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We can handle the truth, so tell us


After a two-year search, we finally found the home we were looking for.

It was mid-August.

We’d closed on the purchase, and were in the final stretch of renovations before moving in.  We knew our contractor and trusted him.  It was a tall order to get everything done in 18 days, but the expectation was we’d get there.

Suddenly, we were 24 hours out from the move.

The painters had finished, new hardwood was in, and a fine film of dust covered the entire house.  It needed to be cleaned… right away.  Except it wasn’t clear who was responsible.  The painters?  The floor guys?  The contractor?  It wasn’t us… or was it?  We were left wondering.

We needed to know.

Moving is one of the most stressful things we do. There are hundreds of to do’s that add to the overwhelm. So the cleaning snafu at the last minute was as welcome as rain on a Saturday. The contractor was fuzzy. The painters were on another job. There were a few hours of confusion and wondering if we were getting the straight goods. In the end, the cleaning got done – a joint collaboration amongst mostly the contractor and a bit of us.

But it was painful getting there.  It all reminded me of that brilliant Jack Nicholson moment in  A Few Good Men.  

“You want the truth?
You can’t handle the truth!”

Except that’s wrong.
We can. 

What we can’t handle is waiting for the truth.

Twenty years ago, while guiding our senior team at a large company through a major acquisition, change expert Price Pritchett uttered these words, and they’ve stayed with me ever since:  “The certainty of misery is far better than the misery of uncertainty.”  

He meant that, at crunch time, we can take bad newsWhat we can’t take is waiting for bad news.  Just tell us.  We can handle it.

It’s like being stuck on the runway. What’s taking so long? Is there a problem with the plane?  I’ll miss my connection. Our minds race if we don’t get any news from the flight deck.  The misery of uncertainty. But if we get the truth – “Hey folks, traffic is backed up, we’re number 12 for take-off, hang tight, it’s going to be another 15 minutes…” – okay, cool.  We can handle that.

Because now we know. 

We’re demanding consumers – and that changes the game.

We want high quality products, and great service, and an amazing ‘experience’ too.  Our expectations are always in overdrive.  And we’re only satisfied if our expectations are met or exceeded.

If you upend those expectations… or make us doubt even a tiny bit…  guess what?  We get antsy.  (That was us 24 hours before moving day.)

Expectations are both explicit and implicit.

  • The explicit ones tend to be about product or service performance, such as shelf life, or the specific terms of the deal we’re being offered.  They’re spelled out, talked about, documented.  They leave no doubts.
  • Implicit expectations are a lot trickier. They might seem obvious, but they rarely are.  Surely we’re not cleaning up the mess the painters made… or are we?  It all goes wrong when these implicit expectations are fuzzy… and then aren’t met.

To be really successful at managing expectations we need to:

Clearly understand what people want from us.   And then do even better.  (We knew you were handling the cleaning, but WOW the place is spotless!)

Be clear on the explicit and implicit expectations.  Don’t assume anything. Take nothing for granted.  (The cleaning is happening tomorrow morning at 8:00.  If you’re wondering, we’re taking the old hardwood to the dump so you don’t have to.)

Be realistic on what we can deliver, even if it’s bad news.  Don’t make promises we can’t keep.  (We know you wanted the staircase done by moving day. It’s not possible.  We commit to finishing it by next Friday.)

Look, we all have good experiences and bad ones, based on our expectations. They happen.

In the end, our contractor did a good job, and we’ll use him again.  But he could have been even better with a keener attention to managing our expectations in those final 24 hours.

Because we can handle the truth.

What we can’t handle is waiting for it.

So ask yourself:

  1. Are you clear on what’s expected of you?
  2. Do you share bad news immediately?
  3. Or do you worry that people can’t handle the truth?