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Throwback Thursday

Benjamin Felix

Ben Felix
Managing People & Organizations
September 18, 2011

Social Contracts Reflection

While I was completing my undergraduate degree at Notheastern University in Boston I was also playing basketball for the school’s varsity team.  Extensive travel for games sometimes made it difficult to keep the same pace in the classroom as other students.  The solution was simple; at the beginning of every semester I approached my professor and explained the situation so that they would not be surprised if I asked for an extension or to take an exam early or late due to my commitment to basketball.  Missing academic work for basketball was recognized by the university as a legitimate reason for absence.  Most professors understood that and were thus very accommodating and supportive in making sure I had the same opportunities to succeed as the rest of the class.  The system was usually simple: I gave an excuse letter to the professor at the beginning of the semester and they signed it and I signed it and we both kept a copy, but one professor decided it was unnecessary.

When I brought my excuse letter to his desk after the first class he told me, out of what must have been laziness or apathy, that we did not need something like this and as long as I worked hard and kept up I would be fine.  He had implied to me that it would not be an issue that we could not overcome if I ended up having a scheduling conflict as long as I was putting in the time and effort to do well so I was not concerned; what reason did I have to doubt this professor?  Time carried on and I was doing well in the class with no problems or calendar conflicts.  About two months into the semester it came time for midterm exams and it turned out that I did have a conflict with the exam for the class.  This would not have been a problem under normal circumstances because a signed document by both parties would have been available to ensure that I would be able to reschedule the exam under university policy.  This had become a slightly different case because the professor had declined to sign my official excuse document while leading me to believe that it was not something I needed to be concerned with because my performance in the class had been excellent.  With confidence that the issue was going to be resolved I approached the professor after the following class and explained to him that I would be away for his exam and I would need to take it before or after the rest of the students.  He did not pause to recall our previous conversation.  He did not suggest another solution for me to work the two things into my schedule.  He asked me if I could miss the game for his exam and stated that if I could not do this I would receive a zero.  In an attempt to salvage the situation I recalled for him our exchange about not needing an excuse letter as long as I was keeping up with my work and he stated that he did not remember the discussion. 

The professor had declined to sign my excuse letter on the false pretence that as long as he was impressed with my effort there would not be an issue if I needed to reschedule an exam.  I had the expectation of an accommodating professor who was going to work with me to ensure the class was completed to the best of my ability.  When the time came for the psychological contract between this professor and me to be tested we reached what Sherwood (1972) calls a pinch.  In the end it turned out that we got back from the game about three hours before the exam and I was able to write it with no issue.  But the psychological contract was still broken, and had the basketball team stuck to our travel itinerary I would have received a zero on that exam.

The experience caused me to immediately lose trust in the professor.  Any trust I had left in him was overshadowed by his indifference to whether or not I succeeded in his class.  I had come close to receiving a zero on a heavily weighted exam because of a breach in a psychological contract.  Through our short discussion my professor had made me believe that if my input met his expectations we would work together to ensure I had the same opportunities as the rest of the class despite my complication of also representing the university in sport.  My work throughout the class had remained consistently excellent and remained so after the pinch.  Although my work remained consistent it was not due to a decision out of the crunch (J.J. Sherwood et al, 1972); I did not end up missing the exam so the consequences of the pinch were never realized.  When we reached the pinch and a planned renegotiation was not even considered our disruption of shared expectations came close to having a grave effect on my performance in the class.  It only came close to negatively impacting me because I was fortunate enough to return to campus just in time to take the exam.  Speculation leads me to the secondary outcome of this situation; had I not returned to school in time for the exam and received the zero that I was promised my level of commitment would have dropped off heavily.  An ‘A’ in a class is a great goal to chase but when the maximum grade attainable becomes a ‘C’ it is not easy to continue living on three hours of sleep in pursuit of such an average result.  As a short digression away from myself, I feel that this situation can be easily likened to the workplace when an employee`s work output is capped to a level below what they are capable of producing because of a role they have been pushed into.  This problem increases exponentially when they are put in that position by way of a breached psychological contract, and that concludes my digression.  My professor`s response to me in our short discussion was most likely the product of his desire to get out of the classroom and into his office to monitor his research rather than to genuinely reassure me and commit to helping me.  My innate trust in educators had caused a lack in judgement that almost hurt my academic performance.

Observing this story from the perspective of each side makes it viable to better understand the situation.  This method of breaking down the situation shows holes in my thought process and makes my professor seem like slightly less of the terrible person that I have characterized him as in my initial narrative.  My error in judgement was not in trusting my professor; he is actually not a bad guy.  The lapse was born of my own self involvement.

My perspective of the situation at the time was far from omniscient.  I put myself in a position where I thought that I was important enough to stand out to this professor as a special case when he deals with hundreds of students every day and only grants excuses when there is a death in the family or a hospital is involved.  Declining to encourage the professor to sign my document and instead entering into a psychological contract proved to be a short sighted decision.  Had I followed the proper procedure laid out for me by my experienced academic advisors I would have avoided the problem; when the professor signs a paper he will pay at least some attention to what it is that he is signing and even if he forgets all about it, he signed it, so there is no issue.  My general lack of awareness in the situation barred me from considering the professor`s perspective.  When he declined to sign my excuse letter as if we would be able to work it out when the time came, he probably just didn`t feel like getting his pen back out of his briefcase.  From my view it looked as though my professor had lied to me.  Examining the story from his perspective helps explain why he probably did not lie to me.

To elaborate on the perspective of my professor I have to speculate a little bit because I never sat down with him and asked him to tell me how he had felt about the situation.  I believe that he was simply unaware that he had set the scene for a pinch when he told me that we did not need to sign a piece of paper.  To be fair he most likely did acknowledge that we had entered a psychological contract.  It was in the fine print, or fine thought as it would be here, that caused the problem in our psychological contract.  Were I able to read minds I would have likely caught the discrepancy.  He probably genuinely believed that it was something that we could work out; the problem arose with his idea of what working it out meant.  He did not see issue in me missing my basketball game, the scenario I was trying to avoid.  To summarize my professor`s perspective: We can work around your basketball schedule, Ben, you can just miss any games that get in the way of my class.

I behaved the way that I did out of blind trust. And an assumption that my solution of re scheduling exam dates was the same as his solution, which it clearly was not.  Not trust in my professor`s word but trust that him and I were thinking the same thing.  If I had asked to make sure that we were on the same page there would not have been any issue.  My professor behaved the way he did because he probably never played a university level sport and he simply did not understand the importance of sporting events to the athletes involved.  If I had explained to him the preparation and time I invested to prepare for each game he might have understood; but he also probably wouldn’t be interested in hearing about that.  To his credit, I was a student athlete.

As I have mentioned in my description and breakdown of this situation, it is an example of a breach in a psychological contract.  The psychological contract is an idea stemming from social exchange theory, which argues that people enter into relationships in which not only economic but also social obligations play a role and that people are most comfortable when the exchange is balanced (P.M. Blau, 1964).  In this situation I had the expectation that if I performed well in the class that I would not have to worry about rescheduling my exams if they got in the way of basketball games.  As it applies to the classroom, I was promised a future return for my contributions (Osland et al, 2007) and never received what I was expecting.  This created a situation in which I believed that by meeting the expectations that my professor had set for me I would be able to not only excel in the class but he would be lenient in the way we worked around my basketball schedule.  At the time of the pinch I felt that I was being treated with incivility; in the case of the classroom, my professor is acting as my supervisor and his blunt refusal to help me (Osland et al, 2007) meets the classification of incivility.  I must return to speculation regarding the hypothetical situation of me not returning to campus in time to complete my exam.  I believe that my performance after this imagined situation compared to my performance before the breach in psychological contract provide excellent grounds for demonstrating the self fulfilling prophecy; a term that embodies the idea that employees who are expected to do well will likely perform better than those who are not, even though there may be no differences between them (Osland et al, 2007).  Initially I was under the impression that my professor had high expectations for me in the class and I worked very hard to meet the expectations that I believed him to have for me.  If I had received a score of zero on his exam I would have felt that he did not believe that anything above a ‘C’ in the class would reflect my ability and I would have ceased to perform to the best of my ability for the remainder of the course, proving the self fulfilling prophecy.

Reflecting on the concrete story and then breaking it down into the perspectives of the two parties involved gave me new insight into the situation.  I had never before thought about the professor`s point of view until I wrote about it.  I learned that a psychological contract can go wrong due to different expectations and views without any malicious intent by the parties involved.  My professor in this case had no intention of making me believe that I would be rewarded for my work in the class, he simply had different ideas of what his words would mean to me.  I learned that seeking information rather than assuming things is the best way to a solid psychological contract.  If I had asked more questions, clarified or defined what I thought the agreement meant and been more active in dispelling any assumptions being made there would not have been a problem.

This experience taught me that I need to try and view situations from the perspective of all parties involved.  It taught me that I have a tendency toward a self serving bias when I am dealing with other people and that I easily jump to the conclusion that best suits my needs.  When things go wrong, or against my presumptions, I can jump to the defensive attribution error of thinking I am not to blame; it was the situation or the difficult professor’s fault. I also fall into the fundamental attribution error; in thinking that the other person, in this case the professor, is untrustworthy or has an unsavoury character.

To be more effective in this type of situation in the future I will make sure that I anything I assume I will clarify with the other people involved.  I will also try to understand both sides of the situation beforehand; considering how the situation could go wrong and analyzing the reasons before anything goes wrong could be an effective tool.  Lastly, I will ensure that if I have the opportunity to get an agreement regarding expectations signed on paper I will do it.