BL&T No. 115: Trading Expectations for Agreements

Personal Growth

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"Remember, frustration is a function of our expectations, and our expectations are often a reflection of the social mirror rather than our own values and priorities."

From “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey [Book]


When Novus Global joined Barrel for team-wide coaching in March 2021, one of my favorite takeaways was a concept called Expectations vs. Agreements. It comes from author and coach Steve Chandler.

Related: BL&T No. 027: Inviting Feedback Through Shared Principles & Vocabulary

I remember being pretty mind-blown when we learned how Chandler distinguishes between expectations and agreements. It immediately clicked and made us all wonder what life might look like if everyone subscribed to the thinking.

Since then, Barrel leadership and I have done our best to practice the concept in everyday interactions while also re-introducing it to folks on the team when relevant. For example, I led a session with Client Services in April when we integrated project managers into the team. We discussed the downstream impact of unspoken expectations when working with clients and leading the internal team.

While I'm glad that Chandler's concept is still part of our agency dialogue almost two years later, there's been a lot of learning during that time. In this week's edition, I'll share more background on expectations vs. agreements and lessons learned since putting the concept into practice.

Expectations vs. Agreements

We all have expectations of the people in our lives, from family and friends to co-workers and managers. They are shaped by our life experiences and allow us to make assumptions about what normal looks like and how the future should pan out. In this way, expectations are one-sided.

When we hold others to expectations, we live life at the mercy of those around us. We put them in control of our well-being. We enter situations with anticipation for what will happen, stifling creativity, curiosity, and delight. When our best friend or teammate doesn't live up to our expectations, we're disappointed that they let us down. "Charlie, I'm disappointed you didn't send me the presentation on time. I expect more from you." Over time, these feelings lead to resentment, or sometimes betrayal, hurting relationships and diminishing results.

How people relate to expectations is complicated and unique. Some resist them, some fear them, and others fall in between. No matter where you stand, expectations don't promote collaboration or understanding. Instead, they permit us to place blame on other people when things go wrong. "Our timeline got delayed because Charlie didn't send me the presentation on time."

Related: BL&T No. 017: Seeking Change Through Self-Discovery

Chandler's answer to these challenges is a life without expectations, only agreements. Agreements are an opportunity to align about what's possible and hold each other accountable to a promise. Agreements inspire creativity, requiring two people to find a solution together vs. one imposing expectations upon the other.

  • Maggie: "Hi, Charlie! Can you send me the final presentation tomorrow morning? I'm hoping to respond to the client soon."
  • Charlie: "I agree that getting the presentation to the client in the morning is ideal. I'll admit, though — I'm nervous about getting it done in time. It's quite a bit of feedback."
  • Maggie: "I understand. Would getting an intern's support be helpful? I know Jamie has some availability."
  • Charlie: "That would be awesome! I can get Jamie set up now. With her help, I can send you the final presentation by the end of the day."
  • Maggie: "Wow, awesome. Thanks, Charlie. The client will be thrilled."

It is human nature for all of us to stay true to our word. When we make an agreement like Maggie and Charlie, we want to see it through. If we can't, we have an opportunity to re-negotiate and come up with a new agreement. If Charlie doesn't uphold his agreement, Maggie can align with him on what it means to make an agreement and work together to avoid the same challenge in the future. The difference vs. expectations is that there is a two-way dialogue.

Navigating the world without expectations lifts us. Creating agreements guides us to learn more about each other and makes room for us to be surprised and delighted. As Chandler would argue, a life without expectations is a happy life.

Lessons Learned

Learning a new concept is the easy part. Putting that concept into practice is where the real fun begins! Here are five observations and lessons learned since introducing the expectations vs. agreements concept to our team.

1) Expectations > Agreements > Expectations

Even with the best intention, it can be easy to turn agreements back into expectations without realizing it. I've observed this with team members who have gotten fully onboard with the concept. They are so determined to leave every meeting with agreements that they ask others to commit to the next steps they've decided. If the team doesn't come through, they feel let down. "I don't understand. We had an agreement."

The piece these folks are missing is that agreements are a two-way dialogue. If someone comes to a meeting with their own personal agenda, they are effectively holding others to expectations, even if those people "commit" in the end.

The lesson here is to be courageous! Have the courage to let go of expectations. Agreements don't work unless you enter them with a desire to learn, listen, and a willingness to come out on the other side with a new solution than your own.

2) Team structure and dynamics are still at play.

Imagine a new intern and Account Director making an agreement. While the Account Director may be doing everything right, it is natural for the intern to be inclined to commit to whatever the Account Director is looking to accomplish, whether or not they think they can achieve it.

When we first learned about the expectations vs. agreements concept, I hadn't considered the impact of team structure and how the hierarchy of a team might get in the way of folks having honest conversations.

The lesson here is to acknowledge that not everyone will feel comfortable being open about what they can't handle to those higher up in the organization. I'm not saying we should accept it; instead, work toward creating an environment where speaking up is celebrated.

Related: 3-2-1 Growth 2.0

3) Agreements require trust.

When two individuals do not trust each other, creating agreements is a hopeless pursuit. This observation may seem obvious, but I'm often surprised by how many folks say they trust their co-workers, and yet, they resist making agreements with them.

These folks have typically been let down in the past and cannot imagine anyone staying true to their word.

The lesson here is to help the two individuals understand what it means to create an agreement. Then, start small. Low-stakes agreements can help rebuild trust long-term.

4) Agreements take two.

Whenever I share this concept with someone, I try to be clear that agreements go both ways. In essence, no one is "setting" an agreement alone. The challenge I've seen here is that one person often has the need, which can quickly lead back to our first lesson, where one person pressures the other to "commit."

When I say agreements take two, I mean that it is just as important for the person with the request to have an open mind as it is for their co-worker to be honest about and accountable for what they can handle.

The lesson here is that there are two sides to agreements. When teaching the concept to a team, helping everyone understand both sides is key, not just the side with the need.

Related: BL&T No. 106: Exploring Both Sides of Good Communication

5) Agreements & performance.

Just because a team member has embraced agreements and understands what it means to give their word doesn't mean that everything is awesome. Unfortunately, I've experienced team members like this who struggle to uphold their agreements.

In these situations, I've worked with them to uncover the root cause before setting new agreements, but if things didn't improve, I had to accept that a lack of integrity was a performance issue.

The lesson here is that creating, upholding, and re-negotiating agreements are qualities that define high performance. Folks with no integrity will make everyone's job harder, no matter what skills they bring to the table.

Thought Starter

Where in my life do I have unspoken expectations for someone? How does this impact our relationship? How could agreements create a change?

What gets in the way of creating agreements with the people in my life?


The E-Commerce Corner

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