Many people new to leadership don't understand why their staff react in the way they do in certain situations.  It seems simple - they turn up, do a good job and, in turn you pay them - it's that simple - right?  Wrong.  There's a social contract between colleagues and a market contract - mix them up and you're in trouble - get it right and you've got team members who'll go to the ends of the earth for you.  It's one of the secrets of employee engagement - so if your organisation runs a care or staff survey, here's a way to boost your scores - and benefit the bottom line too.

The market contract

You've interviewed someone, they bring the skills you need at the price you're willing to pay, for an agreed number of hours or tasks and a specific package of perks and benefits.  This is the market contract: a seemingly straightforward mix of skills, tasks and money.  Practical issues and behaviours such as good time-keeping, or having a scrupulously clean uniform, are also part of the market contract.  Expectations on both sides need to be clearly defined at the outset.

The social contract

By contrast, the social contract is an evolving set of expectations.  When we come to work, we don't leave our values, interests or aspirations at home.  We share them with our work colleagues: pictures of the cat, our child's first Christmas, our husband/wife running the mini-marathon.  The small talk over the early morning coffee is a way of understanding your team's interests and values.  It also gives you  clues as to what their 'social contract' expectations are.

It's not about socialising - it's about bringing the human dimension into the work environment

This isn't all about tea and sympathy.  It's really about understanding your people: what motivates them; what values they hold; what they expect of you  as an employer - but may never explicitly say.  This is the social glue that holds your team together through thick and thin.

The burst tyre story

I was exploring this topic with a group of clients the other day, and one of the leaders told us about the burst tyre on his car, which had happened the previous weekend.  Taking his two-year old son to a swimming lesson (here's a clue to his values: the importance of quality time with his little boy; giving mum a break for a couple of hours), when the tyre burst on the car as they were driving along.

He called the Speedy Tyre Company with whom his employers had a contract for replacements.  After waiting an hour for a mechanic to turn up (creating anxiety and frustration - because the supplier had broken their assumed contract of speediness)  our manager was told by phone that the company didn't provide that service at the weekends.

Unknown to this manager, the employer had changed the contract a few weeks before.  The only option open was to drive car to the garage, with now hungry child, on a burnt-out tyre and replace, by now, two tyres.

The employer's logic was that the service might only be needed during the week when the employee was travelling the country.  The reality is that these incidents can happen at any time - and the cost to the company was, ultimately, double what it should have been.

The manager's frustration with his employer for changing the contract was compounded by his family values and anxiety for his child and wife - who's relaxing break turned into an anxious wait for her child to return safely.

This isn't a rant at employers

The purpose of this article is to point out the friction that arises when staff believe that the social contract isn't upheld. ("we'll look after you and the car when things go wrong")   It's not often something big like a tyre blow-out,  it can be as simple as sharing out the routine tasks, or taking turns to make that first cup of coffee in the morning.

If your team have a value around 'fairness' - which is a common British trait - then actions you take which are perceived to be 'unfair' will hurt your social contract with the team.  If you uphold their shared values, you will gain credibility.

The brain science behind this

There's so much recent research on how the brain works, that provides the evidence for a psychological approach to leadership.  Put simply, the logical side of our brain and the more feeling, empathetic and sympathetic side of our brain don't work well together.

If you want your staff to be more empathetic towards patients - which will create a better patient experience, as they'll be more relaxed in the dental chair - then don't offer your staff a financial reward for doing that.  A financial incentive reduces emotional responses - because the market contract gets in the way of the social brain.

If a staff member is particularly supportive or sympathetic to an anxious parent or a nervous child, thank them - quickly and loudly. Motivating staff to go the 'extra mile' comes from understanding the social contract you have with them.

Top tips for keeping your side of the social contract - especially at times of change

  1. Listen to your team: get to know them as individuals - see if you can spot their family values - or what else is important to them
  2. Ask open questions: seek to understand what motivates them - find out what sports interest them, what team they support; what tv programmes they love
  3. Reflect back what you hear: check for accuracy - "it sounds like you're an expert on koi carp..." without judgement.  It may not be your idea of a great hobby - but that's  not the point - you need to keep your judgement to a minimum at this point
  4. Acknowledge the behaviour traits you want to see more of: saying thank you for specific acts will encourage more of that behaviour and help people to feel valued

I'm not talking about manipulating peoples' feelings here.  I'm assuming you hold a value around integrity and being authentic as a leader - by walking the talk, you'll have greater credibility as a leader.

Most importantly, when you do need to make changes to the employee contracts, consult first.  Listen to peoples' concerns; give them time to come to terms with change and help them to understand why things need to be different.  This democratic style of  leadership isn't about everyone voting on the final outcome, it's about being heard.  Even though it's the senior team that need to make key business decisions, people need to feel that their opinion matters, and it's important that you are credible in the eyes of your team.

Marcus Buckingham is an author and researcher on emotional intelligence and leadership.  He says that "If you want lasting change, work hard to keep the change both visible & credible. Visibility & credibility drive sustainability."

One of the reasons that people find leadership so complex is because they fall into the trap of mixing up the social and the market contract; of assuming that "what's important to me" is shared by others.  We get these mixed up, and everyone gets confused.  When we get it right the benefits are huge: the Practice operates smoothly, the staff work well together and the patients and their families are treated in a positive and relaxed environment.  Better employee engagement benefits everyone - and impacts positively on the bottom line.