Employers keeping or breaking promises made to employees has little to do with job satisfaction, according to a new study from the University of Toronto that challenges decades of research.
“Basically, it’s ‘Show me the money,’” says Samantha Montes, who co-authored the report with Rotman School of Management colleague David Zweig for the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Previous research suggested what made for happy staff was when clear promises were made by employers and then delivered.
But Montes and Zweig found keeping the “psychological contract” had little effect on an employee’s feelings for the organization.
“The findings overall suggest that promises don’t matter as much as we think they do, which is somewhat controversial,” says Montes. She thinks that’s not due to recent changes in the job market, but that “previous information was misleading.”
“I studied the concept of broken promises, and I studied it differently,” she says. Previously, breach of promise was seen as a gap between what employees think they are promised and what they get.
“Unfortunately, what they’ve done in almost all of the previous research is ask people, ‘To what extent has your organization filled all of your promises?’”
That mixes promised inducements and delivered inducements, she says. The new research untangles the two issues.
“My findings show promises don’t really come into peoples’ minds. All they seem to care about is whether they are getting the pay they want to be getting,” she says.
“It’s not even as though people are saying, ‘How does what I get compare to what I expected to get?’ All I saw was that it came down to whatever the employee referred to as the bottom line:
Is this the amount of skill-development I want? Is this the pay that I want? Is this the amount of support I want? If it was, they were happy. If it wasn’t, then regardless of their expectations and promises, they weren’t going to be happy.”
This can lead to perplexed bosses, who are carefully delivering on promises, but not getting happy workers.
“Even if you meet employee expectations, even if you fulfill the promises you make to employees, if the level of benefits is low — lower compensation, lower development opportunities, lower support — you’re not going to have happy, satisfied, committed employees,” she says.
“It’s important that organizations divert any resources they were spending on managing expectations and managing promises into actually providing these opportunities and benefits that employees actually want.”