What do you expect?

A couple of months ago, I asked a contractor I’d known for quite a while to do some plumbing at my house. I told him about the issues we were having and gave him a list of things we’d like to have improved.  We agreed to work on a time-and-materials basis. We’d buy the stuff – he’d put it in. Since we knew each other, we didn’t make any formal contract. Instead, we made a verbal agreement, and gave him the go-ahead to get started.

What started out in a good direction quickly went south. Without anything written down, we didn’t really know what materials we should select. Because we didn’t provide drawings of how we wanted things to look, they were done incorrectly and had to be re-done. And while we never agreed on a completion date, I thought it was taking much longer than it should.  We forwent a contract because we trusted each other. But trust isn’t a substitute for clarity. Without it, the process turned into an exercise in frustration and disappointment.

Frustration and disappointment have been showing up a lot in my life lately. When I think of what’s been going on, I can see that in every case, the problem keeps coming down to two things:

1. I haven’t clearly communicated my expectations.                                                                                                  2. I haven’t gotten clear agreements from the other parties involved.

“How’s that working for me?”  you might ask. I’ll tell you. It’s not.

Most of us don’t like to “pressure” people. So instead of expressing what we really want or making specific requests, we just hope for the best. The flip side of that is we don’t want others to hold us accountable, either. Especially if it’s something we’re not sure we can deliver on. Better just to leave things loose, we tell ourselves.

While we’re keeping it loose, it’s easy to tell ourselves that having a conversation means we’ve got an agreement. (Even when we know it doesn’t.) We ignore that fact that people become resentful when we hold them to a contract they weren’t aware they’d made.

Real agreements are based on both parties discussing and agreeing to the same specifics:  What. When. How. Significant agreements – anything you’re serious about — should be in a form both people can review. It doesn’t have to be formal, but it does have to be written down. It’s amazing how much clearer requests become when you see them in black and white.

An agreement benefits both sides. As unhappy as I was with my plumber, it was difficult for me lodge a complaint without an agreement to refer to.  Ultimately, I did hold him accountable. But I had to admit to myself that starting a project without a written record made me responsible as well.

Here’s the funny thing:  while we think we’re being “nice” by making people write things down, we’re actually setting the stage for anger and resentment. On the other hand, when we’re “harder” by outlining specifics up front, we’re paving the way for things to go smoothly because everyone knows what they’re expected to do.

So how do you get started? Be honest with yourself about your expectations, and then share them. Make sure you ask for what you really want — whether it’s that your kids will take out the trash on Mondays, the plumber will show up on Tuesday, or that your employee will have that report on your desk by tomorrow morning. Then, write it down!

During the process, let others know how things are going. If you find that something is preventing you from keeping your agreement, let the other party know immediately. (Make it part of your agreement that they let you know, too.)  Be sure to renegotiate BEFORE anyone has to break their word.

In my experience, clearly expressing your expectations, making, and keeping your agreements transforms your business and your life.  Frustrations are fewer. Conflicts are resolved more quickly. People are happier – because they know how to make you happy.

It works the other way, too. When you manage your clients’ expectations and deliver what you promise, you will have a business full of raving fans.

Make it an extraordinary day!



  1. Toni Ahlgren

    Very well put, Vicki! Such a good reminder. Thank you!

  2. Kathy Gotzenberg

    Well done and said, Vicki!

  3. Jeanette Vonier

    Thank you for helping me think this through. This has also been a problem for me exactly as you described. Now I know it’s nice to be more clear. I am usually the one that suffers the most when I am unclear because I end up over compensating.
    Smart people learn from their mistakes but wise people learn from the mistakes of others. I need to do both!