Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 275
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Broken Promises

New research reveals how to correct a common employee disappointment.

The following statements describe exchange agreements. See if any of them sound familiar:

    • If you show up on time every day and work hard, you�ll get a raise.

    • If you perform well in your job, you�ll get a promotion.

    • If you do routine, simple, boring tasks now, you�ll get more difficult, interesting work to do in the future.

    • If you work in our company, we�ll train you to do valuable, interesting work and you�ll be more valuable as a person.

    • If you do dirty, dangerous work now, later you�ll do work that isn�t dirty or dangerous.

    • If you will be satisfied working in a cubicle now, later you�ll get an office.

    • Your pay and benefits will never go down.

    • Your work week will never be cut back.

    • Your employment is permanent. You can count on your job as long as you want to work.

If you examine documents you give to new-hires, you won�t find any mention of these agreements anywhere, but if you question new-hires, or if you question people after years of employment, you�ll find that most of them believe such agreements exist. Researchers call this the psychological contract, and employees will insist that their managers have encouraged these beliefs. For example, when an employee completes his probationary period, he becomes a �permanent� employee. What does permanent mean anyway?

The psychological contract is an invitation for disappointment. Not everyone can get a big raise, but we need everyone to work hard. A promotion is a job change to supervisor, but we only need a few supervisors. We design jobs so they are as simple as possible to minimize mistakes and to insure that we can find people to fill them, so most of the work we have for people to do is simple. Someone has to do it.

The psychological contract is nearly always broken. I once knew a man who submitted his application for promotion to be a supervisor 17 times before he gave up. If you spoke to him he would tell you he deserved the promotion. He had many years of service, and he was bright and hard working; but once you had spoken to him, you would also know right away that he would make a terrible supervisor. The title of supervisor was something he wanted to have, but supervising employees wasn�t something he wanted to do.

Human resource people who conduct exit interviews will tell you that violations of the psychological contract often come up in conversations they have with people who quit their jobs. Indeed, a remarkable thing about the psychological contract, violations of it, and employee disappointment is that more employees don�t quit.

Why is that?

Amanuel Tekleab, from Clarkson University, believes he has discovered the reason, and, curiously, he wasn�t even looking for it. Tekleab was investigating another factor that he believed influenced employee reactions. He was exploring the influence of perceived organizational support.

Perceived organizational support is a social and emotional bond that develops between employees and their employer. When it is strong, employees feel their employer cares about their welfare, their satisfaction, and their success as employees. When it is weak, employees feel their employer does not care about them at all.

Tekleab found that the presence of this factor influenced people�s perception of psychological contract violations. If people felt their employer didn�t care about them, then they noticed violations of the psychological contract and it bothered them. On the other hand, if they did feel this support, this caring about their welfare and their success, then they did not notice violations of the psychological contract. They became blind to violations.

This is a simple finding, but its implications are profound. If you find many employees complaining about violations of the psychological contract, then the root of the problem lies in their bond with you and the support they feel from you for their welfare and success. If you don�t hear much complaining about these �broken promises,� then you are probably doing a good job of providing organizational support, and your people have noticed it. Interestingly, fairness in the procedures that you use that lead to decisions about employees was one of the most important components of perceived organizational support.

Reference: Tekleab, Amanuel, Riki Takeuchi, and Susan Taylor (2005) Extending the Chain of Relationships among Organizational Justice, Social Exchange, and Employee Reactions: The Role of Contract Violations. Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 146-157.

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