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Good will goes a long way to ease workers about unmet expectations, study finds

January 1, 2009

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

When a worker expects a raise or promotion and it doesn't come through, what is his or her response likely to be? Will good feelings about one's company and boss have a soothing effect, or will high expectations engendered by those feelings merely serve to exacerbate anger and hurt?
While previous research has leaned to the latter view, a new study in the Academy of Management Journal suggests otherwise.
Probing breaches of workers' psychological contracts at three companies, the study finds that "less negative emotions were associated with cognitions of breach in relationships that individuals had previously determined to be of high quality...That is, individuals with lower-quality social exchange relationships respond with stronger feelings of violation following perceived breach than do individuals with higher-quality relationships."
"Our results should be welcome to all firms and supervisors that are committed to good relationships with their workers," comments one of the study's authors, Jacqueline A. M. Coyle-Shapiro of the London School of Economics and Political Science. "Employees who feel positively about their boss and company tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, instead of feeling angry and betrayed, when expectations that make up their psychological contract with the firm are not met. That ought to be especially good news today, when economic conditions have rapidly declined and when expectations raised even a few months ago can easily be disappointed."
Prof. Coyle-Shapiro carried out the research with Tanguy Dulac, a colleague at the London school, and with David J. Henderson and Sandy J. Wayne of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Focusing on breaches of psychological contracts (the expectations that workers have of their employers), the researchers found good employee relations to benefit companies and bosses in two ways. First, workers are less inclined than they would otherwise be to view an unmet expectation as a breach of their psychological contract. And, second, even when they do regard it as a breach, they are less likely to experience a sense of violation -- that is, a feeling of betrayal that engenders lowered trust and commitment and increased readiness to quit.
Thus, even though workers who had good relationships with their supervisors felt a sense of violation following a clear breach of their psychological contract, the feeling was not nearly as intense as it was among workers who had poor relationships. The first group felt no more betrayed by a strong breach than the latter felt at what they saw as only a slight breach.
A similar pattern of contrasts held when workers were asked whether the company was generally supportive of them: a slight breach was likely to produce as much anger among those who didn't view the firm as supportive as an appreciable breach did among those who did see it that way.
The findings derive from successive surveys of a total of 152 white-collar employees at three companies -- a petrochemical firm, a drug company, and an audit and consulting company. In the first survey, six months after they were hired, employees were asked to rate on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) eight statements probing "perceived organizational support" -- the extent to which the company supported, cared about, and valued them. They were also asked to respond on a five-point scale to seven questions about their immediate supervisors -- such as how well their supervisor understood their problems and needs and recognized their potential, or how much confidence they had in their supervisor.
In the second survey, six months after the first, the participants were probed on 1) psychological-contract breach (how well the company had lived up to its promises); 2) psychological-contract violation (the extent to which they felt angry, frustrated and betrayed by breaches); and 3) their trust in the company, their commitment to it, and their intention to look for work elsewhere.
Sandra Robinson, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who has studied psychological contracts extensively, said the new research makes a significant contribution to understanding a complex subject. "It has been a great challenge to sort out all the perceptions and feelings involved in psychological-contract breaches," she said. "How will people in good work relationships react to what they perceive as a  breach -- with the fury of a lover scorned or with something like the complacency implied by the saying that love is blind? The study provides strong evidence for the latter."
Then she adds, "Of course, even in the best relationships, whether in love or on the job, there are limits to what people will tolerate."
Prof. Coyle-Shapiro readily agrees. "The participants in our study were all fairly new to their jobs. It may be they were in a kind of honeymoon period. As time goes on, and workers come to take the quality of their employer arrangements for granted, workers in high-quality relationships may react much more negatively to unmet expectations than employees in our study did. And, of course, the saliency of breach matters a lot. A generally contented worker who doesn't get a promotion is going to find it very hard to shrug off his or her disappointment if there's evidence that the boss' promises were lies from the very beginning."
The new study, entitled "Not All Responses to Breach Are the Same: The Interconnection of Social Exchange and Psychological Contract Processes in Organizations," is in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage:
Montreal Gazette. When Companies Start Tightening their Belts, They Need to Communicate and Show They Care. (Saturday, February 14, 2009).
SHRM Online. Good Work Relationships Can Ease Disappointments, Study Finds. (Tuesday, February 03, 2009).
The Globe & Mail. A Little TLC Goes a Long Way. (Friday, February 06, 2009).

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