Great Expectations

17th June 2020

Article by Alexander Baranikow | Strategy Manager

Politics is won or lost when the outcome delivered is compared to expectations. In fact, the success and failure of anything comes down to the expectations in which it’s prefaced. For this reason, every time we communicate a commitment or deliverable, the expectations which encompass it must be simultaneously tempered.

Whether you are engaging with a customer, a client or a colleague, if you set realistic expectations and then proceed to meet or exceed them: you’re a hero. If you promise the world but fall just short – you’ve failed. This lesson has been echoed throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The narrative of the pandemic at the beginning was doom and gloom in Australia. As COVID-19 gathered momentum, speculation became rampant as to how many people would fall ill, how health services would cope under the strain, and how sick the economy would become from the fallout of restrictions.

In March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t sugar coat a sobering prediction that for many, “2020 will be toughest year of our lives”. We were told to brace ourselves for six months of lockdown restrictions. Consistently, the Federal Government’s messaging has been careful to note the possibly dire reality to come, exacerbated from inaction. As a result, everything that is not ‘worst-case’ is a success. Every funding announcement is an achievement: it delivers a better outcome from what could have been.

The same tactic has been made by state and territory governments with respect to increasing and easing restrictions. It’s little wonder why Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been cautious on announcing definitive dates for rewinding lockdown measures in such uncertain and unprecedented circumstances. The potential damage of taking away hope and backflipping on a commitment is far greater than not making a commitment at all. Furthermore, it’s far easier to bring forward commitments and accelerate action from a slower speed, rather than slam on the brakes and give voters whiplash. According to a poll by the Lowy Institute on 14 May, 93 per cent of Australians believe Australia has handled COVID-19 very or fairly well so far. There’s no better way to juxtapose the perception of Australia’s governments’ performances than against that of the US President. I know, easy target.

Let’s take a stroll through President Trump’s greatest quotes – pandemic edition:

22 January 2020: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

2 February: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”

26 February: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

10 March: “This was unexpected. … And it hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

24 March: “Easter is a very special day for me. And I see it sort of in that timeline that I’m thinking about.”

28 May: “We have just reached a very sad milestone with the coronavirus pandemic deaths reaching 100,000.” According to collated US poll results by FiveThirtyEight on 16 February: 46.8 per cent of respondents approved of Trump’s response to COVID-19, while 26.5 per cent disapproved. Fast forward to 1 June, and 43 per cent approve of his response but those who disapprove has more than doubled to 53.4 per cent. As demonstrated by Trump, the surge in popularity from talking big is short-lived and can result in reputational damage if you fail to deliver what’s expected.

It’s important to be aspirational, but ambitions must be defined as such and balanced by the context of expectations.

It also must be noted that meeting or exceeding expectations creates trust – which can be thought of as a currency. The more trust you accumulate, the more you’re able to invest in your relationships and expand your networks. Communicating realistic and plausible targets and reliably achieving them is substantially more sustainable and profitable in the long-term than the sugar-hit you receive from making grandiose promises.

If you tell a country that a virus poses no threat one month and then find yourself explaining that 100,000 lives are lost the next – was the popular-turned-failed promise worth it?

Whether you’re the leader of a nation, in the C-suite, or a humble consultant – communicate realistic expectations to others to achieve relative success and avoid perceived failure.