High expectations lead to stress

High expectations lead to stress, and it’s pretty hard not to fall into the trap of having them in business. The daily pursuit of your lofty goals and putting in the work to achieve them is fraught with tension.
What we'll cover

The goal for business coaching is to find peak performance for an individual and/or an organisation. You’d think, then, that high expectations would correlate well with fantastic performance, but the opposite is true normally.

What is stress

First we need to know a little about stress. Stress is the uncomfortable feeling of being under pressure. Typically, we would doubt our ability to complete tasks either on time, to the required quality, or on budget.

The stress response is designed to help us deal with short term threats – a sabre-toothed tiger or large rock about to crush us – and it works very well for that. The problem is that the stress response was never designed for this type of prolonged threat, which is why it causes so much damage when we do experience it.

We only ever put ourselves under stress; it is a totally personal experience and internal, not external. One person will find a situation stressful, whereas another might thrive, and another might just plod on regardless. Nothing can cause you to stress; it’s your reaction to the situation.

Perfectionism, people-pleasing and other mindsets tend to increase general levels of stress, as would more practical situations like being knowingly under-trained to perform a task you care about.

Being under a small amount of stress for a short period of time can be beneficial and help you to perform, whereas consistent or chronic stress is known to lead to reduced wellbeing and poorer health outcomes.

How high expectations create stress

Let’s say for a second that someone asks you to put a chair under a table. They’ve not specified the parameters – just that it needs to be under the table.

  • Person A just pushes it under the table and walks away.
  • Person B is somewhat specific about putting chairs under tables and has to ensure that it’s perfectly aligned, and just the right amount of the chair under the table.

Person B has high expectations for that task and their level of stress completing that task will be higher. Now let’s take it into the business environment and scale it up from a simple task to a complex plan to execute an IPO.

Clearly, the outcome is important, so you’d want high expectations for this task, right?

Do the best you can

This is where a subtlety can be important. High expectations are not the same as wishing to do the best you can. High expectations typically push us to go beyond what we’re capable of producing – at least within the cost, quality, time triangle – and become a stressor in themselves.

Pressure creates stress and activates the fight, flight or freeze response, which reduces our capacity for rational thought and floods our body with cortisol, with the associated health risks that come with such an action.

Side note: never make important decisions when you’re stressed or emotional!

So, by having high expectations, which you probably can’t deliver, you are likely reducing your performance rather than increasing it.

You may end up with anxiety on top, which can impact your health in other ways and lead to mental health issues and possibly even an anxiety disorder, if it’s present for so long. Anxiety, for those who don’t know, if a fear of future events – in this case failure to achieve in your IPO.

You may think you just need to “push to get through”, but at that point your mind and body are on borrowed time and you could head for burnout and depression. If you get to that point, your IPO will go out of the window as you’ll be off work, sick, and unable to function.

Peak performance in your business is about making choices that appear irrational on the outside. You can have high aspirations to achieve, but the right path to achieve may take you away from how you’ve been throughout your life. Success comes from exposure to challenges that appear overwhelming but are actually manageable.

Avoid high expectations as they generate chronic stress which chokes performance, mental health, and ultimately your IPO.

Where do high expectations come from?

Typically, high expectations are developed when you were a child, often through subtle parental pressure. Maybe there was an overall feeling of needing to perform – undertones that soaked into your subconscious. As an adult, you may be expecting that your business will perform at the same level as your childhood experiences, but this may not be the case!

However, some locations are also synonymous with high expectations. London business coaching is popular for this reason.

High expectations often come from exposure to other peoples’ high expectations. It’s not uncommon for people to have high expectations or beliefs that they need to succeed simply because of who they are, what their background is/was and what others expect from them.

You might have been praised for your performance rather than just your existence – “well done” rather than “I love you” – one of which is conditional and the other unconditional.

During this time, people can end up developing perfectionism, which is a performance killer, since tasks undertaken need an element of over-delivery, causing wasted time for your business.

Maybe later in life, as a student, you experienced a significant amount of academic expectations which reinforced the belief that life for you was about pressure. Possibly you developed some coping mechanisms – like relaxation techniques or great sleep patterns – but as time goes on, it often becomes more and more difficult to cope with the same level of pressure.

Remember that these were other people’s expectations of your internal pressure level – not your own. This isn’t “you” speaking, but other people speaking for you because they didn’t understand how to help you achieve your goals without pressure.

How to reduce high expectations?

This level of performance you were pushed to achieve might have helped you to get to where you are today. We can never change the past anyway, so there’s no particular point in judging it harshly.

However, today, we can change our mindset in order to improve our performance and wellbeing by simply reducing from unrealistic expectations to realistic expectations. We can plan for this at the start of every task. Reducing expectations from unrealistic to realistic can be as simple as:

  • Firstly, raise your awareness of the fact that you may have been set up for failure by other people. You might have had the impression that in life you were expected to perform perfectly.
  • Secondly, question whether or not your success will come by producing a perfect end result, or achieving a good enough result with room for growth.
  • Thirdly, plan on setting yourself realistic expectations which will make you happy instead of stressed out.

During this process, we may begin to see life as a fun game and so create a calmer atmosphere for ourselves to thrive within, while experiencing a lower stress level.

The corresponding increase in performance and happiness, not only today but for the remainder of your working life. The positive ripples that are felt throughout your team add to what was already a win-win.

Peak performance in your business isn’t about pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion; it’s about finding new techniques to allow you to thrive throughout your life and to get to retirement with a healthy body and mind so you can enjoy your golden years.

Create more success

If you’re an entrepreneur, executive, business owner or freelancer who’s feeling lost in a maze, I would be happy to lend a hand.

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