Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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Unresolved Psychological Contracts

by Judy Ryan

“If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something, we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate.” — Miquel Ruiz, Author, The Four Agreements

A psychological contract involves beliefs that people have about what they’re entitled to receive and required to give in any relationship dynamic. An unresolved psychological contract is when two people are out of alignment regarding expectations, and their failure to be aware of these challenges, and to resolve them, leads to disintegration of commitment, engagement and relationships.

I was recently talking with a friend who secured a job after searching for almost a year. The hiring company was of good quality and treated its employees well. She was grateful to get the job. After about a year, however, she had some minor concerns that she shared with me. One was that a conversation about a raise that was supposed to happen at a specific time never happened. Another was that she found work she was assigned to be insufficiently challenging, and sometimes she was bored. Upon hearing these concerns, I asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how would you score the relationship you have with your company?” She said, “An 8.” Even though my question increased her awareness of unresolved issues, I noticed that she did not feel compelled to bring them to the attention of her employer. In the meantime, another company pursued her and to the surprise and shock of her current employer, she took the new job. She shared feelings of guilt because she knew her current employer’s company was growing fast, and they were counting on her for crucial participation in managing new business.

I found it sad and interesting that this situation could have been avoided entirely if either party had focused on priorities that supported the resolution of unresolved psychological contracts in their many forms. In our work, we ask every person in an organization to make trustworthiness, engagement and productivity foundational commitments and to adopt specific training, new practices and behavior changes to address them. We ask them to check in monthly (through mentoring for all, no exceptions) to answer common questions, such as, “Do you have any relationships that you would score as less than a 10?”; “Is your engagement at work a 10?”; and “Is your productivity at work a 10?” If they provide any ratings that are less than a 10, their mentor helps them develop a plan to resolve issues they discover. Because this practice wasn’t standard in my friend’s company, unresolved psychological contracts between her and her company were not recognized in time for them to keep her as an employee.

As a business owner, I first sympathized with the employer because I could see that they entered the relationship in good faith and were not expecting to lose an employee at a critical growth period. While not perfect (no business is), what was unnecessary and sad is that they failed to realize the importance of a workplace culture in which conversations and practices (including regular mentoring check-ins) would have likely prevented this unexpected and painful outcome. I also sympathized with the employee because she was neither taught nor supported fully in (a) choosing personal responsibility for the relationships she has with employers, and (b) maintaining trusting, open communications when psychological contracts became unresolved. This cost her.

There is always a cost to leadership capabilities when one engages in a transactional dynamic with authority figures — something that will impede my friend’s ability to lead others in her new role where she will BE an authority figure. There is also a cost to employers who may not realize how fragile the engagement is without crisis relationship scores. Whether we are employers or employees, it’s critically important that each of us becomes aware of what can be learned from this experience and what new conditions, practices and conversations may need to be considered and implemented proactively. The main questions for every person are “Who do I want to be in the face of this situation? What kind of interpersonal dynamics will I support in my company? In myself? (No matter what your role).”

Judy Ryan (, human systems specialist, is owner of LifeWork Systems. Join her in her mission to create a world in which all people love their lives. She can also be reached at 314-239-4727.
People hire LifeWork Systems because we help businesses become agile and manage their priority system: their human system. I hope this article helps you make sense of what’s most crucial to your evolving organization!


Submitted 253 days ago
Categories: categoryThe Extraordinary Workplace
Views: 374