The psychological contract …

Tick list minePosted on October 22, 2011

This applies not only to the workplace, it’s main focus, but in our personal lives too.

We all have a ‘psychological contract’ when we provide someone with our attention, love, help and support, or do them a favour.

It’s an unspoken contract – an expectation that they will do their part if/when you do yours; it involves trust and belief in oneself and in others; it means everyone does their bit to achieve the shared outcome.

The problems often arise, though, when this ‘contract’ isn’t understood the same, or at all, by both/all parties!  Communication.  That’s the barrier.  Effective communication of the unspoken needs and expectations that come with the territory, whatever that may be.

Marriage and relationships are key ones here.

“When I marry you then I (unspokenly) expect from you that you will fulfil all my needs, even those you don’t know about (because I haven’t told you, and/or because I don’t know myself yet!)”

When the contract is broken, therefore, it means they didn’t fulfil their part of the bargain and this is difficult to accept (even though perhaps they didn’t know what your needs were/are, because you didn’t know and couldn’t tell them?)

At work, this psychological contract is in addition to the written, formal contract of employment.

It is the unspoken, inherent* expectation that the employer will take care of things that they should take care of e.g. health & safety, provision of equipment suitable for purpose, provide you with a fulfilling experience and/or suitable* monetary gain for your services …. and as your needs change and theirs do, that we will still get that same level of fulfilment/reward/satisfaction/opportunity.

When we build friendships or business relationships the contracting is the same; but with friendships, there never is a formal contract to go alongside the ‘psychological’ one.   It just happens, bonding happens, trust develops, mutual interests and benefits grow – and sometimes, the friendship may be based on a third party (another friend, or relative) who is unknowingly the lynchpin of the other two’s friendship/relationship.   If this third party fails to keep the link and disappears or changes for example, then the friendships disintegrate sometimes i.e. they were never real friendships with each other, just part of a group friendship perhaps.

So what is your ‘psychological contract’ with others?  Family and friends, work friends and colleagues, professionals and providers.    Above and beyond the formal contract (verbal or written) what do you want/need/expect from each other person, so that your needs will be met and you will feel OK or even good in that relationship?

Relationship breakdowns can occur when you change or they do, and the other party doesn’t.   The investment to the relationship mainly works with the psychological contract rather than the formal one, which is ‘obvious’ and open, socially acceptable, acknowledged and understood.   What is their needs change?   Yours might have changed, too, but you haven’t realised it.   Yet you both expect the other person to continue fulfilling those needs, changed or not, and yet haven’t told them those needs are different now, and discuss what needs to happen for both parties to be fulfilled and whole again.  That isn’t really feasible, is it?  Yet we all do it, every day, every minute, every year.

At home, work, leisure, professionals and business – we expect our needs to be met without actually realising what they might be and if the other parties can actually, realistically meet those needs.

Self-awareness, therefore, helps with this.  Not only about who you are – tendencies and preferences, choices and triggers, capacity and abilities but also needs and solutions;  knowing you, knowing me means that if you realise who you are then you are likely to realise other people’s needs, preferences, triggers and choices will be different to yours; just because you like each other, work well together or enjoy each other’s company, doesn’t mean your needs are the same.  It usually means they are different but you have (or had) the capacity to fulfil them and complement each other (opposites attract, different sides of the same coin, stimulating discussion or hyper-volatile relationships for example).

Each person’s needs are met and fulfilled, yet we change; all the time.  Not just growing up, but experience, opportunities, limitations – can all affect how we feel and what we need or want.

Socially, environmentally, practically – financially, ability, options – and emotionally.

We all need to know ours, and we need to know the needs and expectations of those around us.

If we don’t, then we risk losing someone or something dear to us.  I know emotionally – love, like, comfort, familiarity – shouldn’t need analysing, but they do.  Or at least acknowledging openly and honestly, so that you can create and maintain the environment that works best for you, and is most effective.  Even a familiar, safe environment may not be best for you – it may stifle your growth, and not offer you the fulfilment you need to ‘really be’ you.

So become self-aware.  Learn about you, learn about me.  Learn to communicate your needs and learn how to meet them, yourself or with someone else.