Unresolved Psychological Contracts

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Psychological contracts are beliefs people have about what they’re entitled to receive and required to give in any relationship dynamic. An unresolved psychological contract is when two people are out of alignment regarding expectations and their failure to be aware of these challenges, and resolve them, leads to disintegration of commitment, engagement, and relationships.

“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate.”

― Miguel Ruiz, Author, The Four Agreements

I was recently talking with a friend who secured a job after searching for almost a year. The hiring company was of good quality and treated their employees well. She was grateful to get the job. After about a year, however, she had some minor concerns she shared with me. One was that a conversation about a raise, that was supposed to happen at a specific time, did not. Another was that she found work she was assigned, to be insufficiently challenging, and sometimes she was bored. Upon hearing this, I asked, “On a scale of 1-10, what do you score the relationship you have with your company?” She said, “an 8.” I noticed even though my question brought her awareness of unresolved issues, she did not feel compelled to bring these to the attention of her employer.

In the meantime, another company pursued her and to the surprise and shock of her current employer, she took the new job. She shared feelings of guilt because she knew her current employer’s company was growing fast and they were counting on her for crucial participation in managing new business.

I found it sad and interesting that this situation could have been avoided entirely by either party focusing on priorities that support the resolving of psychological contracts in their many forms. In our work, we ask every person in an organization to make trustworthiness, engagement, and productivity foundational commitments and to adopt specific training, new practices, and behavior changes to address them. We ask them to check in monthly (through mentoring for all, no exceptions) to answer common questions, such as, “Do you have any relationships less than a 10?” and “Is your engagement at work a 10?” and “Is your productivity at work a 10?” If they discover any that are less than a 10, their mentor helps them set a plan to resolve issues they discover. Because this was not a standard practice in my friend’s company, unresolved psychological contracts between her and her company were not recognized in time for them to keep her as an employee.

As a business owner, I first sympathize with the employer because I could see that they entered the relationship in good faith and were not expecting to lose an employee at a critical growth period. While not perfect (no business is), what was most unnecessary and sad, is that they failed to realize the importance of a workplace culture in which conversations, and practices (including regular mentoring check-ins) would have likely prevented this unexpected and painful outcome. I also sympathize with the employee because she was not taught or supported fully, in choosing personal responsibility for the relationships she has with employers, in maintaining trusting, open communications when psychological contracts became unresolved. This costs her.

There is always a cost to leadership capabilities when one engages in a transactional dynamic with authority figures; something that will impede my friend’s ability to lead others in her new role where she will BE an authority figure. There is also a cost to employers who may not realize how fragile the engagement even without crisis relationship scores. Whether we are the employer or employee, it’s critically important that each person become aware of what can be learned from this experience and what new conditions, practices and conversations may need to be considered and implemented proactively.

The main question for every person is, “who do I want to be in the face of this situation? What kind of interpersonal dynamics will I support in my company? In myself? (No matter what your role).” That’s what we help our clients to consider and accommodate. We provide an invaluable process that builds awareness and commitment to a certain kind of workplace culture in which expected behaviors for all are clearly communicated, encouraged, and supported fully. Call us if we can help your organization to gain high levels of accountability, commitment, and engagement. We can show you our track record to demonstrate the difference we can make for you!

This article is published in The St. Louis Small Business Monthly, in the column The Extraordinary Workplace, June 2022.

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