Why Meeting Expectations is a Big Deal



How often to you agree to something trivial, only to forget to actually follow through with it? Well, that trivial thing might have more impact than you think. Research shows that when we set expectations but don’t deliver, it has an enormously negative effect on people’s motivation.

We’ve all done it. We say “yes, sure. I’ll get onto that tomorrow.” And we forget. If you are a leader, then your ability to deliver on these commitments and expectations is paramount if you want your people to do their best work.

The Expectation Effect

Some recent research showed what happens to the dopamine levels inside our brains when we set expectations and if they are delivered. Remember, dopamine is the chemical that signals motivation, reward, makes us feel good, and keeps our attention. In short, it is THE performance chemical.

The researchers measure the level of dopamine in subjects under a number of conditions. When the researchers told people they were going to get a financial reward, the level of dopamine went up dramatically. Later, when those people received their financial reward, the level of dopamine went up again – to exactly the same level.

This shows us that expecting to get a reward is produces the exact same effect on our dopamine levels as actually getting the reward.

But what happened when the reward wasn’t given? In this case, the dopamine levels didn’t only drop back to baseline, nor did they stay the same as previously. When subjects found out that they weren’t ogint to get the expected reward, dopamine levels dropped off the scale. This represents a severe decline in motivation, attention and even problem solving, amongst other performance traits.

A little disappointment goes a long way

Most people think this only works for significant rewards, but it also happens for relatively ‘trivial’ things. Have you ever been waiting to cross the road at a set of lights, maybe you’re in a bit of a hurry, you press the button to get the walk signal and wait patiently. The other direction gets their walk signal and start crossing the road. Surely your turn’s next. The cars start racing through the intersection again for a while, then comes the red light. It should be your turn, but instead, somehow the other crosswalk lights up again and you are left waiting.

The expectation was that it was your turn to cross next. When it didn’t happen, you most likely got really irritated. This is a trivial thing, but it still set that dopamine response into action. If you were really in a hurry, chances are it also elicited some irrational behaviours and thinking.

And so it is with our people. Send that dopamine response on the downslide and you’ll find that they can’t do their best work – they might become irrational and exhibit some behaviours that aren’t productive.

Upholding expectations is a simple process that has very effective results. Stay on top of this if you want your people to do their best work.
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