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How to Manage Unwritten Expectations

26th November 2014 | Alan Cutler

Based on exclusive research with winning companies from the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For Survey, Leadership Psychology outlines how the best leaders across a range of companies and sectors understand their employees' psychological needs.

How to Manage Unwritten Expectations

When employees are recruited to a new organization they will expect to receive a written contract or, at the very least, some form of documented agreement that lays down what is expected of them in terms of their behaviour and performance in relation to their new role. The written contract or agreement is a precise document, but will, by its very nature, contribute very little to the future working relationship between the organization- represented by its leaders- and the employee. Both parties will have unspoken and tacit expectations of each other that began to be formed during the recruitment process, and will continue and develop throughout their future working association.

Expectations are formed by both parties even before they meet, and will be reinforced and expanded throughout the recruitment process. These obligations may not be contained specifically within an employment contract, yet they are understood by both parties and may prove to be more influential to their future working relationships than any written document. It is a contract- a psychological contract (PsyC) that defines the reality of the relationship between employer and employee, covering, for example:

  • Personal development;
  • Motivation to work;
  • Organizational culture and values;
  • The ethical code to be adhered to;
  • Relationships at all levels and in all directions;
  • Levels of expected support.


Note that several of these bullet points could be applied to both parties; the PsyC is a two-way street.

The concept was first introduced by Edgar Schein in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership. Guest and Conway (2002) proposed the following key factors associated with a PsyC:

  • The extent to which employers adopt HR practices will influence the state of the PsyC;
  • The contract is based upon the employees’ sense of fairness and trust, and their belief that the employer is honouring the ‘deal’ between them;
  • Where the PsyC is positive, increased employee commitment and satisfaction will have a positive impact on business performance.


Whilst individual employees or followers will hold personal views and understandings as to the informal ‘contract’ that exists, the collective view of group or organization members is usually more concerned with how the PsyC relates to a collective situation. This would especially apply within large organizations, where their scale will prevent consideration of the complexities of expectations and understandings on a person-to-person basis.

That said, it is certainly incumbent on individual leaders to consider the implications of the PsyC in respect of the mutual relationships of those they directly lead. Whether considered or applied at the individual or collective level, the PsyC is formed of unwritten expectations of one party that translate to obligations required of the other.

Leadership Psychology by Alan Cutler is out now; to order the book at a 20% discount, please enter the code LEADPS20 at checkout on koganpage.com.

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