An Employee Guide to Psychological Contracts

January 31, 2021      By Julie Develin

Ultimate Takeaway
  • The psychological contract, while not explicitly stated or documented, contributes greatly to the relationship between employers and employees.
  • What role do employees play in the psychological contracts that exist with their employers?
  • Becoming clear about what trust means to your organization is very important when it comes to upholding the psychological contract.

I was having a discussion with a colleague regarding my recent piece about the psychological contract at work, and he brought up some thought provoking points regarding the post. In acknowledging that the psychological contract is a good way to look at things from an employer perspective when things go wrong, what about the flip side? Don’t employees have some onus on keeping up expectations in the employment relationship, too?

Don’t we, as employees, have a responsibility to keep up with our end of the bargain, per say?

The answer of course is ‘yes’, which leads me to this blog post. Let’s take a different look at the psychological contract. Indeed, it is important that organizations hold up their end of the bargain of the exchange relationship at work, but it is also important that we as employees—as good organizational citizens, hold up our end of the bargain as well. Just as we have certain unwritten and unspoken expectations of our employers, our employers have clear expectations of us as well.

So, what can we do to help further a culture of positivity and trust at work? How can we become better organizational citizens? Our companies expect much from us, and we also expect things in return. A good, healthy relationship has ingredients that keep those things in balance. But it takes both parties to keep that balance. That means we as employees sometimes need to look in the mirror when things go wrong. We need to ask ourselves a pertinent question:

If there is a lack of harmony at work, what piece of the problem do we own?

Where can we improve—perform better, and represent the company better? This is a time to really look inward. What are you doing to further a culture of positivity at work both for yourself, and for others? Are you contributing to gossip and rumors? Do you enter work with a positive attitude each day? Of course, we are all human and we all have bad days, but do those days pile up to a point where you might be “known” for being a person who brings the rest of the team down?

This question reminds me of a picture I saw online of a sign posted on the entrance of a hallway at the Indiana University Health department. It read:

Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space. Your words matter, your behaviors matter…Our patients and our team matter. Take a slow, deep breath and make sure your energy is in check before entering. Thank you.

While some might view this as going a bit overboard in order to ensure that the energy brought into work is on a positive trajectory, think about the importance of positive energy at a place such as a hospital. By nature, hospitals are oftentimes sad places (especially in the COVID-19 era) and adding to that sadness by bringing negativity to work only serves to worsen organizational culture. Remember, attitudes are infectious, and one negative attitude can ruin the day for many others if not left in check. I’m sure you can think of people in your life that bring sparks of positive energy when they enter a room, whether that be at work or elsewhere. Conversely, you may also know people who tend to shed an aura of negative energy when they enter a room. Which would you rather associate yourself with?

Focus on Trust to Create Better Psychological Contracts

So, back to the concept of the psychological contract and how this all fits together. It’s important to remember that the contract itself is not a legal mandate, which makes the intricacies surrounding the exchange relationship that much more difficult! If there was a legal mandate for both parties to uphold the psychological contract, written words would be easy to follow. There’d be a way to refer to agreed-upon terms and expectations. But alas, this is an implicit deal.

Becoming clear about what trust means to your organization is very important when it comes to upholding the psychological contract. It’s also vital to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to that definition within company norms. I’d venture to say that trust in its many forms is the foundation for everything else at work, and it can make or break the success of individuals and the company. After all, a healthy workplace and a positive employee experience depend on a trusting environment. Those positive experiences impact turnover, productivity, and success with attracting and keeping top talent within an organization. Without the stability of trust within the exchange relationship between employer and employee, that relationship will likely crumble, and have a ripple effect throughout teams.

The way employers treat employees during times of crisis will ultimately shape how companies are viewed when things settle down both from an internal and external perspective. Where does your organization stand when it comes to trust? What are some ways your company works to maintain trust during trying times?  

Better yet, what do you do to help build a culture of trust within your organization?


To get a deeper look at the connections between trust and work, be sure to check out the new report from UKG’s Workforce Institute, Trust in the Modern Workplace.

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