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Psychological Contracts in KM

Produced by Steve Nathans-Kelly

At KMWorld Connect 2021, Leland Holmquest, Microsoft Change Management Lead & Architect, discussed Psychological Contracts theory and how it can be applied effectively to knowledge workers.

"Psychological Contracts is a theory developed by Dr. Denise Rousseau professor at Carnegie Mellon University," said Holmquest. "And the basic idea is it's a 100% unilateral unspoken agreement between an employee and an organization." For example, said Holmquest, "I have a psychological contract between me and Microsoft. Microsoft has no idea that it exists and, if they knew, they probably wouldn't agree to most of the things in there. What's in these contracts are things that are frequently tied directly to my core values for me as the individual. Now, because this is an unspoken agreement. That means that if there's a violation in this contract, there's typically no means to redress the violations. Your manager, for example, might not even know what's going on. Why are you upset? And because these things are connected to our core values so frequently, they typically will have an really emotionally charged response. It turns out this is the most common factor in turnover."

According to Holmquest, studies have shown that knowledge workers have some very interesting psychological contract clauses. "The average knowledge worker believes that their value comes from their unique knowledge. Think of guilds in the past, back in the old days. These groups had coveted knowledge and they guarded it closely, sometimes to the death. They knew that their specialized knowledge was critical to their individual and group survival. The modern knowledge worker believes deeply in their core that their value comes from their knowledge and they hold and develop."

Holmquest related the experience of being asked to write a chapter in the handbook of research on organizational culture strategies for effective knowledge management performance and thought it was a great opportunity because he could replicate a study that he had done at Microsoft and see if it replicates elsewhere and also dig more deeply into the psychological contract aspects. 

"The other authors were all seasoned practitioners of knowledge management. And so I asked them—and everything was kept double-blind because the editor facilitated the exchanges—I asked the other authors to answer the survey and then share their results as well as some qualitative questions to explore their psychological contracts. The key insight from this study was that, again, overwhelmingly the motivator for participating was not altruistic in any way. It was not driven by a sense of community. It was not achieving higher meaning through the work. It came down to accomplishment. Again, it was completely about things like 'I have a job requirement that I have to get published so many times a year.' It was enhancing my reputation to this community and others."

But, said Holmquest, that accomplishment part came through loud and clear again. "What does this all mean? Well, here's what it means. If we want to flip the trend of only one in six projects getting value in the first 2 years, then we as KM leaders, we really need to flip our understanding and approach. We need to look at the users first and understand what their motivations are. We need to approach the users by showing them exactly how this benefits them directly. We need to bring that psychological contract into the open and negotiate those terms. We need to be careful not to step on those psychological contracts, right? And when we do again—bring that conversation to an open point where we can resolve them and not just let them fester and let people leave."

At the end of the day, said Holmquest, technology is an enabler. "No no matter how good it is—and I really love technology—knowledge is the domain of us humans. We create knowledge, we use it, we refine it, and reinvent it. We share it. And if we are missing from the equation, then the technology, no matter how awesome it is, will  be wasted. If that weren't the case, we could simply point our bots to these kinds of conferences and no one would need to attend. And that certainly wouldn't be any fun."

Save the Date for KMWorld 2022—November 7–10, 2022—JW Marriott | Washington, DC!

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