By Guy Harris

Have you ever noticed that people are sometimes dissatisfied with situations that are not that bad and sometimes satisfied with situations that are not that good?

I will use myself as an example.

I can think of times when I was sitting comfortably in a restaurant with food in front of me, and I was dissatisfied (even a bit angry) because of minor issue with the food. A little cold. A bit too salty. You get the idea. I was in a good, safe, comfortable location with food that was safe to eat, and I was dissatisfied.

I can also think of times when I had a numb mouth, two people about six inches from my face, and one of them had their hand in my mouth while drilling on my tooth. I was uncomfortable and satisfied at the same time.

It is a conundrum.

Why would a person be dissatisfied with a situation that is objectively pretty good and satisfied with a situation this is objectively uncomfortable or bad? It seems like we should be happy or satisfied when things are comfortable or good and unhappy or dissatisfied when things are uncomfortable or bad. And that is not really what happens.

What actually happens is that we tend to be happy or unhappy (satisfied or dissatisfied) because of how closely our expectations match our experience. When our experience matches or exceeds our expectations, we tend to be happy or satisfied. When our experience falls short of our expectations, we tend to be unhappy or dissatisfied.

When it comes to human psychology, I am hesitant to state anything that sounds like an absolute truth or rule, and there is a statement that is generally true that I have seen and heard in several places. I have seen it stated two different ways:

  • Happiness = Reality/Expectations or
  • Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

Either way you state the “rule,” it leads to the same place: when reality meets or exceeds expectations, our happiness “value” is on the plus side.

Going back to my two situations. In the restaurant, my experience fell short of my expectations, and I was dissatisfied. In the dentist scenario, my experience matched my expectations, and I was satisfied (not necessarily happy, but satisfied at least).

Why should leaders care about happiness and satisfaction? 

Because happy/satisfied team members tend to get better results, have fewer conflicts, and create a better team environment. The team functions better, and the leader’s life (your life) is easier.

I do not propose that leaders can magically make everyone happy or satisfied. I do propose that leaders need to understand what supports this condition and what they can do to positively influence it. One of the more powerful things that leaders can do to promote satisfaction and happiness is to practice the skill of setting fair and realistic expectations with the goal of at least meeting the expectation and possibly exceeding it.

For example, if a situation is going to be difficult and will take many hours of hard work, tell people that is what they can expect so that they are not surprised when things get difficult. I am not convinced that your team will necessarily be happy about the challenging times. Maybe you can avoid creating dissatisfaction, though.

On the other end, when you expect things to go well, moderate your optimism so that you leave a little room for exceeding your most optimistic prediction. I am not suggesting that you downplay your excitement and enthusiasm, only that you remain aware of being optimistic to the point that the best you can hope for is to meet the expectation and there is little or no room to exceed it.

Setting fair, realistic, and honest expectations is one of the most powerful tools you have for creating a hopeful, satisfied – possibly even happy – work environment for you and your team

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