How I re-wrote the psychological contract

Jo Wong is Chartered Occupational Psychologist, wife and mother of two little boys, she likes flowers, singing, old cars, pottery, real ale and pork scratchings.  She lives in Bristol and is part of The Hoxby Collective – a virtual agency consisting of a global community of freelancers, each adopting their own workstyle. Jo also works across her own business.   She an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and specializes in using psychology to unlock the untapped people potential in organizations.  Below, she shares her personal story: 

“Fifteen years ago, at the start of my career in pre-Dot Com London, I found myself in a headhunting startup…complete with beer fridge, ping pong table, cocktails on expenses and motivational recruitment training DVDs delivered by a very eager man in red braces.  I had surely landed on my feet. I had arrived. I loved the energy, the optimism in the City at that time and buzz of working alongside like-minded, non-conformist souls.

But after a while, something about my shiny new role started to niggle.  We were lucky enough to work with some of the leading investment banks, strategy consultancies, and corporate brands, and specialized in placing bright, strategic thinkers in the first half of their careers.  Slowly a question was dawning: ‘Why were there so many places to fill?’ I was less interested in making the placements and more interested in what these organizations were actually doing with their talent.

Fulfillment for me was not going to come from putting bums on seats, without being able to get closer to the businesses and figuring why the seats needed filling in the first place.  Now, of course, many roles came up due to business growth, however, in some businesses the talent just was not sticking around. The psychological contract was wrong for them and it was like a swinging door.  Great for headhunting fees, not so great for the clients and worse for the people on the sharp end.

All of this intrigue prompted me to make what my friends considered the odd idea of ditching the City in my mid-twenties to pursue a career in business psychology.  I’ve since spent the last twelve years trying to answer questions about what is it that organizations can do to harness the potential of people, with a particular focus on leadership.  From a base in Bristol, I’ve been lucky enough to work with business leaders around the world and continued to do this around the birth of my two sons and the acquisition of the consultancy I had grown up in by Deloitte.   

On returning to work early last year, I found myself with ‘itchy’ questions again.  Why in so many clients I was working with, were we still having similar debates about talent, well-being, diversity, and women in leadership?  Over the years I have increasingly become of the view that a huge amount of time and effort is invested and targeted at selecting and fixing the individual, without such an in-depth view being taken as to whether the organization itself is structured appropriately to foster and nurture the talented people within it.  For example: do performance management systems and reward align appropriately with the culture being built? Have roles been restructured with creativity to allow for different workstyles? Can flexible/agile working really co-exist in organizations where the majority are still stuck in the standard 9-5 model? I am not convinced that many traditional corporates have been able to take the radical steps required to reinvent their businesses to deal with the talent challenges above.  The rate of digitization, arise of the Millennial generation and need to hold on to, rather than hemorrhage the best talent, all point to the need for accelerated change in HR strategy if traditional businesses are to remain competitive.

I found myself craving to work with those clients who would be willing discard the 1950s style of organization, and who would be unafraid to rip up the rulebook and create new adult: adult instead of parent: child psychological contracts with their employees.  At the same point, I found myself a busy working mum, looking for the way to reconcile my ambition with my wish to spend more time with my boys, particularly before my oldest starts school.

Enter Hoxby.  By a chance meeting with one of the Founders, Lizzie, my eyes were opened to a world where a whole organization could be set up and optimized with a new psychological contract in mind for its people.   An organization on a mission to reinvent the world of work, one in which people work when they like, where they like and where contribution is judged not by presenteeism but by output. Also, a place where those ‘tricky’ people to place from my headhunting days would find a home, a place without bias.  The ex-military people making their first steps into civvy street, the second-careerers, the second chancers, the different, the diverse, the dispersed, the nomads, the stay-at-home dads, the part-timers, the all-nighters, the all-dayers, the no school-holidayers. Not just a place for round pegs in round holes, but all the different shapes finding just the right fit for them.  On their terms.

So now I find myself on this new mission.  With new questions again. How can we help other organizations #belikeHoxby and how can we change the world of work for the better in the process?  How will the leaders of these brave new organizations need to be different, to fulfill the psychological contracts they have created with their people?  I’m not sure we have all the answers just yet. But I’m excited to be working on it.”


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