The aim of this essay is to analyze the contribution of the psychological contract literature to the understanding of organizational citizenship behaviour (“OCB”).
We shall argue that while the concept of psychological contract provides a useful framework for the understanding of why an employee may engage in OCB, its capacity to help managers adopt measures to foster greater levels of OCB among employees is considerably hindered as a result of the adoption by a majority of researchers of the definition proposed by Rousseau (1989, 1997) which is characterized by a focus on individuals’ perceptions of promises made by organizations rather than on the actual content of these promises, as supposed they even exist.
OCB has been defined by Organ (1988) as “behaviour that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and that in aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization”. The process through which an employee comes to engage in OCB has been described in the OCB literature has being strongly dependant upon individually-based perceptions of organizational procedural justice (Tepper, Lockhart and Hoobler 2001) as mediated by psychological elements such as trust and organizational commitment (Tepper, Lockhart and Hoobler 2001).
This process is marked by a succession of exchange relationships through which employees reciprocate what they perceive to be favourable treatments from their employer (Organ 1990; Coyle-Shapiro, Kesler and Purcell 2004). Similarly, researchers writing about the notion of psychological contract have pointed out that the development of an individual’s psychological contract constitutes a gradual process through which emerge mental schemas about the evolution of the employment relationship (Rousseau 1997).
According to this framework, employees “reciprocate employer treatment through a cognitive dimension” (Coyle-Shapiro, Kesler and Purcell 2004) in accordance with their perceptions of procedural justice demonstrated by the organization (Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler 2003; Robinson et al. 1994). Therefore, since literatures about OCB and psychological contract both originate from social exchange theory (Coyle-Shapiro and Conway 2004), thus sharing common mechanisms and assumptions, it results that the framework that each literature seeks to expand offer good level of compatibility with the other.
Two of the most intriguing features of the psychological contract framework for the study of OCB have been breach and violation. Breach, and hence violation, are subjective constructs (Morrison & Robinson 2000). Through the norm of reciprocity, common to both OCB and psychological frameworks, the psychological contract framework thus provides an explanation for why a particular individual may refrain from engaging in OCB.
This has in fact been demonstrated by Robinson & Morrison (1995) whose study showed that perceived employer contract breach leads employees to reciprocate by “withdrawing OCB”. Importantly however, the potentiality for the perception of a breach varies among individuals according to certain factors (Morrison & Robinson 2000). One such factor has been labeled as being vigilance, which Morrison & Robinson (1997) defined as “the degree to which an employee actively monitors how well the organization is fulfilling his or her psychological contract”.
The importation of the vigilance concept into the OCB framework helps explain why certain employees may still engage in OCB even when confronted to situations that would objectively amount to a contract breach. Essential to this argument is the previously mentioned idea that whether an employee engages in OCB depends upon a succession of beneficial exchange relationships within the organization (Organ 1990). Ceteri paribus, high OCB has been shown to be especially salient among employees counting many years of experience within the same organization (Van Dyne et al.1994).
Considering that organizational trust moderates the relation between procedural justice and OCB (Tepper, Lockhart and Hoobler 2001) and since vigilance is negatively associated with both organizational trust and opportunities of employment (Morrison & Robinson 2000), it can be posited that employees who have achieved a high degree of OCB have come over time to forfeit other job opportunities and developed high trust in their employment relationships, thus achieving lower vigilance toward possible breach.
Acknowledging that breach does not necessarily equate with violation (Morrison & Robinson 1997), it could be that the only situations in which employees highly involved in OCB would stop reciprocating their employer through OCB would be upon the occurrence of events of sufficient magnitude to cause both breach and violation. Support for this argument could be found in a study performed by Robinson & Rousseau (1994) that showed that employees who exhibit a strong attachment to their employers are more likely to react adversely to contract violations.
The psychological contract framework therefore appears appropriate for the study of the causes explaining why an individual withdraw from OCB, although any explanations that is derived from it will generally be individual-specific, as it shall be discussed in the following paragraphs. It has been said that “the practical importance of OCBs is that they improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness by contributing to resource transformation, innovativeness and adaptability” (Organ 1988; Williams and Anderson 1991).
It would appear however that the achievement of this objective is considerably impeded when the psychological contract framework is used to examine OCB. That is because this framework, when applied in conjunction with the OCB framework, exerts a strong influence towards the development of individually-specific explanations of OCB. This problem stems from the fact that the vast majority of the recent studies exploring the psychological contract framework are widely based on the definition of psychological contract proposed by Rousseau (1989).
According to her, “[p]sychological contracts are beliefs individuals hold about the exchange relationship between themselves and an employer, in essence, what people understand the employment relationship to mean [… ]”(Rousseau 1989). Deeply entrenched in this definition of psychological contract are the perceptions of the individual about the promises that he believes, rightly or wrongly, have been made to him. This contrasts sharply with prior definitions of psychological contract that traditionally included a notion of actual agreement between the individual and the organization (Taylor and Tekleab 2004).
Even strong advocates of the psychological contract framework such as Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler (2002, at p. 71) have expressed strong doubts as to whether an agreement between the employee and the employer can really exist under Rousseau’s definition. It is suggested that the absence of “two-way reciprocal agreement” in this prevailing definition (Guest 1998) pervades the psychological contract framework by over-emphasising individual perspective. Admittedly, Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler (2002) have claimed, based on the psychological contract framework, to have demonstrated the bi-directionality of the norm of reciprocity.
At the core of their conclusion was that “employees’ fulfilment of their obligations creates an obligation on the employer to reciprocate [which] thus manifest itself in the positive adjustment of perceived employer obligations to employees” (Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler 2002). One problem with that assertion is that it presupposes that the employer is able to determine whether the employee perceives whether it has fulfilled its perceived obligation toward the employer.
In other words, not only does the employer must determine the obligations it is perceived to have toward a particular employee, but it must also determine the extent to which the employee perceives it has fulfilled them. In assuming that such determinations are possible by the employer, Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler (2002) directly contradicts Rousseau’s definition of the psychological contract, which lies in the beliefs of an individual.
This important flaw in the assumptions supporting the methodology used in the study considerably diminishes its usefulness, at least to the extent that it seeks to be grounded in the psychological contract framework. Furthermore, it seems very difficult to reconcile Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler’ (2002) conclusion with the opinion expressed by some authors about the possibility for an employee to engage in a multiplicity of psychological contracts within the same organization (Shore et al.2004).
According to this view, an employee may engage in distinct psychological contracts with each of his co-workers, in addition to the ones he may have with his supervisors and other managers. This situation, which stems mainly from the nebulosity regarding the identity of the co-contracting party to the psychological contract under Rousseau’s definition (Guest 1998), thus also reduces the credibility of the conclusion achieved by Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler (2002).
Assuming that it would be possible for a co-contracting party to measure an employee perception of its obligations and its degree of fulfilment, it remains that the proof of the bi-directionality of the reciprocal norms would be true only for this particular relation. Under this optic, the conclusion reached by Coyle-Shapiro and Kesler (2002) could still be of some usefulness in studying OCB aimed at other individuals inside an organization (“OCBI”) but not for the study of OCB aimed directly at the organization (“OCBO”), unless a construct could be devised to integrate all the psychological contracts in which an employee is engaged.
Consequently, though the psychological contract literature may contribute to explaining the reasons for which a particular employee may engage in OCB, the nature of the prevailing definition of psychological contract limits considerably its usefulness for organizations and managers searching for elements to devise strategies to sustain and increase OCB among a plurality of individuals. Word Count: 1498
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