Public Safety Insights Newsletter: How to Re-set Unrealistic Expectations

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December 9, 2015 VOLUME 3, ISSUE 20
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How to Re-set Unrealistic Expectations
Public Safety Insight: You can set yourself and others up for success by re-setting your own and others’ unrealistic expectations.

Recently I heard a long-time EMS professional say, "Times have changed. It used to be that people on scene watched us do our job and trusted us to do our best for the patient. Today they try to tell us how to do the job, and they expect us to save every patient even when it’s clear that’s impossible."

Unrealistic expectations have widespread negative repercussions, both in the field and in the workplace. They establish impossible standards that even high achievers who are consummate problem-solvers cannot meet. Yet you try anyway, to your own and others’ detriment, and sometimes your safety.

Negative consequences in the field include putting yourself and others in harm’s way by taking unnecessary risks, and taking ill-advised shortcuts in the name of saving lives or property. Stress increases when people perceive that even heroic efforts are not good enough. In the workplace, employees trying to meet impossible standards may take short-cuts or give up altogether. As a result, morale drops, self-confidence plummets, resentment grows, trust (in oneself and each other) is eroded, and people begin to question their own competency.

To re-set unrealistic expectations, there are three audiences you must address: yourself, your employees, and your external stakeholders. Some actions to counter unrealistic expectations are common to all three groups:

  1. Set reasonable expectations and standards up front.
  2. Quickly re-set impracticable expectations as they arise.
  3. De-bunk "facts" that reflect an altered reality.

Here are some audience-specific actions you can take to re-set unrealistic expectations:


  1. Develop a realistic mindset. Recognize and own the fact that you cannot save everyone. Model that mindset through your language and your decisions.
  2. Distinguish clearly between what you can control and what you can’t. Focus on the former and release the latter. Teach others to do the same.
  3. Set reasonable goals for yourself – i.e., those that are attainable even though they may cause you to stretch.
  4. Resist the temptation to maintain a dual standard: an unrealistic one for yourself and another, realistic one for everyone else. People believe what you DO, not what you say. If you set yourself up for failure, you’re also doing so for others.


  1. Establish a culture of resiliency that allows for "failure" and embraces mistakes as  learning opportunities. Define "failure" as something other than an imperfect outcome.
  2. De-bunk the notion that 100% success is possible. Convey the message that not all calls will go perfectly despite everyone’s best efforts. Replace this fallacy with the  expectation that everyone will do everything possible within established protocols.
  3. When mistakes are made, have the crew identify what they learned and how they can apply that knowledge in the future.
  4. When employees beat themselves up over a call that went badly, help them re-set their perceptions so they can remember what they did well, and the lessons they learned.

External stakeholders:

  1. Educate the public about why you take the actions and make the decisions you do. When they have the facts, they are less prone to speculation.   
  2. When possible, explain to the people affected by an incident why your crews took the actions and made the decisions they did (e.g., ventilated the roof, threw the contents out the windows). This will help people re-set their perception that you damaged their property unnecessarily.  
  3. Refrain from making promises, even when the prognosis seems good: people often take what you say as a fact. Instead, tell them what will happen next or what they need to do (e.g., follow the ambulance to the hospital where they can speak with the doctor who will treat the patient).

You can set yourself and others up for success by establishing realistic expectations and by consistently challenging those that are not. First responders’ work is very demanding. Don’t make it harder than necessary by setting, or allowing to others to create, impossible standards.

To find other articles and resources that may be of value to you, I invite you to visit my web site at

Public Safety Insights is a concise, bi-weekly newsletter written specifically to help first responders maximize their performance. Your e-mail address is never shared with anyone for any reason. You may unsubscribe by clicking the link on the bottom of this e-mail.


©2015 Pat Lynch | Public Safety Insights

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