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When Do Perceptions, Expectations and Reality Cause Conflict?
Jamie Walters & Sarah Fenson If we could dissect what�s going on internally when typical workday stress occurs, most of us would see that there�s a conflict between what we perceive, expect or want, and the circumstances we're handed in reality.

For example, you might create stress for yourself when you set an unrealistically short deadline, or when your standards or wishes for someone else's behavior don't match his actual behavior or capabilities. You might see someone's behavior as rude, for example, and feel strongly that he should take responsibility and act differently. Or you might create frustration for yourself when you avoid something you know you need to do, such as have a firm conversation with someone about unacceptable performance that's hindering the progress of a key project, or communicate forthrightly when your opinion differs from someone else's. By failing to act when we know such action is required, we create anxiety and stress.

If you don�t resolve such conflict between your expectations and reality, you�ll expend truckloads of time and energy anguishing about it, rather than taking action. If you do take action when you're highly frustrated or stressed, it won�t be as thoughtful or productive. The blow to your morale, the poor quality of work, the wasted time and energy, and the still-unresolved issue are more than enough to encourage you to put the brakes on this pattern by taking an audit of your perspective and the external reality.

First aid for unrealistic expectations

When your expectations are clashing with what is real, you�ve got to pause and assess what you can control and what you�ll have to accept as "the way it is." Here are a few tips for observing and processing external information and managing internal conflicts that might occur:

At the onset, take a pause�As soon as you feel the undertow caused by expectations colliding with reality, take a few minutes, or longer, to perform an activity that allows you to remain calm and move into a mindful assessment mode. Activities might include meditating, going for a walk, listening to music, taking a few deep breaths, or closing your office door and doodling.

Assess what�s going on�Reduce your internal conflict down to the lowest common denominator. How are your perceptions different from the external cues that you are receiving? What factors or ideas are conflicting? What caused the conflict (inaction, a voice tone that someone used, or a cultural norm in the company)? Why are you reacting to the external information in this way? Where do you expect more (or something different) than reality is delivering? For example, do you have a deadline that others aren't going to make? Do not leave this stage until you are confident that you have pinpointed the source and reason for the conflict.

Determine what�s in your control and under your realm of responsibility�From your assessment, identify the elements that are truly your responsibility or in your sphere of influence (you might be able to influence something you aren't directly responsible for, if it ultimately affects an area for which you are responsible). Are you really responsible for someone else�s reaction, for example? Is the IT department�s rollout schedule under your control? Have you shirked a responsibility that was required to meet your expectation? Is someone else's performance causing problems?

Consider that there may be more than one way to do things�For many people, adopting a "live and let live" mentality is very difficult, particularly in areas of behavior that challenge core beliefs and values. If you place a high value on personal responsibility, for example, you'll likely get very frustrated when someone's behavior seems irresponsible or inconsiderate, or if they seem to have an entitlement mentality. Even in these tough scenarios, it's often best to ration your energy and response to situations where it can truly help, and recognize that this may not be the windmill to charge! Marianne Williamson, in her book "A Return to Love", asks the important question: Would you rather be happy or right? The need to be right, and have everyone conform to your belief system, expends a lot of energy with no or few results, and creates an incredible amount of stress.

Plan and take appropriate action� One potential remedy for aligning expectations with reality is to plan and take action based on thoughtful assessment. Using your list (or mindmap, or whatever brainstorming tool that you used above), and assign yourself activities that will help alleviate your internal conflict by aligning your expectations with what is realistically achievable. The first action must be a mechanism for ridding your mind of the perception that you can control what you can�t. Snap yourself into reality. Working down the list, concentrate on what you can realistically do in the current situation, and what elements you will choose to accept as they exist because they�re not your responsibility or under your control.


If you take someone else�s expectations on as if they were your own, you will create some sort of internal conflict. Consider this oft-quoted anecdote about U.S. Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin:

Franklin was a man of high ideals, and didn't exempt his own behavior. In fact, he was known to have formulated a list of guiding values that would become his life's work. One of his contemporaries told him that he should be less arrogant, so Ben added it to his list of values. Nearing his death, Ben realized that he had incorporated all of his guiding values into his behavior, except for one � alleviating his arrogance � because it wasn�t important to him. It was more someone else�s expectation, a "should", than his own.

If you want to avoid internal conflict, never do something simply because you think you should. Instead, incorporate your own guiding values and goals into your day-to-day actions, and look for opportunities hidden within various projects, tasks and challenges to refine your behavior according to your highest values.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective leadership or communication plans are those that have been tailored to your unique needs and organizational culture, so don't hesitate to get assistance from a qualified adviser. Have questions? Send us an email

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