Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 15;   April 20, 2022: Anticipatory Disappointment at Work

Anticipatory Disappointment at Work

by

Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive. What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?
Disappointment that has escalated through frustration and possibly to anger

Disappointment that has escalated through frustration and possibly to anger. Photo by Nicola Barts from Pexels.

From time to time, we all experience losses in our lives. Just as they vary in significance, so do they vary in the intensity of emotions that accompany them. Among the least of these losses, but perhaps the category most frequent, are disappointments at work. We trust someone with some confidential information, and they prove untrustworthy. Or we're in line for a desirable assignment that ultimately goes to another. Or a major reorganization leads to our own jobs being eliminated. And so on. The possibilities are endless in number and severity.

Conventional disappointment at work is the disappointment we feel after a loss at work. Anticipatory disappointment is the disappointment we feel before the loss has actually occurred.

Anticipatory disappointment can be a source of ongoing unhappiness. It can be debilitating, and tragically unjustified by actual events. This post probably can't help much if you're caught in an intense anticipatory disappointment right now. But if you recognize the pattern in yourself, and you're not trapped in it at the moment, this post might help you avoid a recurrence.

The distinguishing features of anticipatory disappointment

Conventional Anticipatory disappointment can be a source
of ongoing unhappiness. It can be debilitating,
and tragically unjustified by actual events.
disappointment — feeling disappointed about an actual event at work — is a healthy response. What can be more concerning, though, is feeling disappointment about an event that hasn't yet occurred. When the feeling of disappointment about events yet to transpire intensifies to levels we might call apprehension, foreboding, trepidation, anger, or rage, the cause for concern becomes clearer. These feelings can be so intense that they affect our performance, our workplace relationships, and even our home lives. When this happens, we are not only anticipating disappointment. We are in a real sense experiencing the disappointment even though it hasn't occurred yet.

Anticipatory disappointment can occur at any time, even if the loss we anticipate never actually materializes. Because there are so many opportunities for disappointment at work, the pattern of anticipatory disappointment can establish itself as a continuous, uninterrupted emotional state, varying only in intensity.

Sources of risk of anticipatory disappointment

Some workplace roles are more likely than others to contribute to this pattern. For example, risk managers have a set of responsibilities that require them to focus on what can go wrong with plans or initiatives. Misapplying that pattern of thinking to their own personal plans can lead to anticipating personal disappointments that haven't actually occurred and might not ever occur.

Whatever your role, though, supervisor behavior can induce feelings of anticipatory disappointment, intentionally or not. For example, a supervisor might make an ambiguous remark in passing within an announcement about a loosely related matter. Because the remark is ambiguous, some can interpret it as a warning of trouble to come. Even though the trouble hasn't arrived, and might not ever arrive, people might begin anticipating the disappointment that would accompany the trouble. In this way, ambiguity can foment anticipatory disappointment.

And of course, ambiguity can be intentional or inadvertent. Abusive cultures (or abusive supervisors) can use loss and anticipation thereof as management tools.

Last words

What we can anticipate disappointment about at work is available in great variety. We can be disappointed about loss of power, loss of influence, unfavorable ratings, or unfavorable assignments. But if this were not enough, there is a meta form of loss that expands the catalog dramatically. That is the failure to gain something desirable. In this meta form, which might be called the something-good-didn't-happen-syndrome, we can anticipate disappointment about something unspecified. The irony here is that the anticipatory disappointment arises not from a specific future event, but from the absence of the prospect of any such event. Go to top Top  Next issue: Depth First or Breadth First?  Next Issue

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See also Workplace Bullying and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
An actual straw manAnd on December 14: Straw Man Variants
The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.

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