A guaranteed awesome day- wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be great to have a grand plan and then have the day unfold exactly as we had planned? I have had days like that and maybe you have too. Now, have you ever had one of those days where things did not go according to plan? I used to have many days like that. My first real engineering job, I was in construction. Most days included a visit to a large job site of a big time client to see what the crew had accomplished since I last saw them. Guess what! Things rarely if ever went as planned. In fact, most times something went terribly wrong and often it was some unforeseeable thing that either my crew did or another crew did. Sometimes the chemistry of our product didn’t work out the way it was supposed to work. Equipment would break. People got sick. There was also the occasional visit from a particular labor union “leader” threatening to shut down the entire project because a broom was moved from one side of the site to the other by a the wrong union. It was nuts and I often found myself feeling nuts.
Every day my self talk was something like “please God, please don’t let anything crazy happen today. Please let the crew be on time. Please let the client be happy… etc. etc. etc.” This approach often ended up back firing since things were always going sideways on major construction projects. Heck! Have you ever tried to do a simple repair or upgrade around your house only to find that you need a special tool or part that you don’t have? Maybe you open a tiny section of wall only to find asbestos or mold? Multiply that times a thousand and that’s life in construction management. I tried thinking positive thoughts but often that didn’t work out either and lead to disappointment. Then the other option of taking the Murphy’s law approach (whatever can go wrong, will go wrong) was too depressing. Expecting bad was not putting me in a mindset that was useful to anybody, especially myself.
I had to finally accept that I did not have control over the situation. In fact, the expectation of something happening was hurting me physiologically and emotionally. Here’s a fascinating tidbit about the brain. When we expect some kind of positive outcome especially one that connects to pleasure, (financial gain, love, food, etc.) we experience more pleasure from the anticipation from that event than the actual event. Unfortunately, we get hit extra hard when that event goes sideways and our expectations are not met or the opposite happens. The brain senses extreme danger and we may feel annoyed, afraid, or overwhelmed or even out of control.
In a nutshell, when we expect pleasure but are met with pain, then bad things happen in our brain and body. We cannot outsmart this part of our brain. Some people may try to avoid this pain by adapting a belief that something bad can and probably will happen in hopes to trick ourselves. This approach can have other negative consequences. Expecting bad all the time can lead to feelings of depression, loss of energy or putting our bodies in a hyper alert of fight, flight freeze mode that gets stress hormones like cortisol pumping through our bodies and stealing peace and possibility. Having zero expectations seems like a better option but difficult to achieve since the human brain has evolved to look for patterns and create expectation as a way of survival. We also can unconsciously undermine our potential success by achieving our “low bar” expectations. We end up protecting ourselves not only from disappointment, but from great growth, experiences or achievement as well.
Bottom line, we just don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives, our business, or the world AND we want to know. We really really really want to know for sure with a guarantee in writing, with insurance. We want to know and we’d like some control. You’re not a bad or weak person if you are feeling this way. You are human and of course you have some expectations about life, your business and the people in it. However, there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that things will work out the way you want. BUT WAIT! There are also no guarantees that they won’t work out the way you want them to work out. You just don’t know and that space of “not knowing’ is DARN uncomfortable and it is a space that you as a leader must be able to tolerate and with which you must also peacefully coexist. People want guarantees and will often trade off a better life opportunity for the safety of the known (see “annuities”).
Well what is a leader to do? Leaders not only have their own expectations to manage but the expectations of others as well. Whether it is a team, a client or a child, you are leading people and people have expectations and definitely crave certainty. One of the most important qualities of a a great leader is the ability to lead through and in times of great ambiguity. Ambiguity is tough. Most people struggle in simple listening skills. Humans want to fix, guess and offer solutions. Patiently listening requires tolerating a lot of ambiguity.
While I cannot wave a magic wand and remove ambiguity, disappointment, let downs or danger, I can offer you something that may help. Leaders, I offer you this little phrase to tuck away in your back pocket and have ready. In your best space of mental curiosity and openness, say the following phrase: “I WONDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN TODAY?” That’s it. That’s the phrase. Practice saying it and really lean into positive wonder when you say it.
Notice your expectations. Hold them lightly and ask yourself this question- ” I wonder what will happen today?” Some things could be great, some less great. There are no guarantees that things will go well. There are also no guarantees that things won’t work out exactly as you’d like or at least exactly as they should even if you cannot see it in the moment. Your job is simply to be open and to know that whatever it is, you can handle it. You can learn from it and perhaps you can even celebrate it. Keep leading. Continue to set goals and stretch yourself. Keep doing your part in making you and this world a better place.
Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Meanwhile I am sending you lots of positive energy, wishes of learning and all the success that you can handle.
Your coach, fan and friend,
Larysa Slobodian, MA
Executive Coach & Leadership Consultant
L4 Leadership LLC