Can We Control What People Think About Us?


The opinions other people form and adjust about us can be critical personally and professionally. People’s opinions of us give us our practical authority, our ability to influence and our ability to draw satisfaction from our work.

Though we may often feel powerless to shape the opinions that others have of us, the truth is that we have much more influence than we think. When other people form their opinions and judgements about us, they measure us against the expectations that we set. They judge us on the scale we give them.

Expectations create the bars other people use to measure success, quality or completeness of our deliverables and, ultimately, whether they can trust and count on us.

In a connected world, it is useful to see trust as the currency and meeting expectations as the foundation for building trust. Sometimes, managing expectations is even more important for trust-building than actual honesty or fairness.

By managing expectations, we can make it easy for people to trust us, to give us more responsibility, to build loyalty to us.

Setting and meeting expectations communicates to people that we’re in control, that we are with them in mind, spirit and action.  It shows that we get things done, that we can be trusted. Unfortunately, actively managing expectations is often too far down our daily todo lists and many of us drive to the outcome at the cost of trust.

There are simple ways to help manage expectations that will enhance trust, build credibility and the strength of the relationships we have.

There is a real power that comes from being in control of how people perceive us and our capabilities and that power is directly related to the ability to actively manage expectations.

Here are 7 ways to actively manage expectations:

  1. Try to align expectations with what you believe you’ll be able to deliver. It’s easiest to change expectations at the very beginning.  Give yourself reasonable time to produce quality output.  This is also when you can sell the value, difficulty and certainty of the expectation
  2. Create mutual conditions of success to help your counterparts define what success looks like. They’ll often depend on you to define not just what success looks like, but why it should look that way. Use this opportunity to create desire for what you expect to deliver. This also serves to clarify what you both need for successful fulfillment of the expectation
  3. Build value through the power of acknowledgement. Remember the last time you called or emailed someone and got nothing in response? Frustrating, isn’t it? Even if they later fully deliver, you still are left with a bad impression if they left you in the dark along the way. Acknowledging can be as simple as a note saying “I got it. I’ll tell you when I’m done or have any problems” or a note saying “I’m still working on it.” These quick, painless communications build trust and confidence
  4. Communicate as soon as there is a possibility for expectations to go unmet. It is so easy to let a deadline slip, thinking it is better to complete a task in 30 minutes than spending 5 minutes explain why it will be 30 (well, now 35 minutes) late.  However, in the absence of communication, others’ expectations and the story they will tell themselves about you will almost always be misaligned with what you’ll deliver. Even if you blow them away by exceeding their expectations, they’re less likely to trust you as much next time because you failed to set reasonable expectations. Or worse, they’ll expect that you over-perform every time
  5. Communicate throughout the process about progress and work to be done. Don’t put the burden on them to understand why you’re communicating. Make the updates simple, concise and self-explanatory – “our subcontractor didn’t bring enough materials, so the project started 2 hours late. We accounted for delays like this, but want to let you know that we’re eating into our buffer.” What your client hears is “you are in control, you are being transparent and you are competent”
  6. As quickly as possible, reset expectations at the moment you might miss them. Don’t wait. Be transparent about why. They probably don’t care that you hit traffic, but they do care that you care enough about them and their time to let them know that you’ll be late and that there is a reasonable explanation. When you communicate expectations can be as important as what you communicate. The longer you wait to set, reset or even communicate completion, the more likely you are to miss expectations
  7. Think of every instance of setting, resetting and meeting/exceeding expectations as an opportunity to build trust and their perception of your trustworthiness. Things you might take for granted, they might not. Be detailed and thorough in setting expectations. The more you communicate upfront, the more opportunity you have to earn trust by setting and managing expectations

Expectations are how we communicate management competence. As Peter Drucker said “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Measuring your deliverables along the way gives you the ability to manage expectations. Communicating these metrics along the way builds credibility and trust.

Understanding, setting and managing expectations are the foundation of success and the key to human relationships and personal success. They’re how we can control what other people think and say about us.

Thanks to Thomas Sullivan for his help writing and editing this article.

Leave a Comment