When It’s Time to Go. A Look at the Psychological Contract

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We’ve all grappled with the decision to leave an organization. By any measure, this is a difficult impasse to consider — often involving an agonizing “push” and “pull” of emotions. One day we might feel momentarily energized to “stick with it” for the long haul, only to have core issues re-surface in an amplified form.

Should we continue to hope for things to improve or cut our losses and begin the process of moving on? Previously we’ve discussed avoiding career regret and why we shouldn’t give up too quickly. However, there are some situations where we need to realize that enough — is well — enough.

One factor which is often a silent contributor to this decision, is the status of the psychological contract that exists between ourselves and our employer. Often the inevitability of leaving — has been cast long before the final decision to pull up roots has been made — as the very core of the employer-employee relationship has already been significantly damaged. The damage occurs when we have been let down in some way, or perceive that a promise has not been fulfilled. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain committed, as we begin to lose focus and quietly disengage. In this regard, our physical departure only represents a ceremonial farewell. Truth be told, any investment in the employment relationship has already been halted.

The psychological contract that exists between employer and employee, plays a vital role throughout our work lives. Described in this research, the contract is “an individual’s belief regarding the terms and conditions of a reciprocal exchange agreement between that focal person and another party”. The health of this contract can affect the development of key workplace attitudes and behaviors (job satisfaction, trust, intention to turnover, etc.) While both parties contribute to the”give” and “take” of the dynamic — the contract is re-calibrated over the course of an employee’s tenure. Ultimately, when either party perceives a problem with balance, a breakdown can occur.

Let me offer an illustration. Recently I had a conversation with a highly competent marketing executive. Unfortunately, many obstacles had emerged in his current role, among these, the lack of a well-suited path for career growth and development. Over a period of time, he began to experience doubt that his employer had his best interests at heart. On the face of things he professed that he would remain committed — rock steady that he would continue to do his best to fulfill his role and make things work. But, in reality I observed that his psychological resources were waning as he was subtly disengaging. On a basic level, I believe he perceived that the psychological contract with his employer had been breached. (He did depart a short time later.)

Overall, the on-going viability of this contract is critical to our work lives. When problems arise, the strength and tenor of contract can become stressed. Ultimately, it is often difficult to acknowledge that the contract has been irreparably broken and admit that it may be time to explore new horizons.

What might be holding us back:

  • Attribution of failure. We may delay a departure because on some level we feel personally responsible for the current state. In our minds, the failure of the relationship equals a personal failure — which is often not the case. So, we remain to seek resolution.
  • Others seem happy. In some situations, the organization is just not the right environment for the specific employee, with a specific career need. Keep in mind that although opportunities might exist within your current organization, these opportunities may not be right for you.
  • Separation anxiety. Often we develop strong bonds with our colleagues, making a departure even that much more traumatic. We stay for them — when we should really be leaving for ourselves.
  • The “one more try” vice. If you have already done your best to bring core issues to the forefront without satisfactory resolution, it is difficult to find the energy to continue. You’ve likely done your part. Offer yourself permission to move on.

Often we have disengaged long before our physical departure from an organization or role. Have you ever experienced this? Tell us your story.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. She is the co-founder of Goba — a consulting practice that helps people & organizations build stronger work life foundation through core stability. Her thoughts on work & organizations have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, BBC Work Life, Quartz and The Huffington Post

5 thoughts on “When It’s Time to Go. A Look at the Psychological Contract

  1. I recently left a job for some of the very reasons you described. I gave up trying to make a difference long before I made the decision. I agonized over it for months trying to convince myself that if I only did this or that I could help to turn it around. I felt a real responsibliity to the people I worked with to make it better if I could but ultimately I decided that the management that was in place was not going to solve the problems that mattered to the rest of us and I was only going to grow more disappointed and resentful. It wasn’t the pay or the job or even the benefits that finally pushed me over the edge but the fact that there was nobody at the helm and the ship was drifting out to sea. Finally the parent company came in and made some threats, basically daring us to stay. At that point I watched senior level people, accountants, designers, friends all pulling up and leaving. The customers were unhappy, the employees were unhappy and the place was miserable to be around. That kind of environment wears on you daily and finally I just couldn’t take it anymore. It took me four months to find the right job but I am happier now than I have been in 10 years at work. Now I wish I had listened to my inner voice sooner and left long before that.


  2. I am leaving my current job. It is not that I found a better paying job, but the new job offers more challenges, a better pay, I am working with highly motivated people in a very decent environment, and doing that which I really love.

    The job I am leaving was good at the beginning, but the leaders lost focus and moved their eyes from the goal. It is sad that it looks like failure and I was a part but my part was not about decision making. I did all I could and it is time to go.


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