Did you realize you were making a contract this very moment? Not a formal one, but in your mind, you made the choice to read this article and you naturally came in with some expectations. This “brand” contract is based on what you know about me or the source through which you found my work. Additionally, you’re filling in other expectations from past experience that go beyond just what’s been implicitly promised so far. This “psychological” contract is formed when those expectations you’ve drawn up in your mind get paired with the time you give up to read this article in exchange for the assumption that I’ll provide you with something that makes it worthwhile. So, thanks for your trust – I’ll do my best!

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Unfortunately, if I don’t meet those expectations, you are going to be unhappy. So now the pressure is on for me; I have to meet your expectations, but chances are, I haven’t even met you! So what ARE your expectations? I’m guessing you want to learn something. Maybe leave with just one thing that’s useful. You probably have an expectation of readability, although maybe you’ll forgive some awkward turns of phrase if I can at least provide useful content.

The point is you have expectations. And those expectations inform your experience. Maybe this is a decent article, but a friend recommended it as “life-changing,” so you were ultimately left disappointed. Maybe a smart friend passed it along so you could both have a chuckle at how rudimentary my command of words is, but I managed to exceed your expectations a bit, leaving you satisfied with your time invested. Objective experiences are a myth, so we need to start embracing subjective experiences.

In fact, your entire life is a series of expectations that are being either met, exceeded, or violated. And your “experience” is a combination of both acute experiences that dramatically shape your paradigm and small, chronic experiences that add up over time. You could even quantitatively frame your experiences as the difference between your expectation and your reality. I walk into a performance review expecting the worst and instead receive glowing praise and a raise; expectations exceeded. Experience? Very positive.

On the other hand, let’s say I was expecting a big Christmas bonus, as usual, so I could build a pool in my backyard but instead got only a subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club. You could argue that I’m better off than I was before the bonus, so economics predicts I should be happy. But anyone who has seen Clark Griswold’s reaction to this scenario in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” can attest that happiness, most certainly, is not the outcome.

But not all experiences are created equal. My experience with favorite childhood cartoons rebooted as gritty movies is nowhere near as important to me as is my experience regarding the health of my spouse.

And there is one last piece of the puzzle. None of this exists in a vacuum. You enter every experience with the sum total of your prior experiences in play. Are you a generally happy person? One moderately bad experience isn’t going to change that and you might even remain net positive through it. Are you a Negative Ned? Well a good experience might not be enough to swing you out of the doldrums.

Putting all this together, we have the product of your expectations (E) and the reality of how well they were met (EO), all multiplied by how important (I) the moment was to you, all added to your general disposition (GD). Or, more concisely:

I(E*EO) + GD = Experience

Try it out! Start with something easy, like the last movie you saw. How would you rate it?

Your Expectation (E) ? The Expectation Outcome (EO) ?
4 Very Low -3 Drastically Did Not
2 Low -2 Did Not
1 None 1 Met Expectations
2 Some 2 Exceeded Expectations
4 High 3 Drastically Exceeded
The Importance (I) ? Your General Disposition (GD) ?
1 Not Important -5 Fairly Negative
2 Somewhat Important -3 Slightly Negative
3 Important 0 Even-Keeled
4 Very Important 3 Generally Positive
5 Vital Importance 5 Annoyingly Chipper

Where does your score put you?

1 to 15

Scores in this area describe contentment. Generally a positive experience but not enough to elicit much emotion. Maybe worth a mention if a friend asks about it or if it’s been a slow social media day.

-1 to -15

This might cause a vigorous eyebrow raise. Maybe a verbal scoff. Inconvenience, frustration, irritation. By itself, no big deal. But watch out if these experiences start to add up.

16 to 30

We’re getting into emotion here. This is creating enthusiasm and genuine positive emotion. Here you share your experience willingly with friends and acquaintances. This experience fosters enthusiasm and forces you to recalibrate your expectations.

-16 to -30

The emotion here is strong enough to inspire behavioral change. Something needs to be done. Doubt, discouragement, and worry. These are experiences that need to be shared with comforting friends and food.

31 and higher

These are experiences that can shift your whole paradigm, redefining expectations. Joy, passion, and love fall here. You’ll share these experiences with anyone who will listen.

-31 and lower

Watch out! These are the experiences that bring about major life changes. If you see someone acting in anger, fear, or despair after one of these experiences, everyone would completely understand.

What separates this equation from a fluffy Cosmo quiz? With this in hand, now you can identify the pain points in your organization. Are certain departments or demographics having drastically different experiences? Do you need to meet their expectations, or recalibrate them? By asking questions about different categories of experiences, you can pinpoint whether employees are having good social experiences but bad personal ones. Good customer moments but bad bureaucratic ones. Maybe someone else is dropping the ball or maybe you have unnaturally high expectations. If you find a part of your job that isn’t necessarily a Greek tragedy but consistently fails to live up to expectations, you’ve identified something that has the potential to erode your experience until one day you’re fed up and you can’t even point to a single reason why. Better to see it coming and course correct.

Now that you understand how identifying and measuring expectations is the key to creating an elite employee experience, give it a whirl with some job-related scenarios! Here are some prompts to help you start identifying where your expectations aren’t being met.

Scenarios

Your most recent performance review Your previous job
Your relationship with your boss, significant other, kids, or peers The last project you completed
Your last dispute with a colleague Your last compensation discussion

Did you rate an experience that didn’t quite fit? We would love to hear from you and how we can improve.

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David L. Mason, Ph.D. David L. Mason, Ph.D.
David leads the Learning and Curriculum efforts at DecisionWise, and is responsible for the design of our training, facilitation, and workshops. He leads sessions throughout the world on employee engagement and workplace learning. Having completed a Ph.D. in Psychology at Columbia University, and undergraduate and graduate degrees in Psychology at Brigham Young University, Dr. Mason turns his understanding of adult learning and psychology into business concepts, working with numerous businesses and academic institutions.