Understanding the importance of satisfying our expectations at work

No one wants to go to a job they hate. If possible, we would all love to have a job we really enjoy and where we feel that we matter and can make a difference. When we have a job where we have a good working environment; good pay and conditions; feel treated fairly and respected, we are likely to go the extra mile. We will be happy to come to our workplace, work hard and do a good job.

We all come to work with different expectations and are motivated by different things, but when everything is as we would want, we are happy and we can say we have a healthy psychological contract.

The psychological contract is how we define the relationship between the employer or manager and the employee. It is about a mutual exchange of expectations, and when these expecations are met as described above creating happy employees, we have a healthy psychological contract.

Although it is called a contract, its not like a legal contract – like the contract of employment – nothing is written down and as the psychological contract is built on our own expectations and those of our employers, everyone’s contract will be unique, just as our expectations are different.

Understanding Expectations

Our employers have their expectations of us – how we will behave in the workplace, how hard we’ll work and the standard we work towards. As an example for this, I can remember quite a few years now, working in a legal office I was typically at work for about 8.30 although I didn’t officially start until 9.15am. My morning routine changed and I was arriving at work nearer 9am (still in plenty of time to start at 9.00am). One of the Partners of our Department took me aside to discuss why I was late – he expected me to be on the premises and available to work because he had seen me in earlier – he would not have expected anyone else to start work early. This could also be seen as a problem with the psychological contract as he expected me to be available for work at 8.30am although I was not due to start for 45 minutes and would not be paid overtime. From a psychological contract point of view his expectations and mine were not in harmony and could have caused tension in the psychological contract.

As employees, we have expectations too, but we’re all individuals so those expectations will vary just as I’ve demonstrated above that employers/managers can have different expectations of each employee, although I would argue that they should be treating all employees the same, and should hold them to the same standard. The psychological contract is important in HR practice as they want to understand what employees are looking for so they can deliver for them and create a healthy psychological contract. If the employees are happy at work they will be more effective, work harder, not be absent etc so it benefits the organisation.

Working with the example above, if I felt valued and respected by my employers. If I had a good relationship with my manager (the solicitor above was not my direct line manager) and had been asked to help out, I would probably have been happy to do so. But the person in question was rude, arrogant and demanding, and from what I’d seen, didn’t treat his staff with respect. He had not created a good psychological contract with the employees and therefore there was more tension betweeen him and the secretarial staff and a poor psychological contract with a damaged relationship with his staff, increased my resistance towards him and reluctance to do the work earlier than I was contracted for.

Why employees should understand the psychological contract

As an employee, it benefits us to understand the psychological contract too. If we understand what it is and how it works, we might be able to make it work for us too. If we can understand what we want from our employers, and maybe from our job, we can then identify what our expectations are and look for a job and an employer that meets our needs.

If you’re not consciously aware of your expectations, I’d suggest taking some time to decide what they might be as you will feel more confident in the workplace about what you need and more likely to be able to tell your manager/employer what you need.

Another related concept, is to understand what motivates us. We are all motivated by different things, and we will be motivated by different things at different stages in our lives. if you want lots of fancy holidays and that motivates you, you will just be interested in getting enough money to pay for the lifestyle you want. The motivators which work for you are external to the job; but once you are in receipt of the salary that meets your needs, would you start to look for other things from your employment. If you have 2 job offers, for example, and both are offering the same pay and rewards. What would make the difference for you to choose one over the other? Being able to answer this question will help you understand yourself; what motivates you, what’s important to you and what you might expect from your employer.

For me, I’m motivated by the variety and autonomy in my job. And the satisfaction of a job well done when a student works really hard on something and it all comes together and clicks for them. I have changed jobs in situations where the salary did not change, so I can definitely say I’m not motivated by money. In one situation I can think of, it was the psychological contract at work. I worked for another law firm where the Head of our department was not a good leader. No one could relax when they were about; we’d watch for them arriving in the morning to see their mood so we would know what the day would be like. Today they would definitely be defined as a bully, but being the Head of Department, they weren’t challenged. Staff, myself included, were constantly working under stress, on edge and I’m surprised no-one ended off sick with stress. From this example, hopefully you can see that this would be an example of a poor psychological contract and I left this company to join one where I felt more respected, I had more control over my work and was trusted more.

Summing up

Its worthwhile spending time to identify what motivates you and what your expectations are from your job and your employer. it means if you are aware of what’s important to you and youre not getting it, you can take steps to address gaps or look for another job which meets your needs better.

If our expectations are not met we can be left feeling unfilfilled, underappreciated, undervalued and unhappy. If we’re unhappy at work we are less likely to want to come to work, likely to have higher absence and be more stressed. Depending on how bad it is, we may also start looking for a new job, one where our new employer, our new manager, treats us better.

So you can see that as an employee, it can be worthwhile understanding parts of the psychological contract and by understanding our expectations and motivations, we can be more proactive in looking after our own interests.

In future I plan to cover some mini case studies on the psychological contract as its an area which fascinates me. If you might be interested in contributing, please send me a mail.

Please use the comments to share some of your own experiences and subscribe to my blog so you are kept up-to-date with future posts.


  1. An interesting read, Brenda.
    My thoughts are slightly different.

    I feel things should always be smooth run and never one way traffic.
    Better both employer/Superior and employee understand each other fully.
    There should be a direct and sincere interaction between these two as to what each expects from the other.
    Self pride behaviour kills the otherwise lovely ambience.

    Sometimes things can be just the opposite.
    The employer is kind, understanding, flexible, and a bit free with staff; sadly, these things are taken for granted by the employee, who becomes lax in performing the duties.
    Agreed, there should be a good understanding and wonderful commitments from both sides for any organisation to survive. It’s a fine balance.
    The problem with both employer/superior and employee is that both have high expectations from the other, and sadly, they mingle their other personal problems and ego while discharging the duties. Most of the situations lead to getting fired or resigning.

    • Morning Philo and thanks. You’ve captured the complexities of the psychological contract exactly. Yes there should be balance and both sides should have their expectations met. The reality is however that we don’t always have realistic expectations and end up disappointed. A simple example would be someone starting a new job full of expectations based on how the job has been sold. When they start, it’s not what they expected. They end up disillusioned and we could have a broken/fractured psychological contract

      • Thank you, Brenda.
        Couldn’t agree more.
        So the whole thing boils down to the ‘expectations’ of the job seeker from what has been told/promised by the job provider.
        If things are as per the perfect understanding, the outcome is going to be like a perfect Walt Disney movie formula-happily lived forever.
        But that is not the case in every and all situation.
        Things are not that easy or simple.
        This is what we call ‘life’.
        Companies try to attract talent by promising Heaven on earth. How is it possible?
        Things can change.
        People change depending on the situation.
        Company ownership can change.
        Promises can remain promises due to certain unavoidable circumstances.
        Anybody can be helpless at certain times and none can blame anybody.
        While I agree with you about the fractured psychological contract, I blame the situation because of the ‘expectations and subsequent dreams’ of the job seeker.
        The job seeker must be strong mentally.
        One has to be flexible in life.
        Lastly one should not fall into the trap/lap of ‘expectations’
        If the job provider ‘cheats’ that is altogether a different story. One can always resign properly.
        And there is no need to suffer a fractured psychological contract as long as there is no great expectation at the beginning itself.
        “Don’t blame people for disappointing you. blame yourself for expecting too much from them” Unknown

      • Thank you Philo. You’re right, it’s complex and dynamic. Nothing stays the same. It’s why communication is so important – to manage expectations, make sure they’re realistic. And discuss where its not possible to deliver

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