It is estimated that somewhere between 50 and 70% of employees, will, at some point in their employment feel that the organisation has wronged, mistreated or let them down in some way.
These issues are referred to as psychological contract breaches. This is where an employee feels that the organisation has failed to fulfil its obligations to them. Over the years there has been a considerable amount of research attention looking at these psychological contract breaches and their effect.
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Previous research has found that psychological contract breaches are a major trigger for employee dissent. What this means is that an employee perceives some form of inconsistency between what is happening right now and what they think should be happening. Psychologically people perceive this as a breakdown in their relationship with the organisation because the organisation has not met its obligations to them.
Research published in 2002 found that almost 70% of employees felt that their organisation had committed a psychological contract breach in the last 10 days by not meeting one of its promised obligations. Many research studies have found that psychological contract breaches link directly to negative employee attitudes and behaviours and, in situations where these contract breaches continue over a period of time, lead to heightened intention to leave. Psychological contract breaches also lead to cynicism, pessimism, and suspicion about the motives of the organisation, its leaders and its managers.
A study has just been published in the journal, Management Communication Quarterly by researchers from universities in the Netherlands and South Africa in which they have looked at this issue, focusing particularly on the issue of employee dissent as a result of psychological contract breaches by organisations.
Previous research has identified three different types of employee dissent:
- Personal advantage dissent
- Principled dissent, and
- Other focused dissent.
Personal advantage dissent refers to a situation where an individual feels that an action or decision by the organisation has put them personally at a disadvantage, for example, having to work extra hours or perform extra duties. This form of dissent is focused solely on improving his or her situation rather than that of fellow workers, which would be referred to as other focused dissent, or to make an improvement to the organisation generally, known as principled dissent.
A number of research studies have found that psychological contract breaches decrease job satisfaction, organisational commitment and reduce performance.
The nature of dissent within organisations is considered to take one of three forms:
- Articulated dissent, where an employee vocalises their disagreement or unhappiness with their supervisors or manager. This may be done constructively as feedback or destructively as complaint.
- Latent dissent involves an employee vocalising their disagreement or unhappiness with the situation to their co-workers or others who can have no ameliorating impact on the situation.
- Displaced dissent where an employee vocalises their unhappiness with external entities such as their family, friends or even in extreme cases the press for example. These days obviously, a common channel for displaced dissent tends to be social media.
Obviously dissent can also be voiced silently by passive aggressive behaviours, withdrawal, absenteeism and even retaliation.
Issues that surround the development of a psychological contract can range from pay and reward through to the expectation of fairness, open and honest communication, respect and flexibility. These expectations can be formed not only with the organisation as an entity but also with their own manager or supervisor for example.
It is typical for psychological contract breaches to be perceived particularly during organisational change situations.
Obviously organisations may commit such a breach either knowingly or unknowingly. A common situation where an organisation decides to renege on an obligation is during a downturn in the market where the organisation finds itself unable to fulfil the promises it made to its employees during better times. How this is handled by the organisation will either give rise to feeling of a psychological contract breach and thus spark dissent, or will be understood by the employees and the change in situation will be accepted.
5 different dissent strategies
Previous research has identified five different upward dissent strategies (ways of dissenting to the management structure). These are:
- Direct factual appeal, where the employee uses observable data to back that argument and refrains from abuse and personalising their dissent.
- Repetition. As the title suggests this is where an employee brings up their complaint in a number of different situations and different people over a length of time. Research suggests that the most likely cause for a repetition dissent strategy is that they don’t feel that they are being listened to.
- Solution presentation strategy. This is considered to be constructive strategy whereby the employee suggests solutions to the issue whether or not the issue has merit.
- Circumvention strategies. This is where an employee chooses to escalate their complaint above the level of their immediate manager.
- Threatening strategies. Usually this takes the form of threatening resignation but can take other less drastic forms of threat.
These strategies can be used either in isolation or they can be used in series. The final strategies, the circumvention strategy and threatening strategy are generally considered to be escalation strategies, which are usually brought about because the individual does not feel that they are being listened to. The five strategies together represent what is known as an escalation spiral. Usually most employees, but not all, will base their dissent level on the amount and nature of negative emotion they feel in the situation.
3 management responses
The researchers found that there are largely three management responses that can either deal with the dissent or escalate it.
- Showing concern
- Provide justification or explanation
- Taking action to deal with the situation
Managers who fail to engage in each of these three responses are highly likely to be considered by the employee not to have responded adequately to the situation, and it is highly possible that the employee will elevate the situation up the five level escalation spiral.
All three of these management responses appear to be required in order to prevent escalation. This is likely to be associated with increasingly negative emotional responses such as anger and resentment, which in turn will influence the manner in which the employee escalates the situation.
The problem here is that the very emotions that spur an employee to voice their dissent or escalate the situation are also the very emotions that are most likely to undermine their capacity to dissent in a constructive manner.
The response of management is key therefore as to whether the employee engages in escalation behaviours or not.
How to deal with psychological contract breaches
The paper emphasises two issues from the employee’s point of view that can help them deal with perceptions of psychological contract breaches successfully.
The first is their ability to regulate their own emotions, in other words having a level of emotional resilience. Studies have shown that employees who are able to identify and regulate their emotions successfully are much more likely to engage and to maintain engagement in constructive dissent strategies than those who have less emotion regulation ability.
The second factor which contributes to whether an individual will escalate dissent is the quality of the relationship that they have with management.
From the manager’s point of view their own emotion regulation and their own quality of relationship, also underpins their ability to respond appropriately to perceived psychological contract breaches and any resultant dissent.
What this means in effect is that if both the employee and the manager is able to identify and regulate their emotions, ti is unlikely that any dissent to psychological contract breaches will spiral very far. Further where the relationship between the management and employees is a good one, this again is most likely to result in faster resolution to psychological contract breach situations.
What the researchers have discovered is that people with better levels of emotional intelligence and emotion regulation capability are significantly less likely to engage in strategies that attack an individual, such as blaming, rather than just focus on the situation and a solution.
The researchers recommend:
- That both employees and managers are trained in both emotional intelligence and emotion regulation techniques,
- That managers focus on developing quality relationships and
- That managers are taught to understand the nature of psychological contract breaches, their effects and the nature of dissent spiral escalation.
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