The High-Performance Paradox: Having Expectations AND Extending Grace

Andrew Carnegie said, “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes,” and I can totally resonate with these words. Whether I’m working on a new book, striving to grow my business, or trying to stay healthy, pushing myself through goals, targets, and timelines often leads me to professional and personal success.

And this applies to others as well. Sometimes when you’re mentoring a team member, challenging a friend, or trying to be a responsible parent, your job is to see the very best in people—even when they don’t see it in themselves—and call it out of them.

So based on this, it would be easy to conclude that expectations are where it’s at. At the end of the day, if you want to experience high performance, effective leaders just need to push themselves and others to achieve their full potential.

But here’s the thing, thought leader Brené Brown seems to dispute this when she writes, “Disappointment is unmet expectations. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.” Author Anne Lamott goes one step further to argue, “Expectations are resentments under construction.

So, the question becomes, “As a leader, do high expectations help or hurt your pursuit of high-performance?”

The answer is, “It depends!” Having high expectations is helpful, so long as you hold these expectations in tension with grace. Having grace means that you strive for understanding and empathy. It means that you extend forgiveness and unconditional acceptance.

Expectations and grace are a package deal! One without the other will always work against you as a leader.

Having high expectations can lead to growth and constant improvement. It can create a results-oriented, high-accountability culture. But when you overfocus on expectations to the neglect of grace, people feel they are only valued for the productivity and start to play it safe for fear of making a mistake. This ultimately creates a culture of burnout and stress.

Extending grace allows people to feel understood and valued which makes them more willing to take risks. This creates a culture of trust and psychological safety. But when you overfocus on grace to the neglect of expectations people fail to tap into their very best, opportunities are missed, and your culture is one of low accountability and mediocrity.

Finding healthy tension between expectations and grace is the paradox of high-performance.

Reflect on your thoughts and actions this past season. Have you had high and healthy expectations of yourself and those around you? At the same time, have you been understanding and embraced a high level of grace? I bet you’ll find that you’ve been hanging out more in one of these quadrants than the others:

Expectations AND Grace

Regardless of where you currently are, the goal is to spend more time in quadrant four. To be supportive AND striving.

Remember, finding healthy tension between expectations and grace doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by choice. And when leaders and organizations choose to push themselves and each other AND extend empathy and understanding, they outperform those who don’t.

Tim Arnold

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