The Psychological Contract: The human investment

A recent post at Glassdoor Blog remembers Harry Levinson, Progressive Workplace Psychologist.   Levinson had a deep appreciation of the nature of the workplace.   He understood the great psychological significance of work in people’s lives.  Levinson, with colleagues Price, Munden, Mandl and Solley wrote Men, Management, and Mental Health in 1962, introducing the concept of the psychological contract.


“… Levinson explained how the psychological contract shapes the expectations of employees and the organizations they work for.  Levinson’s notion of a psychological contract encompassed an acknowledgement of conscious and unconscious human needs and desires that employees invest in their relationship with the organization and its leadership.  He argued that unless management is psychologically aware of these manifest and latent dimensions of worker motivation, it is highly unlikely that employees will feel adequately nurtured by their employers.  This oversight of course can lead to demoralization and poor performance.” [1]  

The importance of this conceptual tool for managers cannot be underestimated.  Applying the psychological contract requires continual dialogue to articulate and explore mutual needs and expectations, both conscious and unconscious.  Levinson’s stress on an individual’s emotional investment in the workplace provides a deeper understanding of the dynamics between individual and organization.

Extensive field work by Levinson and his colleagues resulted in countless hours spent with workers, observing, participating, interviewing and eventually understanding and documenting the crucial role of work groups and their leaders in organizations.  The work revealed informal and affectionate bonds between workers and their supervisors which helped to explain effective, physically safe and emotional healthy, management performance in the workplace.  Difficulties of supervision were also observed such as management-by-guilt.  Levinson helped managers understand the human compassion inherent in, and the necessity of, providing subordinates with unambiguous, direct, and honest feedback in performance evaluation.  He began to focus on leadership’s role in mentoring and educating workers.

Management’s primary failure

“Levinson, in the Executive (1968, 1981), argues that one of management’s primary failures is their unawareness of the depth and dimensions of human needs of employees and that they must become more knowledgeable about what motivates them.  He offers three primary human drives to pay attention to:  ministration, maturation, and mastery.  Ministration takes into account needs for gratification, closeness, support, protection, and guidance.  Maturation needs comprise fostering creativity, originality, self-control, and reality testing.  Mastery needs encompass the demands for ambitious striving, realistic achievement, rivalry with affection, and consolidation.” [2]

With these human needs in mind, executives were able to engage in more thoughtful and reflective dialogues with their workers and establish management systems responsive to individual potential and desire for advancement.   Needless to say, in today’s economy with constant re-engineering and downsizing, human needs and the psychological contract present greater gaps to acknowledge and overcome.   Looking carefully at these gaps through the lens of Ministration, Maturation and Mastery can help to contemplate and communicate about what is possible in today’s workplace.

[1] Diamond, M. (2003) Organizational & Social Dynamics 3(1): 1-18

[2] Ibid

About leaderwalk

Diane Thompson is principal of Thompson Performance Consulting and is a practitioner in the field of organization development and design. Diane has 25 years of management experience in private and public organizations and is a keen observer and student of organizational dynamics and the factors that impact high performance. Diane's direct experience as a manager and her body of knowledge from her MA, Human Systems Intervention, converge to support clients and leaders with transition and change.
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