The risky business of raising expectations

Posted on September 12, 2013 by Vicky Welstead


A few weeks after we first met, my husband suggested things were more likely to work out if I lowered my expectations. And they say romance is dead. The sorry truth is he turned out to be right. Expect less, appreciate more – so I’m happy a takeaway’s been ordered, not left wondering how a human being has survived so long only able to cook an egg sandwich.

If only Frances Osborne had had the foresight to teach her significant other a similar life lesson. Along with enjoying an altogether jollier time, the Chancellor could have done with the practice in managing expectations.

Buoyed up by revised GDP figures and the OECD’s 1.5% growth forecast George Osborne threw caution to the wind this week and went and said it. The economy is finally “turning a corner”. Politicians of all colours are all too familiar with the reputational risks of spotting green shoots too early but the temptation appears to have been too much. After so many months of only minuscule percentages to show for austerity, ministers must be beside themselves to have market data on their side at last.

But the dangers of over-promising and under-delivering are still waiting in the wings, especially with living costs remaining painfully high. Managing expectations is essential in corporate communications and these three tips translate to business as well as politics:

1.    Get back-up

Big promises need the support of a united front to be trusted. Unfortunately for the Chancellor, less than 48 hours after his speech Vince Cable urged caution, warning against the dangers of “complacency generated by a few quarters of good economic data”. Speaking to John Humphrys the Business Secretary was all caution and clichés: “it’s a marathon not a sprint”, there are “encouraging signs” but “we can’t rest on our laurels”. Make sure those close to you think your promises are realistic before making them public.

2. Question the limits of your evidence

Whether you’re using data or examples to prove a point, never underestimate the limitations of your evidence. This week’s numbers show the economy entering a growth stage, but that in itself is not enough to prove the genuine rebalancing we’ve been led to expect.

On Wednesday John Plender persuasively argued that the UK is experiencing “the wrong kind of growth”, driven by consumption and property prices. The Government is fond of reminding the public of the instability of growth in Gordon Brown’s boom and bust years, but is yet to evidence a significant rebalance away from debt-fuelled consumption towards exports and investment. And while Vince Cable is right to say the UK has had some success in increasing exports to developing markets, we may have got there just in time for the slowdown.

The lesson is simple; interrogate what the evidence really proves and resist the temptation to overstate what it means for the future.

3.    Actions speak louder than words

Sometimes clichés are true (see Dr Cable earlier). Whatever the numbers suggest, the long-promised recovery will only be real once people start feeling the difference in pay packets and living costs.

Anyone can say the right thing and as much as ministers stress their plan is working, the opposition will claim years of potential growth have been wasted in the stranglehold of austerity. The proof’s in the proverbial pudding, so hold off the celebrations till you’ve finished the job.

Failing all else keep those expectations low and anything you deliver over and above will be a bonus. I know how to appreciate a good egg sandwich.


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