The Psychological Contract; Why it may matter more than the signed one

I’m an avid student of psychology – I have read copious amounts of text on various topics and sections in this field. When I introspect I wonder what it is about the behaviour of human beings that intrigues me so.
Is it in an aim to better understand myself, Is it because deep down inside I wonder if we are driven to do the things we do because of unseen forces or are we just plain assholes sometimes?

This train of thinking has led me down some pretty dark rabbit holes (am I a lover of psychology because understanding psyches will allow me a level of control over people – also read as manipulation?) – told you it wasn’t pretty .. but speaking of rabbit holes – let me attempt to stay on track.

My love for psychology led me to uncover, many years ago, the concept of a psychological contract – this may, or may not, bear relation to the “spit and shake” contract of course (buyer beware) … Nonetheless it intrigues me because I’ve come to experience that the psychological contract is usually more important than the signed contract we all get into and then promptly forget about until a dispute arises.

I do business primarily with people I like and trust – congratulations to me, I’m human (there have been debates in the past – mostly with my spouse!)
This in a way is also a form of psychological contract but let’s start with some widely accepted definitions. Scouring various sources online I found a decent explanation on
The psychological contract refers to the unwritten set of expectations of the employment relationship as distinct from the formal, codified employment contract. Taken together, the psychological contract and the employment contract define the employer-employee relationship.

However – I want to expound this conversation outside just the employee – employer contract. So – let’s say you came across this article and thought to yourself – hmm, this could be worth putting my entire life on hold for like 10 minutes and reading. As you read it – you find inconsistencies, typos, a lack of basic editorial structure and some pretty poorly formulated ideas, not even a chuckle to make it entertaining.. (If this is actually the case, the irony will kill me) You may come away feeling somehow cheated of your 15 mins, and in a way, is this not a psychological contract broken between writer and reader?

As CEO of a complex business across 5 African countries – Partnerships are one of the fundamental pillars of our growth and I find myself negotiating what can at times be exhausting relationship dynamics with the people we work with – and almost every single time, It’s less about who was right/wrong and more about how everyone feels. Whether they feel listened to, supported, valued.
Not to get all Freudian on you but it’s all back to our childhoods’ my friend.
Pick up any early childhood development tome and you will learn that all a child wants is to know that they are seen, heard and that they matter, (also interpreted as they are worthy of love). This means that many Adults who were not seen or heard adequately (and we are many) are carrying some serious ‘arrested development’ issues into work/partnerships and relationships.

So, even as we engage on a day to day basis – we need to ask ourselves the important question – are we honoring the psychological contract – is there an expectation of transparency and honesty? An expectation that the other person will ‘look out’ for not just their own interests but mine too? And remember – just the feeling of being undervalued is enough to damage or break the psychological contract.

BUT – Let’s not walk away from each other with our knickers in a twist shall we? Below are three things I’ve experienced that have proven useful to me in repairing a rip in the psychological contract

1 – Vulnerability – A TOUGH one for me because in my lifetime I’ve been betrayed and let down so many times that at a certain point I couldn’t rationalize the use in letting anyone see my weaknesses. However the truth is that when you make peace with your vulnerabilities, no – one can use them against you. The challenge is; when people don’t have a clue as to your vulnerabilities they assume you’re just an asshole, yet we all have blind spots – moments when we break the psychological contract without even noticing, and that’s when awareness of your vulnerabilities allows for others to come to you and have a conversation when they feel let down, allowing for a chance to repair what’s come undone.

2 – Action change immediately – as soon as the next hour or the next day, if you’ve let someone down, let’s say taken credit for their work or not appreciated that they pulled an all nighter- rectify immediately. Meaning at the first opportunity – give credit to them for what they did, find out if they’ve gone above and beyond and thank and appreciate them in a public manner. If you put someone down in front of their peers, publicly apologise with all their peers in the room at the next meeting, this is one area you gotta walk the talk.

3 – I’ll wrap it up with this last one – I’ve found that the best way to try and stay ahead of psychological contracts is to listen at least five times more than you speak, ask loads of questions and create ‘circles of safety’ – times when you and your partner/s colleagues, friends and even family can have tough conversations and say what’s on your mind (the 1st ones will be hella awkward, no one will admit they’re unhappy and just be a chore – but regularly checking in this way builds familiarity around having hard conversation. P.S do it 1:1 – no audience necessary.

Edisco ergo Vivo – Until next time, Have a wonderful week.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Njeri

    I love the tongue in cheek style and the point on vulnerability. The idea of letting ourselves be seen but also trying to really see the other person. Might have saved the world more than a few wars or saved relationships sacrificed on an altar of assumptions!

  2. Arnold

    Nice read right here, especially the point on carrying a lot from our childhoods. Really does shape the way you are, psychologically, in business and personal relationships. Definitely didn’t waste these 10 minutes of my life. Our psychological contract is intact, Sean. Lol.

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