What have you really signed up for? 10 questions to test your psychological contract with your employer

February 13, 2011 § 5 Comments

jour328 by Guillaume Brialon. Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.

Recently the concept of the Psychological Contract has been bubbling up for me. The key contexts that it has been coming up around are for people who are changing roles, and where change is occurring within organisations.

To assist those unfamiliar with the concept I will use a basic Wikipedia definition;

“The psychological contract represents the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee. It sets the dynamics for the relationship and defines the detailed practicality of the work to be done. It is distinguishable from the formal written contract of employment which, for the most part, only identifies mutual duties and responsibilities in a generalized form.”

What this means is that when we join an organisation, we get a paper contract. We may have conversations about the role in more detail, or not. We usually have expectations drawn from our past experience with organisations, our perception of the organisation we are entering, or just influenced by our own life experiences in general.  Very often it is the unsaid conversations that could clarify the contract (be it paper or Psychological) that would then enable us to understand exactly what is happening and if it is a fit for us and them.

I believe that there are a number of reasons why those conversations are not had and I have included some of them below, I would be interested in your thoughts and or experiences as to why you think they do or don’t occur:

  • perception of the hierarchy of the organisation and relationship to authority
  • management should not be questioned – this perception can be held by both the employee and/or manager
  • self image of the employee and their ability to voice their questions
  • the employee not understanding that the role and environment that is “sold” to them may not exist as represented
  • concerns by the employee based on the job market that they should take this job rather than testing if it is a good fit for their skills and values

To explore this as a change management concept today I will share an example of a psychological contract at the recruitment phase of employment, and in my next post I will explore one later in the life cycle of employment when an organisation is undergoing change.  The reason for sharing the two different perspectives is to reflect on how change or even perceived change can significantly impact the ability of an individual to deal with that change both at the time of change and into the future.

In our first example relating to recruitment, when a new employee comes on board its safe to say that they are keen to get on with the job and make a good impression.  If they join the organisation and the role and environment are what they expected, they are motivated and can get on with the job.  If however the role and or environment are different to what they expected or were “sold”, you already have a problem.  Their commitment to the contract is now influenced by the organisations ability to deliver on it. Some people finding themselves in this situation intuitively understand the concept of the psychological contract, of course they may not use that term but they know its more than a bit of paper.  At the point where this occurs they usually step back to take stock of the unexpected situation, and make a decision as to the fit given the additional information that they now have. Usually they then make a choice as to if they will stay or move on. This is easier for them given their perception that the contract has been already broken by the employer.

Others individuals who may have different life experiences, self image or personal circumstances are not aware what has occurred. Some may even have experiences that are reinforced yet again by this situation and half expect it to happen anyway. What occurs then is they often don’t go through the process of analysing what has occurred, or looking at the gap of promised/expected and delivered.  These individuals are still a problem for the organisation, in fact they are a bigger problem than the individuals described above. The reason why, is because they don’t take stock of the situation and they don’t process the fit and make a choice. They become prisoners within the organisation, and sometimes they find others like themselves and can create quite toxic pockets of culture that many organisations find difficult to deal with.

Recently a friend of mine was chatting to me about a role that I had recommended him for. He was unsure if he wanted to move from the life of consultant to employee.  He enjoyed his freedom to think and be creative and was concerned that an “employment” relationship may change that.

His concern was “what will i be doing when I get there?” Naturally because of his capabilities reflected in his resume, it would be reasonable to assume that the organisation would see a fit with his skills and experience and offer him the job because he was the package they were looking for. Or is that reasonable?  Unfortunately even though many organisations attempt to find a match so often this doesn’t happen.

We discussed the concept of the psychological contract and given he was in a situation where he was unsure if he wanted the role or not, it seemed the perfect opportunity for him to explore it in more detail and have the conversation that so many people and organisations don’t have.

The type of questions that you can ask in this situation include:

  • what percentage of the role will be thinking vs doing? is that percentage expected to change over time?
  • how much travel will be expected of the role?
  • is there scope for working remotely? what support is provided for this if any?
  • what are the average working hours expected of people in this type of role?
  • what type of budget does the role have?
  • what tools are used within the organisation to support the function?
  • what understanding and skill level exists in the immediate team? – in the organisation generally?
  • is the organisation open to innovation for tools and processes in this area?
  • is the organisation risk averse?
  • how does the organisation typically cope with change?

There are many other questions that can be asked and we would love you to share them below.  The interesting thing about asking these questions is that depending on the organisation, going back to them and asking them these things could be seen as refreshing and showing initiative, or challenging and taking a risk. When discussing this issue with my friend we agreed that if the organisation/manager was challenged by him asking these type of questions, then it probably wasn’t a fit anyway.

So the outcome for this individual is that he had the conversation, it was well received and he took the role.  The opportunity for him and the organisation is now to keep these conversations going to maintain the relationship and the motivation.  If the organisation cant keep up its end of the bargain of what is now a very clear “complete contract” (as much as is possible given the openness of both parties) then the individual will be able to take stock and make an informed choice about his future.

In my next post i will explore the Psychological Contract a bit further down the employment relationship cycle and look at how we create prisoners through poor change management practice.

I would love to hear you comments or questions about your experiences with this type of situation.

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