Impacts of Social Contracts in the Workplace

As a licensed family and marriage therapist and business consultant, rapport is crucial.  It allows you to connect and dive into conflicts that may be holding people and businesses back.  However, this is an ability that takes time to develop — yet alone utilize effectively towards driving change.

Now, we’ve all probably had these experiences a few times in our lives — where we find ourselves chatting with someone you don’t know very well, yet it feels like you’re old friends catching up.  You laugh, joke, talk, and before you know it, you care for this person.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are times you sit down with someone and there is no connection.  In fact, what you feel is tension, anxiety, fear and maybe even distance.  However, in both these situations, social contracts are being formed on a subconscious level.  

What are Social Contracts?

Social contracts are a set of beliefs or expectations that are manifested through coalitions, alliances and adversity.  Many people enter into a social contract on a subconscious level — developing expectations, opinions and judgment without formal acknowledgment.  Due to the lack of awareness, these expectations simply become a hovering presence that we simply can’t place a finger on. However, we can feel it in our interactions.

Let’s first discuss what a good social contract looks and feels like.  Healthy social contracts are mutually beneficial for the involved members.  Feelings that usually accompany a positive social contract include trust, synergy and openness.  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t tension or conflict, but there’s an established belief that I can openly express myself without it feeling like an attack, and that there’s enough trust and openness that we can resolve our issues.  This then helps to bring to the surface the subconscious expectations, so that awareness can happen and turn social contracts into genuine relationships.  

In negative social contracts, there is usually  an unequal dispersion of responsibility and tension.  This imbalance can be viewed as who’s taking care of who.  As individuals remain in a negative social contract, relationships tend to deteriorate because expectations aren’t being met, and no one is addressing them effectively.The relationship becomes even more out of balance, eventually resulting in the end of the relationship, or in some cases within a team environment, other people becoming a part of that relationship in a destructive manner.  This usually festers a toxic environment where people feel misunderstood, overwhelmed and distrust towards others.

Social Contracts in the Workplace

Social contracts create subconscious expectations in the workplace.  In team and organizational development, it becomes very important to be able to understand what the social contracts are and how they work—to make what’s covert overt.  In the process of making these covert alliances public, you begin taking away some of the power and align those contracts in ways that are healthy.  Now, if the contract is already healthy and the people’s relationship is fairly balanced, it’s a healthy affinity that’s great.  But oftentimes, that’s not the cause.

In organizations and businesses, the contracts are unhealthy and the negativity spreads as more people get involved.  These social contracts then continue to be acted upon and it’s very difficult to break them.  For example, we were working with a marketing organization where the owner had a number of social contracts with various people in the organization.  Now, the unwritten rule established throughout the organization was that anyone who the owner had a social contracts with was untouchable.  No one could challenge them.  No one could do anything regarding them.  And if anyone violated the terms of these social contracts, the owner would burst out in anger and frustrations because the contracts were so strong.

As the organization grew, however, an interesting phenomenon occurred.  The owner became aware of his social contracts—recognizing the destructiveness of them—and began changing those contracts.  His social contracts were holding the organization hostage and were getting in the way of how those teams needed to function, in comparison to how they were functioning.  When the owner, without thinking, severed his contracts, the people who had the contracts with became depressed and angry and began acting out, because they had a special privilege and place in the organization.  They felt betrayed, angry and hurt and began fomenting rebellion.  As a result, alliances and coalitions were formed against the owner based on the breaking of that contract, even though the contracts were all subconscious.  

Mending Social Contracts

Breaking social contracts is a delicate, intricate process because there is a lot of emotion and feelings involved in each one of these situations.  It’s critical to understand that a social contract is much more powerful than the structural position in an organization or a team.  As in my previously stated example, a social contract has the ability to elevate people to a higher status than the structure will even acknowledge.  Depending on the nature of the contract, this would have serious effects on the organization and team dynamics.  If the relationship is important, it is crucial that you work to repair the relationship and now let it escalate.  Some steps to doing this includes

  • Recognizing the current state of the relationship.
  • Defining the kind of relationship you want.
  • Setting clear expectations for one another.
  • Creating a structure to support your new relationship.
  • Continuing to recognize and bring awareness to the relationship.

As a facilitator or organizational development professional, you need to be able to understand social contracts.  You need to understand which ones are healthy, the ones that are adversarial and the ones that are unhealthy in order to make those contracts as overt as possible.  Doing so will allow you to effectively work through how those contracts could be utilized or broken and turned into a healthy ones for the benefit of your organization or team.

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