the monkey’s expectations. Toddlers respond well to routine, so we use consistency of routine to do a lot of our expectation setting. They know what’s going to happen next, because it always happens next, and I don’t have to say anything. But there are, of course, times when we can’t or don’t follow the routine. Special activities or holidays come up or I get completely bored and we do something out of the ordinary.

When I know we’re going to break the monkeys’ routine, I ‘pre-wire’ them, setting expectations about what’s going to happen long before it happens.

A few weeks ago, my parent’s came in town for Passover. I was thrilled about hosting a Seder, but a little anxious about how the under 3 crowd would handle the long ceremonial meal. I started talking it up about two weeks before the night. ‘Nana and Far Far are coming and we’re going to have a special meal. We’ll sit around the table together and read and sing songs and tell stories’. Getting them excited about some of their favorite activities really worked. In addition to talking about it, we started singing some traditional Seder songs together. And they were into it. Between setting their expectations and incorporating some toddler friendly activities into the Seder, we got the monkeys and a friend to sit through about 1/2 an hour of ceremony at 6 PM. A major triumph.

I also pre-wire them to get them excited about things I’m excited about, so that an activity is actually likely to be fun for all of us. Tonight we made pizzas for dinner. The monkeys love to help me cook, so I knew that they would be into the activity. But I wanted to make sure we had a whine-free evening, with lots of participation. So I started talking it up early this morning, singing Louis Prima songs and telling the monkeys we would turn the house into a Pizzariea for dinner. Their excitement helped get them motivated to come with me to buy a new rolling pin and helped me get them to leave the park to come home to make dinner. And not only did they help me cook, they ate their pizza and salad.

I’m always a little bit surprised when I see such similarities between my toddlers and adults in the business world. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. At our core, we’re all creatures of habit. Breaks from the routine can be scary and intimidating to two-year-olds. And trying a new idea, or agreeing to a new way of doing things, can be scary and intimidating to adults. Giving everyone a chance to respond to an idea in private, and time to get used to it, can go a long ways towards reassuring this anxiety. And that can turn Seder, pizza night, or an imporant meeting from a whine-fest into a successful event.

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