22nd May 2023 | Written by

The Perils of Unrealistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations is critical to success, but it’s often easier said than done. Leadership 101 tells us that it is crucial to set realistic expectations. Yet, most of our people will fail at doing this set of Uncomfortable Work. Whether they are scared of disappointing their manager, overly ambitious, or scared of not looking like a team player, the gap between “knowing” what to do and actually doing it can be massive.

Here’s why: Most growth company cultures reward big talk and unrealistic promises over boring achievable goals. This culture can lead to a lot of stress and frustration as people struggle to balance being growth oriented with delivering promised results. 

To help, I am going to tell you the three ways we teach companies to reliably “Say No” to unrealistic expectations while preserving a growth mindset. 

First, a story to set it up. Back when I was a sales manager at Dell leading a team of 19 people, the team was required to forecast how much revenue they were going to book for a quarter. And we were encouraged to sign up for BIG numbers. 

Initially, my peers were signing up for huge numbers they weren’t sure they could hit, which led to weeks of stress and pressure to catch up when they fell behind. In reality, they were setting themselves up for failure. The pressure to meet unrealistic sales quotas was immense, and it resulted in a toxic work environment. Every week, they would get reprimanded for not meeting those big numbers, creating fear and desperation. 

People would then do whatever it took to catch up, even if it meant cutting corners or making unrealistic promises to customers. This kind of behavior creates a downward spiral that every leader wants to avoid…over-promising to make up for over-promising. 

I was not immune. I did this too and got burned. So, the next time, I signed up for a smaller, more realistic number in order to report solid progress throughout the quarter and avoid the stress of falling behind.

Of course, my small number was met with big resistance. My boss and my boss’s boss even got on the phone to challenge me into signing up for a bigger number. It was really scary and it was so uncomfortable. But luckily, as a recovering addict and I had the tools to systematically do Uncomfortable Work.  So I led myself, stuck with my number, and surrendered their reaction. 

Armed with realistic targets, my team didn’t have to take shortcuts with our customers. So while I was “giving them cover” by tolerating the pushback for not signing up for a bigger number, my team was free to perform at their highest levels. This led to more business, and by the end of the quarter we delivered exactly what we promised (and more), and the team avoided burnout doing it. As a result, we were able to repeat this success quarter over quarter.

This experience highlights a common problem in many organizations: 

People are Saying Yes to unrealistic expectations when they should be Saying No.

So here are 3 tips for Saying No to unrealistic expectations:

1. Practice Rigorous Authenticity: This means being truthful about what you know and don’t know, what you can and cannot do, and what you will and will not do. It’s important to acknowledge your limitations and communicate them openly to others no matter the response.


2. Surrender the Outcome: Once you’ve set realistic expectations, focus on what you can control in delivering on the expectation you set instead of focusing on what you can’t control, which is other people’s reaction to it. 


3. Do Uncomfortable Work:  Saying no can be incredibly uncomfortable. But it can also be the difference between leading yourself to success over failure. People rarely remember a No, but they always remember when you don’t deliver on a promise. 


At Addictive Leadership, we have developed a process that systematically empowers leaders at growth organizations to Say No to unrealistic expectations while still maintaining a growth mindset.  

One memorable recent win was when we worked with an engineering firm whose people were agreeing to unrealistic client expectations around timelines. When we engaged, they had recently experienced a safety event because a client service leader was scared to push back on an accelerated timeline.  As a result, they had a preventable safety event that was costly in terms of money, client satisfaction, and an employee suffering a fall that resulted in four broken vertebrae. 

The client service leader didn’t want to appear weak or incapable in front of the client, and they didn’t want to lose the work. But this decision had severe consequences and ended up being a safety event was a wake-up call for the engineering firm. 

Once their team was empowered with the specific system, scripts, and training to set realistic expectations, employee safety AND client satisfaction started to increase.  All because they learned how to do a little bit of Uncomfortable Work. 

What’s the CTA? The next time you’re tempted to Say Yes to an unrealistic demand, remember this article and ask yourself: what would it take to set a more realistic goal, and how can I make it happen?

Want to learn a self-leadership system that will help your team systematically Say No to unrealistic expectations? Reach out to us here.