Psychological Contracts

by Bob MacKenzie

Psychological contracts and change

Psychological contracts become especially significant when there is change, either happening or proposed. If things are going smoothly, there is usually less need to pay them close attention, because psychological contracts are much less likely to become ‘activated’.

However, there is always change of some sort or another, even if it is something as trivial as the supplier to a staff cafeteria changing to a cheaper and lower quality brand of tea bags. This may seem trivial, but it is still a change. This may or may not trigger reactions from people, depending on how important the quality of the tea is to them, and on what they think is their ‘right’ as an employee.

Often, you don’t know which changes will trigger negative reactions, so you must be prepared to deal with people’s feelings and reactions after change has happened. However, where you can, it is better to pre-empt negative reactions by obtaining buy-in prior to the change taking place.

As a manager, therefore, you will be dealing with either remedial or pre-emptive psychological contracts.

Remedial psychological contracts

You may have to negotiate remedial psychological contracts after a change has become apparent, when workplace conflict and dissatisfaction have already started to erupt. Remedial measures deal effectively with psychological contracts that people already feel have been violated or ‘activated’ by change.

Pre-emptive psychological contracts

Pre-emptive psychological contracts are negotiated before a change is implemented. Here, you would aim to anticipate how proposed changes might impact on psychological contracts, and then seek to adjust them so that negative and disruptive reactions are not triggered – or are at least minimised – when change is introduced or when its effects are beginning to be felt. By acting proactively and taking pre-emptive measures, you can save yourself a great deal of trouble later.

Unhealthy or damaged psychological contracts


The greater the degree of organisational change, or the faster or more frequent its pace, the more likely it is that people will feel that their psychological contracts are being violated.

From time to time, we can expect people at work to feel that their psychological contracts are becoming negative or violated. Typically, this happens when sudden or radical changes in policy or practice are introduced by ‘management’.

This Checklist will help you to take the psychological temperature in a systematic way. The audit can be conducted separately for or with each team member, or with the team as a group or, indeed, by individual managers. The results can be useful in renegotiating individual or group psychological contracts.