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Stephen Walker

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Father Christmas and the psychological contract


Stephen Walker compares the warm feelings of Christmas with the warm feelings of a good psychological contract at work. He says we may be reluctant to bring such intense emotions into the workplace but he says this is a mistake.

It is undeniably easy to make a mess of managing the psychological contract, but the benefits of getting it right are huge: The benefits are a highly productive, innovative and successful organisation.
Christmas time in many societies is very special. We now seem to be more concerned with the Boxing Day sales than with any religious significance in the UK.
It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. Once a child is old enough to understand the link – Christmas means presents – a little seed of excitement is planted which grows and blossoms at Christmas. The innocence of childhood is neatly encapsulated in the excitement that Christmas brings.
My Christmas wish is that all children can be sufficiently secure and happy in their lives to feel that excitement. Sadly we have some way to go to make that wish come true.
I realised there is a similarity between these Christmassy feelings and the psychological contract at work.
So those of you with children, grandchildren or those still young enough to remember the thrill of Christmas, I want you to tap into that thrill as we consider just what the psychological contract in employment could mean.
Elements of the contract and associated feelings follow.

Work toward goals

The psychological contract asks you to sign up for the organization's goals and work toward them. This is to be done in a spirit of openness and not sticking to the rule book of bonus calculations and so on.
Father Christmas will expect you to be of good behaviour. To see that you have tried to do what is needed rather than what is asked sometimes.

Try your best

The contract asks that you try your best, that you give discretionary effort. The effort is all we can truly give; success is the product of effort, ability and the situation.
Do you remember being asked to "try your best" and the warm glow of pleasure you felt with the adult recognising that you have tried your best?

Believe in a fair reward

The contract asks that you do your best without immediate reward: asks that you believe that your employer will reward you fairly in good tim, and asks you to believe you will not be cheated.
I don't think Father Christmas does guarantees, other than to try his best for you. Try to recall that intense feeling of hope in the final few days to Christmas as you wondered if you have been good enough, if you tried hard enough and if that longed for gift is safely in the bag.

Stickability in the tough times

Sadly sometimes that longed for present doesn't arrive. Despite your dedication and best efforts sometimes your employer is not able to give a fair reward. Do you understand and keep trying your best? Do you believe in the fairness of your employer's decision?
Try to remember all the times the Christmas gift, the reward did make you happy. Under a good psychological contract the employer will have demonstrated his attempt to do his best for you. Now is the time to grit your teeth and try all the harder to make things better.

You are important

Your employer, your boss should make you feel important to them: Important in both the achievement of the organization's goals and in your boss's life.
Do you remember times when that special Christmas present arrived and you really didn't think you would get it because you thought it too expensive, too hard to find or you didn’t think anyone had listened to you? Do you remember that warm glow when you felt how important you must be to the giver?

Encourage discretionary effort in others

Those warm Christmas emotions from being appreciated are so delightful that you want to spread the good cheer. You encourage others to behave positively, to give discretionary effort, and make sure that the people that work for or with you know they are important in your life.
We all feel good about spreading the Christmas cheer.

You think about your work in your own time

Those warm feelings of appreciation don't suddenly stop at going home time. Sometimes you will be away from work and have ideas, make plans about how to achieve more at work.
We don't just think about being good at Christmas. We know we have to be good all year round.

You have your bad behaviour forgiven

Sometimes your domestic circumstances may be difficult and this will take your focus away from work. There are many things that upset the good things the psychological contract with your employer can bring. If your private life has been difficult a good employer will compensate and expect less from you for a time.
To be shown to be important and valued as a person, separate from your performance, is the basis of the psychological contract.


We are frightened to talk of emotions and our feelings in the workplace. This is an error. Work is a social act, done with and for people. How we feel about these people is the prime motivator of our actions.
Those warm Christmassy feelings are so intense, so durable to discuss them in a work situation appears quite astonishing.
This astonishment is an indication of how far short we often fall in our expectations of the psychological contract. The demands on Father Christmas are high and not all organisations possess his magical powers. Luckily a little honesty, some openness and a lot of management skill can take the place of magic.
Can you imagine how productive, how innovative and how successful an organisation is where everyone has that Christmas feeling?
This is my gift to you – a successful 2011. Seasons greetings.
Stephen Walker has over 30 years of hands-on business and academic experience. He is the founder of Motivation Matters, a management consultancy focused on inspiring achievement in people. You can follow Stephen on Twitter and Facebook


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