The Psychological Contract

Today I found myself reflecting on volunteering in Scouting Ireland and I recalled a couple of publications I contributed to a few years ago. I had a look through them this morning and this aspect seemed particularly relevant to where we are just now. It considers factors which influence how some people develop a long-term commitment to an organisation such as Scouting. It seems to me that it is quite apt to our situation at this time.

Reference: Volunteers in Scouting Toolkit 2  WOSM 2009

With thanks and respects to a colleague and good friend Saâd Zian as well as the members of the Adult Volunteers Task Team who contributed to the work back then.

I preserved the language style in which the article was published while making a few minor tweaks to join text from the body of the document with the relevant factsheet and to de-americanised the spelling.

Read also: Volunteers in Scouting Toolkit  WOSM 2006

The Psychological Contract

The World Adult Resources Policy (WOSM) advises us to make a volunteer’s recruitment formal through a “Mutual Agreement” between the NSO and the adult who takes on a responsibility within the organisation. This formal process is an excellent tool; unfortunately, a Mutual Agreement doesn’t really bind the Adult Volunteer to the organisation in a long-term way, this is what the notion of a “Psychological Contract” covers.

“A Psychological Contract is defined as a collection of tacit understandings (or relationships) between the members of an organisation and the people in charge.” (ROBINSON & ROUSSEAU, 1994).

A newly recruited Adult Volunteer will continue to learn and to live through Scouting, and they will be enriched by Scouting values, by fundamental principles, by the rules and the norms of the NSO, by one or more Scout cultures and by knowledge of Scouting ways and methods.

This expertise will change each of them into a Scouting “expert” in the end. During this “organisational socialisation” process, the volunteer develops a Psychological Contract, meaning a set of beliefs concerning the organisation, of implicit promises or commitments that the latter would have made, thus creating or not an expression of expectations by the volunteer.

These will continue to evolve as the volunteer acquires knowledge and masters his or her role within the NSO.

Research conducted in this field, and in particular concerning volunteer management, clearly shows that three major elements influence the quality of the Psychological Contract, these are Trust, Organisational Commitment and Work/Job Satisfaction.

“If an organisation fails to deliver on any of these three elements the Volunteers may consider this as breach of contract. This can result in loss of motivation, disengagement, decrease in performance, or even departing from the organisation!” (FARMER, 1997)

Knowing how serious this can be to the NSO, it is essential that those who are responsible for Adult Volunteers should better understand these questions.


“A high level of trust in a person means that he or she believes that his or her superiors and colleagues are open, honest, steadfast, fair and that they have good intentions” (GABARRO, 1978).

It’s important that Leaders in NSOs are aware of how demanding and fragile the notion of trust is.

It’s demanding because it requires many human and fragile qualities, and because it applies not only to all the people directly responsible for this person (vertical responsibility), but also to the people who contribute to the same actions or tasks, in other words to the other members of the team (horizontal responsibility).

So, any person who is responsible for managing Adult Volunteers should pay attention to this factor at all times, as much as to other factors involving the Adult Volunteer.

Organisational Commitment

“This is what links a person to an organisation emotionally. This link is represented by a set of common values and ethics, and above all, the increasing desire to remain a member of the organisation and to contribute to it functioning properly” (MEYER & ALLEN, 1988) (MEYER & HERSCOVITCH, Commitment in the workplace: Towards a general model, 2001).

The “Commitment towards Scouting” can clearly illustrate this because it is a set of shared values; an attachment to the Scouting Movement and a desire to enable young people to learn through Scouting.

The development of “organisational commitment” gives us a few key points to help us to manage Adult Volunteers and Paid Staff properly within Scouting. The result of this good management will encourage all Adult Volunteers to give all they can and to develop loyalty towards Scouting.

Each individual’s perception of the organisation is dynamic: it evolves in time and is strongly dependant on the organisational changes that the person will experience, of the way he or she develops, of his or her age, etc.

Here are three different types of commitment:

  1. The “affective” commitment: A real wish to belong to the organisation.
  2. The “moral” commitment: An obligation coming from personal ethics or from social expectations.
  3. The commitment “by necessity”: Staying on as a member because the “cost” of leaving would be too high to pay.

The commitment to volunteering should, in theory, correspond to the first type of commitment. However, an Adult Volunteer may also be motivated by the two other types of commitment.

So, even if an Adult Volunteer’s commitment starts from the satisfaction they get by working in the organisation (affective commitment), the volunteer may become dependent on the organisation and its benefits (intellectual, psychological, social, etc.), once he or she has discovered them.

Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, the Adult Volunteer may become afraid of losing the benefits of membership (commitment by necessity), and/or develop the feeling of needing to be loyal and grateful to the organisation offering these advantages (moral commitment).

Work/Job Satisfaction

The satisfaction, happiness and well-being that a person feels as a result of the work he/she does are the last element of the Psychological Contract. Referring to the work of (SPECTOR, 1997).

Here is a list of points which influence this perception:

– Promotion

The opportunities for and fairness of promotions or movements within the organisation.

For example: How are leadership functions nomination dealt with by the organisation?

– Supervision

The fairness and “managerial” skills that direct superiors demonstrate.

For example: How do direct superiors handle evaluations or work meetings?

– Benefits

The advantages coming from the work that the member does for the organisation.

For example: What are the services offered specifically to members of the organisation?

– Recognition

The feeling that the members are appreciated and that their self-esteem is improved by the organisation.

For example: What are the policies and the ways that the organisation has developed to value their members?

– Procedures

These are the set of policies, procedures and regulations that operate within the organisation.

For example: How are guidelines and rules accepted, respected and applied within the organisation?

– Team-mates

Skills and pleasant relationships that develop amongst the team.

For example: How are teams supported in acting efficiently and in a pleasant atmosphere?

– Type of work done

Satisfaction felt when working.

For example: How does the organisation make sure that its Leaders are happy in their role?

– Communication

Quantity and quality of information exchanged with the organisation.

For example: How does the organisation distribute its written information and how can members access this information?

Previous post Balancing decision speed with decision quality
Next post Thought Provoking?