Workplace emotion through a psychological contract lens

Michelle L McGrath (Psychology Department, University of Winchester, Winchester, UK)
Lynne J. Millward (Psychology Department, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK)
Adrian Banks (Psychology Department, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Publication date: 14 September 2015



The purpose of this paper is to identify how psychological contract perceptions are used as a lens through which employees make sense of their workplace emotions. Applying Rousseau’s (1995, 2011) conceptualisation of psychological contracts it examines how the emotions linked to both promise perceptions (broken/exceeded) and regulation are made sense of in relation to perceptions of contract type.


This paper takes a unique perspective into the role perceptions of psychological contract type play in the process of emotional sensemaking using qualitative thematic analysis of 30 in-depth interviews. A range of occupations are represented and all participants worked in a full-time capacity.


The paper identifies how the predominant relationship frame (transactional/relational) is used by employees when making sense of the emotions recalled during specific psychological contract events, as well as the emotions they feel are necessary to regulate while at work.

Research limitations/implications

The mean age of the study sample was 26 years, comparatively young in terms of the span of the employment age bracket. Taking a lifespan approach would potentially broaden the understanding of how employees use their predominant relationship frame in the process of emotional sensemaking at different stages of their life and careers.


This paper identifies an important work-related cue used in the active regulation of specific emotions whilst at work, contributing to both the psychological contract and emotion literature.



The authors would like to express their gratitude to the substantial and invaluable input provided by Lynne Millward in developing earlier versions of this manuscript before she sadly passed away.


McGrath, M., Millward, L. and Banks, A. (2015), "Workplace emotion through a psychological contract lens", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 206-226.

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