One of the challenging aspects of project management is setting and then managing expectations of both clients and stakeholders. As a rule, everyone comes into a project with some kind of expectations. However, a number of factors often lead to the situation when one side is left expecting more than the other side can offer. Let’s take a look where unrealistic expectations come from and what can be done to overcome this issue.

Reasons for Setting Unrealistic Expectations 

Discrepancy between project participants’ expectations is a rather common phenomenon, but what leads to such a situation? Here are some factors contributing to setting unrealistic expectations.

Lack of planning

Having a precise plan with the clear requirements and expectations of all the project participants is a must. If they get down to business right away and skip detailed planning or consider it as a formality, they will probably face difficulties at the very beginning because of mismatching expectations.  

Inaccurate estimation

Estimation is a critical part in project planning, it involves a quantitative specification of project costs, required resources and time. Effective estimation is based on setting clear requirements with the team, clients and stakeholders. Underestimation of the resources required for project implementation leads to one side promising the outcomes that cannot be delivered. Overestimation of the required resources is also possible, in this case the clients may refuse to collaborate with the company and look for more favorable terms. The best alternative here is to determine a certain buffer (e.g. 450-470 m/hr instead of just 450) for the allocated resources to ensure you won’t have any issues later.

One more thing that adds to inaccurate estimation of the project is uncertainty concerning the project scope, work amount, unexpected internal or external events. Lack of necessary information or clarity on these points at the stage of estimation will result in setting unrealistic expectations. 

Read more: Fighting Uncertainty in Project Management: Arm Yourself with the Right Tool   

Poor communication   

Effective communication between all parties involved in the project is the key to its successful implementation. Poor communication, on the contrary, leads to a number of difficulties and misunderstandings. For example, when a project manager does not communicate to stakeholders on time, they are not aware of what has already been done and what requires more time. The same can be said about problems arising during the team’s working on the project. So, it’s not a good idea to leave stakeholders expecting that everything goes well when it actually doesn’t. 

Members of the same team may be confused about what is expected of them – in this case, lack of proper communication can cause unnecessary delays. At the same time, it’s team members’ responsibility to keep their leaders updated.   

Lack of effective and timely communication with clients may lead to their disorientation concerning the project outcomes and therefore setting unrealistic expectations.   

Desire to please the client/stakeholder

It sometimes happens that the fear of losing clients or stakeholders’ credit forces project managers to agree on some requirements without thorough consideration. In turn, this leads to underestimation of the available resources, so there is a discrepancy between one side’s expectations and what another side can actually deliver. In such a situation, it’s rather difficult to admit that something has gone wrong, and the problems begin to snowball. If these matters are not negotiated by all participants of the project, thorough estimation of the available resources isn’t done, and clear realistic expectations aren’t set, the project in all likelihood will fail.    

Note that these reasons are closely interrelated and influence one another, so in the process of dealing with expectations, it’s important to take all of them into account. 

What are the Signs of Unrealistic Expectations?

To prevent the project from failure as a result of unrealistic expectations, project managers should pay attention to the following indicators.   

  • Missed delivery dates

Unrealistic expectations are usually associated with unrealistic deadlines. It happens when the team’s workload or the time required for performing the tasks hasn’t been estimated properly. So if the team constantly fails to meet the deadlines, it may indicate that the issue of project duration should be renegotiated.  

  • Poor performance

To achieve unrealistic expectations, employees may be forced to rush work, cut corners and not take proper care. This can result in mistakes and poor quality outcomes. Also, the team may focus on the wrong priorities due to unclear goals and lack of understanding of what is expected of them, which leads to wasting time and reduced productivity. 

  • Overrunning costs

If you set your budget based on unrealistic expectations, you may find out that the project costs overrun. If the deadline is also unrealistic, the staff may need to spend longer hours on the project and work overtime, which all adds to the overall cost.

How to Overcome Unrealistic Expectations?

Once you’ve realized that you are not able to meet those unrealistic expectations, it’s time to take some steps to save your project from failure. Here are some helpful tips on how you can deal with the situation. 

Careful planning 

Planning is a critical stage in managing expectations. At this point, it’s important to set detailed and realistic expectations based on the available resources, capability of the team, and the desired outcomes. It’s the work in both directions: with the stakeholders/clients to find out what outcomes they are expecting to achieve, and with the team to find out what they are able to deliver. Clarity is the key to successful project planning: make sure that everyone has the same understanding of the project plan and objectives. Take into account possible contingencies: the timelines or available resources can undergo some changes in the course of project implementation. 

Work with the team

To avoid any further confusions, if it’s possible, involve the team members into the planning. If it’s not, discuss the project requirements with them. Also, work with the team includes: 

  • defining the roles and responsibilities clearly and timely;
  • determining schedules and task dependencies;
  • establishing KPIs and metrics that will be used;
  • estimating available resources;
  • setting up a communication plan.

Make sure that each of the team members fully understands the project, his or her role in it, and the expectations as to how the project will be delivered. 

Effective communication

Expectations are based on assumptions, so constant, effective communication is crucial to reducing their impact. Communication begins at the stage of planning and continues throughout the project. 

  • Communicate with the team to clarify your expectations and requirements, and to be informed of how they proceed with their tasks.     
  • Communicate with the stakeholders to make them aware of the progress being made. They should see the details of the project to keep reality in view and get rid of unrealistic expectations. Report on any changes or issues right away to demonstrate that you are dealing with unexpected situations effectively.
  • Communicate with the clients: in addition to clarifying expectations, keep them updated on the progress of your work – it will help them form the idea of what to expect at the end. If you cannot deliver the project on time for some reasons, it’s better to be honest with them. Otherwise, their expectations will not match the final outcomes.

It’s no less important for effective communication and successful project implementation to build trust-based relationships with all the parties involved. 

Focus on milestones

Milestones are markers that signify a stage in a project’s development. They are of key importance for project managers, clients, stakeholders, and the team to make sure the project is on the right track. Finally, a project milestone creates the environment where it’s necessary to encourage oneself to achieve that particular point.

  • For project managers, milestones can do more than just show progress – they enable them to communicate what’s happening to the project.
  • Team members get a better sense of short-term goals, which motivates them and prevents burnout; they will understand what they are responsible for. Finally, this will encourage the team to work better for the sake of the overall development of the company.
  • Clients, managers, and other project stakeholders have clear understanding of what has been done, what needs doing, and who is responsible for execution. 

So, defining milestones at the planning stage and focusing on them during the project execution, together with other actions mentioned above, will help achieve maximum clarity, which will leave no room for unrealistic expectations.     


Unrealistic expectations are a challenging part of a project manager’s work. There are a number of factors that lead to setting unrealistic expectations: lack of careful planning, inaccurate estimation of costs, resources and time required; ineffective communication between all the participants involved in the project. Overcoming unrealistic expectations may be rather difficult, but there are some steps that can be taken to provide success: planning with detailed expectations; systemic work with the team to clarify everyone’s roles and responsibilities; focus on reaching the project milestones to demonstrate progress, which motivates the team and makes things clear; providing effective communication between all the parties involved in the project.