Help to Grow: Management Course | Kingston University

‘All I said was…’

By Melanie Roberts
June 21, 2023

Why is it that you can move an office location and most of the employees will come with you without a murmur but change the policy on eating bacon rolls at your desk in the morning and there is uproar?

Understanding the psychological contract can help you through this minefield.

A successful company director I know told me this story. When he worked at a large auditing company in the city, he introduced a system where employees were required to check in and out of the building whenever they entered or left. There was no real concern amongst the employees and the organisation collected better information about resourcing. The director, Tim, then moved to a creative agency and introduced the same check-in system. There was huge backlash, unhappy employees and threats to resign.

To make matters worse, Tim later found out that one of the key employees had gone to a competitor who had the same system that had led to him leaving!

Why are some changes easy to accept whilst other, perfectly reasonable improvements, lead to mass hysteria?

The answer lies in understanding the psychological contract between an organisation and its employees. There are explicit and implicit expectations that employees have about what the company should be doing for them. Often the hidden expectations only come to the surface once the contract is perceived to have been ‘broken’ in some way.

Tim recognised that his problem was in understanding the expectations and culture of the creative agency. Employees expected a lot of freedom to choose how and where they worked and the time they spent in the office. The check-in system felt like a restriction of that freedom. The auditing firm had no such expectation; their culture included timesheets and billable hours so they were not concerned about the change.

So why did a member of employees move to an agency with the same check-in system that Tim wanted to introduce?

Because they perceived the change as being part of something bigger that they didn’t trust. It wasn’t part of ‘how things are done around here’. The change itself wasn’t the problem, it was the perceived break of the psychological contract; the complex web of expectations that exists between organisations and individuals.

How can management deal with these expectations? Management can have no idea what aspects are important to their employees until there is a wave of dissatisfaction. The only way to get an understanding is for team leaders to spend time working out what their people value in the psychological contract and for senior managers to listen to the team leaders before they introduce changes.

Those bacon rolls could be far more important than you think…

For more reading: Denise Rousseau: Psychological Contracts in Organizations: Understanding Written and Unwritten Agreements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, (1995).