Byron's Babbles

The Psychological Contract

In his great book Helping, which I end up rereading every couple of months, Edgar H. Schein told us “We have a psychological contract with those we serve.” This is so true. Living up to this contract in a positive and constructive way is part of loving those we serve. If we truly want to help someone, we need to use humble inquiry to find out what help is needed and make sure that we are not taking “face” away from the other person. Helping is about finding out what someone needs. Help can only be based on what the other person identifies as his or her problem. Therefore, the most basic form of help is to enable the other person to figure out what the real problem is. This requires us to be humble and build a relationship before proposing, suggesting, or selling anything.

I started this post on the airplane to Washington D.C. last night and shortly after I got to the hotel the perfect example of humble inquiry happened. I am on the 15th floor and needed to know where the ice machines were. When I went back down to to lobby I asked, “What floors are the ice machines on?” Rather than immediately playing expert and answering exactly what I had asked, my helper inquired, “What floor are you on?” I said, “On the 15th?” He then replied, “The closest machine to you is on the 12th floor. When you get off the elevator turn left and it is right there.” With one simple question my helper had provided more valuable information than just rattling off all the floors that had ice machines, which is what I had asked. The psychological contract had begun to be filled. I would certainly be comfortable going to him for help in the future. Being comfortable is certainly the beginning of a great client/helper relationship.

As leaders, and thus helpers, keeping our psychological contracts with others might just be the most influential thing we can do. This contract has to do with the perceptions of the relationships and the influence of our day to day actions. Trust, based on established trustworthiness of the parties, is key to the relationship. Every psychological contract we have is different for every person we interact with because every person is different. This non-tangible contract is fluid and constantly developing based on communication between the parties.

Respect, equity, compassion, trust, empathy, fairness, and objectivity are just some of the characteristics of a healthy psychological contract. When you think about, these are characteristics that when practiced and differentiated based on each person’s needs go a long way toward changing the lives of all for the better.

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