Why Setting Expectations Can Backfire

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Following is a guest post by Garret Kramer, author of Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life. His revolutionary approach to performance has transformed the careers of professionals athletes and coaches, Olympians, and collegiate players. Kramer’s work has been featured on WFAN, ESPN, Fox, and CTV, as well as in national publications such as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal.

At my daughter’s summer camp, counselors have made a concerted effort over the past several years to eliminate bullying, wayward behavior, and mischief. In fact, the camp owner and management team recently decided to advertise their camp as an environment where meanness has no place. And, as such, this camp season they required all campers and parents to sign a code-of-conduct agreement where twenty-two camper expectations were listed in detail. Sounds reasonable and responsible, yes?

Well, regrettably, in spite of their sound intentions, behavior at this camp has not improved — it’s gotten worse. And this summer, several campers were repeatedly disciplined and threatened with expulsion for their unruly actions.

Indeed, this situation is comparable to what is happening on college campuses across the U.S. Are you aware that underage students are abusing alcohol at alarming rates? It’s true, and the standard university response is to set more stringent expectations and throw more rules at the student population, even though (as guidelines grow) behavior continues to spiral downhill. We see a similar situation in pro sports. Even with increasingly intense player-development strategies, the amount of dysfunctional actions are escalating by the day, both on and off the playing field.

How much more proof do we need that setting expectations does not inhibit errant behavior?

But why is this alarming trend occurring? And if setting stricter standards doesn’t work, what can be done to eliminate hurtful and disruptive conduct?

The answer, believe it or not, has to do with a person’s free will and inherent functioning — and what happens when these innate attributes are compromised. In setting expectations, leaders are actually pointing people in the direction of (and thus energizing) what they are trying to avoid in the first place.

To illustrate, if I tell my son how to behave as he embarks upon his college journey this week, my expectations are likely to clash with his own intuition, resulting in bound-up thinking (the opposite of a clear head) when he finds himself in a sticky situation — his first fraternity party, for example.

Instead, what camps, schools, teams, leagues, families, and organizations must do is point their charges inward. Teach them that their mind-sets are naturally in flux — from a high feeling state (mood), their choices are automatically fruitful and empowering, but from a low feeling state, if they act, their choices will be desperate and destructive. We must promote and inspire free will by not telling others what is right or wrong, but by encouraging others to act when their state of mind is elevated and, thus, they are viewing life with compassion, love, resilience, and strength. From this perspective, a person’s behavior is always productive, for themselves and those around them.

The only way to encourage productive behavior is to point people inward. Expectations point people outward, toward somebody else’s definition of right and wrong.

The bottom line is that telling others what to do, what to look out for, or what behavior is and is not expected — points them away from their own freedom and instincts. Plus, rather than punishing or disciplining when they don’t fit an organization’s definition of “appropriate” (which only escalates the tension and bewilderment), leaders should be teaching others about what their feelings are trying to tell them. The “off” feeling in their stomachs before the 15-year-old boy campers raided a girls bunk, for instance, was telling them that their thinking was momentarily off course, and they were about to make a big mistake if they proceeded.

It’s time that we look away from behavior and toward the state of mind that creates the behavior. We’ve put the cart before the horse, and, sadly, our young people are paying an extremely steep price for it. After all, isn’t summer camp supposed to be a place where kids grow, discover, make mistakes, and prosper? Isn’t it a place where free will is supposed to bloom?

Author’s note: I am well aware that the preceding point of view is outside the norm. All I ask is that you consider it with an open mind. Our insecurities often tell us that we must set expectations and rules, and discipline accordingly—we should never listen to our insecure thoughts.  

© 2012 Garret Kramer, author of Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life


Enter A Comment

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   13 September 2012   |   Reply

I think binary thinking has caused some trouble here. It’s not inward or outward … it’s both.

Leaving it totally to the slow process of self-awareness risks much on the journey. Issuing edicts alone overlooks the connecting fiber.

What works is to set the expectations of outward behavior and then, especially with children, teens, and college age students, run sessions that map the expectations to their inner thoughts.

It’s been shown scientifically that good decision making ability doesn’t solidify in the brain until age 25 or thereabouts. Guidance is critical.

What used to be taught at home with expectations and daily reminders is now something that camps, schools, etc… must do to eradicate abusive behavior.

Respectfully yours,

garret kramer   |   17 September 2012   |   Reply

Hey Kate,

I appreciate your perspective. To me, however, our perceptions are only created one way: from the inside out. Young children intuitively know this, so as a result, when they feel their thinking going astray (not their circumstances), they naturally move from disquiet to simplicity and ease. As for the data you suggest, I would caution against looking at these types of studies. There are so many factors and judgments involved—they often lead us away from truth. Not toward it.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   24 September 2012   |  

Hi Garet,
The studies I mentioned about age and decision making are not the wishy washy type. They are the scientific brain studies that show a significant difference between young adults and adults.

It does not move away from the truth, it is a significant part of the truth.

We agree to disagree on this.

garret kramer   |   24 September 2012   |  

Thanks Kate, but, and I say this with all due respect, I don’t agree to disagree. I haven’t seen the data, but in my mind, while there might be a correlation between age and the brain’s ability to make productive decisions, there is not a cause-and-effect relationship. In spite of the data, young or old, a person’s ability to move productively through life is based on their level of understanding about the principle of thought. The degree to which a person understands the arbitrary and meaningless nature of the content of their thoughts provides the ability to rise above intellect (biology) or life experience.

Thanks for the conversation, GK

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   24 September 2012   |  

The other thing to consider Garret is that if you caution people away from considering data from studies, that caution would also have to apply to the data you are offering in support of your position.

Something to consider…

garret kramer   |   24 September 2012   |  

I am not doing that. My point is that you can have all the data in the world, but if you take state of mind out of the equation the data will not be helpful. For example, in the pro baseball world data is a driving force in decision making. All teams have the same data. However, those general managers who understand that their ability to see the data clearly is 100% based on their level of consciousness in the moment (that is, they will discern the exact same #’s differently depending on the quality of their thinking moment to moment), are the most successful. Thanks again, GK

Jim Naleid   |   14 September 2012   |   Reply

I must admit, it is very difficult for me to accept the notion that it isn’t a matter of ‘Right” v. ‘Wrong.’ If we have come to the point where neither exists we are in for far more trouble than we can imagine. This really feels like one of those “What are you pretending not to know?” moments.

What I’m afraid is happening, well along, is that parents are raising children and setting fewer and fewer standards and high expectations for them…not so much academically but certainly behaviorally and then at some point these kids are dropped off at camp or the school front door with the expectations that whatever is taught beyond the gate will make up for parenting neglect. Just sayin’…

garret kramer   |   17 September 2012   |   Reply

Jim, here’s a simple way to look at it: It’s never what the parents do (as in set standards, etc.), it’s the state of mind from which they do it. Like all decisions, if we guide from insecure mindsets–we fail. When we do so from inspired mindsets–we thrive. GK

Kristin Woodman   |   15 September 2012   |   Reply

I have been experiencing a similar awakening with my young child. Every night, we were completely focused on what didn’t go well that day and what he needed to do differently the next day. He’s a great kid, knows all the rules, and would periodically have good days. The more we focused on what he shouldn’t do or should do, the worse things seemed to go.

We finally decided just to focus on his success at home, and let the teachers handle the situations at school. We redirect and provide feedback on things we can see in the moment at home, and have decided not to talk much about how things went that day at school, other than how he felt about something that maybe could have been handled differently. We’re seeing totally different results.

Should we really continually telling kids what to do and how to do it as they are developing independence and trying to make decisions for themselves when no one is looking? We might not be setting them up for success as adults. That said, I’m not sure I’d do the same thing if my son were a teenager – depending on the nature of the issue. He’s just starting out with school and a lot of this is new to us.

Thanks for the article. Maybe we’re on the right track after all. Of course, we won’t know for sure until he’s 30, but this helps.

garret kramer   |   17 September 2012   |   Reply

Hey Kristin,

Thanks for the response to my article. You are on the right track, at least to me. The one thing that we never want to do as parents is thwart the free will and inner wisdom of our children. Keep making these types of choices for your children from elevated states of mind (and not when your temporarily bound up in your own head), and they will continue to grow and prosper! GK

Susan Mazza   |   17 September 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your provacative article on Random Acts of Leadership Garrett and to all for engaging in an interesting conversation.

In reading the article and the comments my biggest take away is that our state of mind has a significant influence over our choices that goes beyond simply knowing what is right and what is wrong. As Kate points out though, kids are taught the context for the choices they make – or at least that is my interpretation of the “outward expectations” she was referring to. Yet even when we know right from wrong our state of mind can influence good or bad choices – it’s not enough to know the “rules” or even to understand the principles behind them.

You also have me thinking about the notion of “crimes of passion” -perhaps it could be about far more than something extreme like committing murder because you are so upset you lose control. Maybe we should consider that a “crime of passion” can be anything we do from a low feeling state that causes us to make choices that are not in the best interests of ourselves, our self esteem or other with whom we interact. Bullying is perhaps on one end of the spectrum, but something like cheating on a test and not getting caught can do it’s own form of damage.

garret kramer   |   18 September 2012   |   Reply

Hey Susan,

Many thanks for sharing my article!! To me, you are so looking in the right direction–toward state of mind and away from behavior. many years ago, with the birth of the field of psychology came a focus on the soul, spirit, and the level of consciousness of the individual. Yet, thought leaders in the field couldn’t quite grasp the principles behind the notion that all of our minds (not brains) worked the same way and are interconnected. Thus, they turned to behavior–the biggest mistake ever. Today, we see the effects in bullying, divorce rates, famine, separation of classes, and wars. In my mind, teaching the understanding that state of mind creates experience (not experience creates state of mind), is our only way out. So much more to tell, keep in touch!

All best,


ARI   |   21 September 2012   |   Reply

i LOVED this article. a bit less in love (and least for now) with the broad conclusion. you seem to suggest that we shouldnt tell people what to do — rather we should [insert verb] positive awareness/behaivor, etc (all of which i tooooooooootally agree with). but . . . how is your solution/conclusion not just a difference in semantics (a difference w/ no REAL distinction)? aren’t we just removing the verb “tell” and replacing it w a more nourish imperative (encourage, promote, etc.)?
Perhaps my point is this: YES, we need every last thing you suggest re: positive awareness. But I think that’s mutually exclusive to “Rules” and “telling.” I dont think they are a zero-sum game. And I dont even think they correlate (let alone causal). I think one should have CLEAR rules (call them beliefs, if you like . . . but, at the end of the day, they’e rules because they come w consequences)….AND i think one should practice, model, nourish loving-kindness.

So i totally agree philosophy but not your argument. (If that makes any sense.) Also, I hope I dont come off as blustery or arrogant here. I dont feel that way. I was just trying to engage in the public square, trusting that you (my interlocutor) would be grateful for my critique should it find merit upon careful and open and good-faith scrutiny.

Susan Mazza   |   24 September 2012   |   Reply

Hi Ari, a respectful challenge is ALWAYS welcomed here! In fact it helps us all look a little deeper and more often than not learn something.

You make some great points. I’d like to key in on one of them. I am with you that it isn’t an either or – our kids need to know the rules and that means someone has to tell them what they are. But there is a difference between enforcing the rules and teaching the principles behind them. Making good choices requires that we are both in a high mental state (as Garrett points out) AND the reasoning behind the rules makes sense given our belief system. Not all rules created address the potential problem or danger they are trying to prevent. This only becomes semantics if we forget that rules are in place for a purpose. A simple example: when you see a well worn path across a patch of grass that has a big sign saying keep off the grass you can police the area and punish people for breaking the rule or you can realize that maybe it makes sense to put a walkway there instead.

I look forward to what Garret has to say!

By the way, I wrote an article last month the purpose of rules and principles attempting to address this – here’s the link if you are interested http://randomactsofleadership.com/the-purpose-of-rules-and-principles/

garret kramer   |   24 September 2012   |   Reply

Hi Ari, thanks for your comments. Here’s the thing: I see my role as to point others to how the “system” works (how we create our perceptions and how we know when they are off-kilter). I did not say, nor do I believe that we need to practice awareness or mindfulness. My message is that the system is doing this by design—through our feelings. The purpose of the article is to show, to me, what happens when we believe the answer to productive behavior is “outside in,” as opposed to “inside out.” Thanks again for your note. GK

Jaylen   |   01 July 2015   |   Reply

That intshgi’s perfect for what I need. Thanks!