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The Unrealistic Work Expectation That Might Hurt Your Career — And Life

By Karen Tietjen
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Many motivated women are driven to advance their careers. But whether you've landed your dream job or an entry-level position, almost everyone takes on something not mentioned in the job description: unrealistic expectations in the workplace set by superiors, colleagues, work culture — and yourself. The troubling part is that many of these expectations are simply accepted as an inevitable part of having a career and, therefore, often go unchecked.

Rebecca Fraser-Thill, a pivot career coach and director of faculty engagement at the Bates College Center for Purposeful Work, promises this doesn't have to be the case. "Friends and family might dismissively say, 'work is work' or 'nobody likes their job,'" she says. But if you're miserable from being held to standards that are impacting your happiness, she assures that there are better options out there. "Once you've recognized a problem, the next step is to strategize a way to talk with your supervisor about the unrealistic expectations and offer concrete alternatives," she advises.

And while admitting that you need a some slack seems counterintuitive, company leaders agree that honesty is the best policy. Sean Huntington, co-founder and CMO of Keep Nature Wild, a responsible apparel line, speaks from experience. "The best thing an employee can do is to tell me very clearly what it is that is causing them stress and to show me what they are the best at and where they feel like they fit best," he says. "The job will get done more efficiently and your boss will appreciate your ability to communicate how you can help the company by using your strengths, rather than accept tasks that you are weak at and be a stumbling block for everyone."

The interesting thing is that, so often, these lofty expectations don't necessarily come from one's superiors or coworkers. Many times, it's one's own idealistic vision of the type of employee and career that they should have that can lead them to the deep end and, sometimes, burnout.

To avoid such a fate, ahead, find tips on navigating unrealistic expectations from a few experts who help build careers — and who've built them for themselves. With a little advice and some fresh perspective, you'll be able to find more fulfillment in your work and balance in your life.

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Expectation #1: Work Should Always Be Your Top Priority

"So many organizations act as if work can be your top priority now, tomorrow, and forever," says Fraser-Thill. "When we're young and healthy, it's easy to think that work-life balance isn't an issue to be concerned about and choose a career that demands long days and weekends on the clock." She explains that health issues, a sick family member, the birth of kids, or events like getting married or buying a house may mean that work comes second for awhile. "Organizations need to understand and support [this change], especially if we've been diligent, loyal, conscientious workers up until the point of the disruption," says Fraser-Thill.

Unfortunately, some companies aren't lenient, and Fraser-Thill works with clients who are in the midst of re-evaluating their career choices for this very reason. "[My clients] often feel like they have wasted years on education and career advancement that they now want to undo," she explains. "In reality, they tend to be thinking in extremes, and coaching can help them find a middle path forward that accommodates both their career and their lives."

Expectation #2: You Should Always Be Available

Thanks to technology, it's easier than ever to stay in touch, but this also means that some employers expect you to be available virtually 24/7. "Early on when I started my career, there was still an expectation of 'face time' in the office — sometimes as long as 16-hour days," explains Jennie Baik, CEO and co-founder or Orchard Mile, a curated shopping website. "And while that was tough, I think that the current workplace expectation of being digitally 'always on' is more taxing on employees' health and productivity." She adds that while fast responses may be encouraged, responding to emails and checking notifications throughout the day can distract your focus from bigger projects. "No CEO has ever promoted someone to their highest ranks solely due to the fact the this individual was 'the quickest to reply' or answered emails at 3 a.m.," she points out.

Try dedicating a few windows of time throughout the day to respond to messages or ask your boss specific times they would prefer you to be available. That way, you can politely set a boundary while respectfully taking your boss' wishes into account.

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Expectation #3: You Shouldn't Be Affected By A Toxic Work Environment

You may think that if you keep your head down and do your job, a toxic work environment won't spill into your productivity (and personal life). But in reality, the negativity has a way of taking its toll. The first step is to identify a toxic workplace, so Fraser-Thill describes it as "an environment characterized by conflict, negativity, harsh criticism, and, sometimes, ethically questionable practices."

As it turns out, many people stay in jobs like this because they're afraid they won't find another one. "It can be hard to break out of this kind of work setting because many people fear that their supervisor — who is creating, encouraging, or, at the very least, tolerating the toxic environment — will block their efforts to change jobs and/or will provide an inaccurate and negative reference."

She continues, "I've had many coaching clients say to me during the first session, 'I don't think I could get a job anywhere else.' But when I pressure test that assertion by asking for evidence, it all comes from co-workers and supervisors saying negative things, while simultaneously taking credit for the client's work and piling more work on the client. This all points to the fact that the client is doing terrific, valued work, but is being told otherwise." (If this sounds familiar, you might want to start job hunting ASAP.)

Expectation #4: You Should Be Good At Every Task That's Given To You

"In a startup there are definitely a lot of hats to be worn," admits Huntington. "But the best employees are 'T-shaped employees': broad knowledge in a lot of things, with deep knowledge in one or two areas."

He points out that employees who try to be good at everything may seem like a huge asset, but it often backfires in the long run. "The employee suffers because they end up stretching themselves too thin and doing things that they aren’t great at," Huntington explains. "Their pride in their work and self-esteem suffer because they are in the wrong position and could excel far better if they were focusing on doing the tasks they are best at."

So, while the eagerness to take on more tasks is admirable, Huntington suggests being honest with your supervisor if they're heaping on duties that are far beyond your expertise. "Obviously there are times when we all have to do something that is outside of our specific role, but being transparent and open up front will help with a lot of stress later on," he says. "I would much rather have an employee say, 'I’m not good [at this task]’ than to accept something that is outside of their wheelhouse."

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Expectation #5: Everyone Knows Your Motivations, So There's No Need To Voice Them

"I like to say, 'conflict is the outcome of unspoken needs,'" says Nicole Centeno, founder and CEO of Splendid Spoon, a plant-based meal delivery company. She says that as a leader, you often have to make quick decisions, but not taking the time to explain your rationale to team members leaves them in the dark. "It’s not just unrealistic to assume your team knows where you are going, it’s also a recipe for challenge," she says. "When we take a moment to make sure another teammate understands how or why we are making a decision, we open ourselves to criticism: That decision we just made may need to change as we learn another’s point of view. Expecting others to immediately understand assumptions while keeping motivations private doesn’t deepen your relationship with teammates; it isolates you."

On the flip side, if you're an employee working your way up the totem pole, it's important to make your aspirations known. Don't assume your superiors know that you're interested in advancement; make sure to tell them, and be willing to put in the work to prove it. "Be your best advocate," adds Centeno. "Strong leaders appreciate strong communicators."

Expectation #6: New Employees Should Have Their Roles Mastered Within A Matter Of Days

Starting a new job is tough, and Alberto Bravo, co-founder and creative director of the knitting retailer and community We Are Knitters, says that unrealistic expectations could be why. "When someone new joins the team, everybody seems to think that this person should know everything in two days and act accordingly," he says. "Sometimes people are way too quick to judge coworkers and they can be a bit too hard on them. They may think they're lazy or uninterested in their work. All this can result in bad reviews and consequently not going forward on your career."

If you're a rookie and you feel like you've been thrown to the wolves, Bravo says there's no shame in asking for help. "Sometimes people are scared to approach their superiors, but at the end of the day, they are people too, and at some point they were not bosses," he says. "It's easy to relate to other people's problems when you have already been there. So my advice would be to talk. Always talk. Don't leave it for another moment."