Managing Expectations

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are about to move. Perhaps it is as an individual or with a family, perhaps it is for work or study. Maybe you’re moving from Denver to Cuzco, or from Seoul to Atlanta. Possibly you have a snazzy package of benefits and an efficient destination services coordinator, but possibly you’re orchestrating it on your own dime. No matter the exact details of your situation, I have a question for you:

“What are your expectations? How are you planning to manage them?”

This question may come as a surprise, and your first reaction might be one of derision. Who has time for that, and why does it matter? Such incredulity is understandable, because soft skills and abstract thinking can feel like distractions or luxuries as the clock ticks toward your departure date. Indeed, the blur of concrete logistical details like arranging long-term storage, selling your house, or quarantining your pet can be overwhelming. But besides being stressful, “to-do” lists can give a false sense of security. It’s almost as if our minds look at check-lists and say, “If I just get all of this done, everything will be fine.”

Some organizations fret that drawing attention to the potential pitfalls of assignments may discourage candidates from accepting them. Yet in my experience, engaging in a process of examining expectations up-front ensures that the right candidates say yes with greater confidence, and that everyone is on the same page when the assignment begins.

A third reason that expectations are often neglected is that some subscribe to a philosophy that says, “Don’t think about what can go wrong or you’ll attract negativity. Just be positive!” It’s true that in a relocation – and in life – there is no substitute for a positive attitude, but this should not mean that we deliberately avoid preparing for what lies ahead.

Reality Check

Murphy’s Law (“if things can go wrong, they probably will”) needs no passport or forwarding address. Unfortunately, it is only when they have arrived at the destination that many expats and transferees realize that their unspoken expectations don’t align with their new reality. This gap can occur with any aspect of daily life.

One client found that in her destination it was much cheaper to buy an unfurnished apartment than to rent a furnished one, but that “unfurnished” literally meant that it was empty, without even basic appliances. She then discovered that, unlike in her home country, her new one did not have second-hand or thrift stores, nor flea markets where she could inexpensively procure things like flower pots, a kitchen table, or a wardrobe. When shopping for a new refrigerator, she then discovered (also unlike in her home country) that delivery was not provided by the store selling the appliance. Surely she could not carry the fridge on the overcrowded bus!

She was understandably frustrated when we talked. From her perspective, nothing was working. However, what she did not realize was that she was superimposing her expectations from her old life – where she knew how things worked – onto the new life, where things worked quite differently. What’s more, she had not even realized that she had expectations, but had just thought she was going about getting set up in a universally normal way. With my facilitation, she took a step back and saw that she had been making assumptions about living standards, the availability of goods, and customer service. Based on these assumptions, she had held expectations about how easy and affordable setting up a new home should be.

I pointed out that  everyone else in the community had to, at some point, go through this same process of obtaining a place to live and then making it livable. When I asked her, “how would a local do this?” it was as if the proverbial light bulb lit up. In the midst of unwittingly trying to force her way of doing things and evaluating her new place as therefore coming up short, it had not occurred to her that there might be another way.

This particular client is not unique. Despite being a generally adventurous and flexible person as well as a creative outside-the-box thinker, she could not help having expectations about the way that life works. What was ultimately helpful was not avoiding a discussion of those expectations, but identifying them, understanding their roots, probing them to see if they were realistic, and reframing them so she could meet her needs.


You may be familiar with the idea behind getting a flu vaccine. According to science, if you receive a small dose in advance, your body can develop immunity to the illness before you come into contact with it in real life. Even if you do catch the flu, the thinking goes, your body will be able to fight back more quickly, with reduced symptoms and recovery time. Exploring expectations during the pre-departure phase is similar. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have bad days (nobody has figured out a vaccine for frustration-proof living), but it does bolster your resilience when you come face to face with the inevitable culture shock.

Consider these questions:

1. What are you expecting your home life to be like in your new destination?

2. What are you expecting your social life to be like?

3. What challenges are you anticipating in your new school, work, etc.?

4. Are these expectations (or fears about them not being met) realistic?

5. Why do you have these expectations or fears?

6. How will you cope when the expectations do not match reality?

7. What information, relationships, and resources do you still need in order to prepare or support yourself?

Nobody can predict exactly what their lives will be like in the future, even without adding a relocation to the mix. But going through this thought process over the weeks leading up to departure is one of the most productive things prospective transferees and expats can do to make the new chapter a success. Far from being a waste of time, it enables them to feel empowered. Not only does it ensure that they go into their relocation or move with a realistic set of expectations, but it also reminds them that their success in the new destination ultimately depends on their ability to handle the curve balls that life will undoubtedly throw their way.