Psychological Contracts

by Bob MacKenzie

Attitudes towards ‘careers’

Individual psychological contracts are prone to change, because employees’ expectations tend to change as they grow older and because the organisation, along with economic conditions, also changes.

A distinction can be made between different types of psychological contracts in the context of ‘traditional’ (bureaucratic) and ‘newer’ (ad hoc) approaches to careers.

Traditional careers

Traditional careers and their attendant bureaucratic psychological contracts have three discernable phases.

1. Early work life

In a person’s early 20s and 30s, they tend to experiment with different jobs and organisations until they discover which niche suits them best.

2. Development

Once they feel that they’d found their niche, people’s emphases in mid-career become more concerned with the nature and quality of their work, lifestyle and rewards.

3. Maturity

In this ‘final’ phase, a main career focus is the attainment of security and stability, in order to concentrate on personal and family interests.

However, especially for younger generations, careers today – ‘newer careers’ – are less likely to follow a predictable, upwardly linear trajectory. And the way that people understand the notion of careers is changing. There are several reasons for this.

Newer careers and ad hoc psychological contracts

As we progress through the second millennium, the notions of career and psychological contracts are changing for many people.

People have less expectation of lifelong employment from a single organisation than two decades ago, and may be more used to crafting their own career paths by jumping between employers. New technology also means that people have more tools at their disposal for examining alternative paths, for making new contacts.

Peter Totterdell, Sheffield Institute of Work Psychology

Of course, not everybody has these kinds of choices available to them, and there are other factors to take into account.

  1. More people are experiencing divorce, especially in their 40s. So they may feel the need to retreat from what would have been traditional career Phase 3 and return to Phase 2, in order to maximise their income.
  2. Many younger people are more likely to experience feelings of boredom and restlessness than their counterparts of several decades ago, so some might revert from traditional Phase 3 to traditional Phase 1, simply in order to discover new interests and challenges.
  3. Unanticipated or predicted changes in technology, the economy or the market place can result in a career plateau or a sudden loss of job or traditional career. Those affected will need to start their ‘careers’ involuntarily all over again, and return to traditional Phase 1.

Generally speaking, at different times in their lives, people are likely to exhibit at least one of three sets of attitudes towards careers, each powered by their individual psychological contract. Consequently, at any given time it’s important for you to find out what these attitudes and psychological contracts are for each key member of your team, as well as for yourself. Each set of career attitudes has a different orientation:


Career orientations within your organisation

  1. A traditional attitude towards career is characterised by a desire to pursue a ‘traditional career’, with the promise or expectation of long-term job security’ – ‘a job for life’ within a particular organisation or sector. In return, staff offer their employer high levels of motivation, loyalty and commitment.
  2. A disengaged attitude towards career is characterised by a desire to remain a full-time employee of an organisation, but to work strictly to the letter of formal terms and conditions of employment. This suggests lower levels of employee motivation and commitment, and an attitude of working simply to earn a living (see Andy’s case).

Career orientations outside your organisation

  1. An independent attitude towards career is characterised by a desire to have a career independent of full-time, salaried employment. Such an attitude is usually exhibited by well-qualified people with an entrepreneurial bent and a desire for autonomy, who are keen to manage their own careers as portfolio or knowledge workers. At most, they’ll be looking to spend short periods of time in a variety of organisations. They prefer either to be employed on temporary, short-term or interim contracts or to be commissioned as external consultants, specialists or self-employed suppliers.

Within the resources at their disposal, managers need to develop and adapt effective employment policies, practices and relationships to optimise the job satisfaction, motivation and performance of their key people in each of these three broad groupings. An effective way to do this is by monitoring and adjusting their individual psychological contracts.

The topic Managing Your Career advocates some key principles, including

  • You are in charge of your own ‘career’, so take control of it!
  • The importance of values.

At this point, you might find it useful to go back to the Questionnaire - Where are you now? in that topic and refresh your responses.