Let’s not put the cart before the horse – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan
The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.” Henry David Thoreau

One of the most difficult emotions clients struggle though is managing expectations. It’s tricky, because simply the intangible idea of something can be so joyful, wonderful, and exciting before the “something” even happens. People get caught up in the anticipation of the event, an expectation just as thrilling as the thing itself. Think about a child promised a long-planned trip to Disney. Let’s say an unforeseen event happens, an illness, flight delays and cancellations, or weather interferes with that Disney vacation. Or a woman joins a club she thinks will be full of fun, social events, and friendship, only to find out that other people in the club are territorial, parochial, and cliquey. Or first-time buyers fall in love with a new house, and notice water damage on the basement floor. The home inspector tells the couple the stains they see resulted from the leakage of an old water heater. Meanwhile the couple continue to wonder why the owners never used their basement. Then they discover the answer to their question during the first rainstorm, when the basement fills up with several inches of water.

In all these cases, people jumped to the most positive outcome, only to be disappointed with the ultimate consequence. One case I’m familiar with, held promises of a big promotion. Upon learning the news, the person decided to splurge on a new car, only to find out that the promotion was not forthcoming and would take almost a year to materialize. Peel back the onion in this case and get ready to cry.  The person ultimately discovered that the promotion paperwork was never submitted, and the process had to be started all over again. The direct manager was holding up the procedures, ignoring what the Vice President told him to do, all because of the manager’s individual negative feelings toward the employee. When the VP found all this out, he began the promotion process immediately, on his own, using his power to make the long-awaited promotion come to fruition.

In another case, the company took on a new cultural change initiative. It wanted to transform itself into a “learning culture.” As part of this new direction, employees were encouraged to take both in house and external learning opportunities, to try cross training, and have graduate school paid for by the company. One employee signed up for a Masters Certificate in contracting, offered internally. Ironically, just one class shy of the credits needed for the Masters Certificate, the company abandoned the program. In another case, an employee started a Masters Degree at a local University. Halfway through the program, the department head told him that there was no more money in the budget for supporting completion of the program. As a result of that decision, the employee paid for the remaining course himself. Later, the employee learned that other departments continued to pay for their employees’ college courses. It didn’t seem as if fairness was part of the “learning culture”. However, it taught company employee not to become overwhelmed with anticipation when a new “culture change” is introduced.

Besides creating cynicism, these events damaged morale, engagement, and loyalty to the company. Reflecting upon these incidents reminded me of the adage, “don’t put the cart before the horse”.  A quick Google search revealed a good explanation of this idiom, “putting things in the wrong order”, as buying a car on the promise of a promotion, signing up for courses, finding out that the promise was a passing company cultural experiment, building up the excitement of a trip to Disney World,   merely to discover that the trip has to be cancelled or postponed, or hoping to be asked to prom, picking out a dress, just to be disappointed when there is no date.

Managing expectations is not cynicism, it’s the ability to accept the fact that things often do not work out. It’s a mature approach to help people live their lives calmly and evenly. As many authors have said, “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.”

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” – Stephen Hawking

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.



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