Thursday, November 28, 2013
The Psychological Contract at work, at work and in relationships
I’ve been working with a number of organisations and individuals undergoing change recently. Not that that is anything new given that change is really the new normal for not only workplaces but our personal lives too. In fact, I don’t refer to change as something out of the ordinary anymore but as the standard: it’s what happens.
Despite it being a constant, humans can find change very difficult to handle, particularly if they are not prepared and have a personality type that is not very open to new experiences (known as Openness to Experience in the Big 5 personality traits). One of our basic human psychological needs is the need for certainty. Some need it less than others but most of us like to be able to predict the near future at least. We also like variety but only in doses that we can manage and control: risk with a twist as I call it.
Another factor that is not talked about much is the psychological contract. We all know what a formal contract involves. It is a written agreement. At work, it is the job description and in a marriage it is probably the vows although you could debate whether they are legal or psychological. The psychological contract is unwritten and is based on perception. When we join a new workplace or new team we watch what happens and form a view about how people are treated and how they treat one another. We can also arrive with expectations about how we should be treated and these two perceptions are thrown into the mix and we end up with a psychological contract. The same can be said for relationships.
Not all psychological contracts are positive. I’ve worked in industries where there is a lot of bullying behaviour but because this is the established norm not many people complain. Instead they learn to put up with it and are more concerned with job security than they are with the negative behaviour of others.
A breach of the psychological contract can have devastating consequences that are, for many managers and colleagues/friends/partners hard to understand. Our brains, having formed impressions and expectations about how we are to be treated by others, reacts very badly when these pathways are disturbed. In effect, we have a stress response to change. The emotional parts of our brain are brought into play and we feel any one of a number of feelings such as anger, sadness, disappointment, fear or helplessness, for example.
Trust is a great example. Most of us know that we find it hard to trust someone again when they have let us down. It is mostly the emotional part of us that is the barrier to trusting again because the stress related to being let down feels so bad: we don’t want to risk again. Breaches of psychological contact extend much further than trust of course.
The most obvious and very damaging breaches of psychological contract involve bullying, favouritism, people being singled out, sudden change in employment status, unsubstantiated claims being made against people, blame and so on. I’ve been involved in many very problematic and expensive cases involving worker’s compensation and worse where people have been severely damaged by breaches of psychological contract.
Any change, such as in a relationship or in an organisation, where suddenly (or maybe even slowly) expectations are shifting from a previously established pattern can result in a breach of psychological contract.
Things are not happening as the way they have in the past and I don’t like the feelings that this is evoking. So, I’ll either ignore it (denial), get mad and throw the toys out the cot, be passive-aggressive, be helpless, white ant the change if I can, or become anxious. None of these are particularly useful and are very uncomfortable for other people.
The important thing is to remember that psychological contracts are very powerful, as the psychological research on expectations shows us. The brain does not take kindly to its established pathways being overridden. It doesn’t know what to do and reacts with stress.
So, one of the things I have found helpful, although still potentially tricky, is to have early and focused conversations with people about potential or even ongoing change. The conversation involves describing the new world and the changed expectations. Then I ask the person how they feel about it and let them talk about it before asking them how it will change what they do. I have him or her describe the change in their behaviour in detail. Then it is important to talk about whether this will be easy or hard for them and what can be done to make it easier. Follow-up is critical for those who see that this is not going to be easy and who are resistant. For those who react badly I ask them what is making them react in this way and what barriers there might be that we can overcome.
Essentially, this is a process of rewriting the contract, rewiring expectations. No easy task but better than simply expecting people to sink or swim. It also acknowledges that people’s feelings are important.
Having said this, there are other reasons why people don’t change and choose to swim against the tide. If all measures have honestly been taken to help the person deal with the change and its sequelae, then more confronting measures might need to be implemented.
We live in a world where life and love is subject to change and part of living in it is learning how to deal with this harsh reality.