Unraveling disruptions: The Dynamics of Psychological Contracts

Authors Hermien E. Wiechers, Xander Lub, Jacqueline A.-M. Coyle-Shapiro, Steven ten Have
Publication date 2022
Research groups Organisations in Digital Transition
Type Lecture


Purpose. Psychological contracts (PC) capture employees’ mental schema of the exchange agreement between themselves and their organizations, through which they make sense of their daily work environment (Rousseau, 2001). PCs are not only influenced by (large) organizational changes (Freese et al., 2011), but also by small day-to-day occurrences which indicate change (Conway & Briner, 2002). This makes the PC an ongoing, dynamic process (Conway & Briner, 2005). To capture this dynamism, Rousseau and colleagues (2018) developed a phase-based model in which a disruption (i.e., a deviation from what was originally promised) generates a transition from the status quo to either the renegotiation or repair phase with the objective of restoring the balance in the exchange agreement. Although disruption is placed at the heart of their model, the model does not explain how small day-to-day occurrences can lead up to this transition. However greater knowledge about the process underlying disruptions would offer alternative tools to manage the early warning signals of employee-employer relationships potentially spiraling out of control, and minimize the negative attitudinal and behavioral consequences of said disruptions (see Zhao et al., 2007). The aim of our study is to unpack the black box of “disruptions”. In doing so, we extend ex-ante propositions that PC should be investigated as a dynamic process by demonstrating the pivotal role that interconnectedness of triggers (selected stimuli prompting attention to the PC terms; Wiechers et al., 2019) plays as an idiosyncratic driver of contract dynamics. We do this by highlighting the critical role of social comparison in this process and by capturing the duration of the effect of triggers. Theoretical Background. Recent work has theorized the processual nature of the cognition of PC breach. From employees’ perspective, interconnected triggers impact the PC and build up pressure in the employment relationship (Wiechers et al., 2019). To understand how triggers influence each other and alter perceptions of the degree to which an organization has fulfilled its obligations, we adopt appraisal (Moors et al., 2013) and sensemaking (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2015) theories as conceptual frameworks. First, a trigger will activate mental schema and perceived connectedness with previous triggers will lead to negative emotions. Following this, because an individual’s PC is created through interactions with multiple actors (Coyle-Shapiro & Conway, 2004), a trigger will direct attention to the situation of referent others and any unfavorable social comparison results in negative emotions (Weiss et al., 1999), and also leads to self- or other-attributions (Costa & Neves, 2017). Therefore, we hypothesized that the relationship between initial triggers and their impact on PC to be mediated by: connectedness of triggers, self- and other attributions, negative emotions, and expected recurrence of triggers. Design. Hypotheses were tested among a sample of 117 university lecturers in a quantitative daily diary study over six weeks (response rate = 76.21%; n=2172). Results. The findings delineate the micro-processes that precede the perceived impact on PC, shaped by appraisals of multiple triggers in comparison to referent others, attributions, and most importantly, appraisal of the interconnectedness of these triggers. Moreover, the lingering effects of the impact of triggers on the PC seems to last for approximately 11 days. A duration that is much longer than the specific isolated moment in which a trigger is sensed. This provides evidence that disruptions can build up over a long period of time, supporting the notion that interconnected triggers strain the employment relationship, exacerbate the impact of each new trigger on the PC, causing the shift to either the renegotiation or repair phase. Limitations. Although our time-based daily diary studies capture triggers fairly quickly, fixed once-per-day assessments may still involve a kind of retrospective ratings of situations that happened during the day. Therefore, future research studies may use a direct report at the moment the trigger is delivered—at unpredictable times—which moreover avoids an expectancy effects that may occur where participants know the timing of the fixed scheduled reports (Conner & Lehman, 2012). Research/Practical Implications. Our findings indicate that (1) interconnectedness of past triggers causes employees to experience more negative emotions, which in turn heightens their sensitivity to future triggers, and (2) PC breach develops over time because triggers are “sticky” (readily perceivable as interconnected cause of the lingering effect). These insights allow managers to actively build and repair a PC with their employees, even in turbulent changing contexts. Because PC breach is a consequence of the escalation of connected (negative) triggers, managers must be aware of such issues and use strategies to deescalate the cumulative effect.

On this publication contributed

  • Xander Lub
    Xander Lub
    • Professor
    • Research group: Organisations in Digital Transition

Language English
Key words Psychological contracts