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Contracting for change


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Contracting for change


The aim of this case study is to explore the concept of contracting in relation to supervision. A specific point of enquiry is the management of contracts in an organisational setting.

My interest in this aspect of the coaching relationship has been awakened by my successes and failures in introducing developmental supervision (as opposed to remedial coaching) in management development programmes. My hypothesis is that 80% of the failures can be attributed to incomplete contracting especially concerning basic issues especially commitment to real change.

Why contracts ?

A contract is an explicit bilateral agreement concerning a certain plan of action (Berne, 1962). I work with contracts because it stimulates autonomy and equality in the relationship; the client (co)determines the goals and focus of intervention (Stewart and Joines, 1987). It also helps to shift attention from problems to solutions (Clarkson, 1992) and in an organisational setting this is much appreciated.

I always work with written contracts including amongst other things the problem definition by the client, my vision on the problem, aims, methods and planning and a separate section stating financial arrangements and our ethical and professional code.

In a healthy system an explicit written contract is redundant. One characteristic of healthy systems is that rules are open, agreed and subject to renegotiations at any time; so a verbal contract outlining main points would seem enough (Houston, 1995).

However in my line of work I am usually involved in unhealthy systems where the concrete clarity of a written contract is a first point of intervention. With individual clients referred to me by their organisations it is especially necessary to be explicit about confidentiality issues and priorities (direct client comes first).

Also, once voluntarily established in the dialogue between client and coach a contract in an organisational context greatly supports goal directed behaviour. People tend to keep to their side of the bargain, especially when they experience (social) control and can not blame failure to comply on situational factors.

Timing of contracts

In most intervention plans contracting is said to take place after a motivational phase (Blake and Mouton, 1983) or the contact phase (Clarkson, 1995). However, there is a distinction to be made between the timing of different types of contracts.

The 'soft' contract is usually a first plan of action based on the initial diagnosis accompanied by a more business like agreement. After a period of more extensive diagnosis a 'hard' overall contract can be made, including a differentiation of goals (personal, functional, systemic) and methods. This provides the framework for the total plan of action.

Within the overall contract session contracts can be made defining specific goals and steps within the larger plan. Lastly, the relationship or psychological contract is in a constant state of revision as different aspects of the coach-client bonding come into play. When all is said and done it is this contract which determines the success of the intervention process.

Contracts and change

Loomis (1982) distinguishes between four change foci:

Care contracts: maintain current level of functioning, offer protection.

Social control contracts: correct temporary imbalance, crisis intervention and increase coping resources.

Relational contracts: recognise repetitive patterns of behaviour, cognitive restructuring.

Structural change contract: transformational redecision work and reframing.

This distinction is comparable to Golembiewski's (1976) three orders of change in groups and organisations:

First order change: routine changes within the framework of the system e.g. decorating a room

Second order change: shift in the framework e.g. moving house

Third order change : fundamental shift in assumptions or values e.g. moving to a different country

The care and social control contracts concern first order changes – what I would call maintenance or development. The relational contract is a second order change, what I would call a change. The structural change contract entails a third order change, what I would call a transformation.

Preparing the organisation and creating conditions for the level of change induced by supervision and coaching is an important aspect in contracting. Most organisations do not take kindly to transformation; they naturally strive to maintain a status quo. If you don't address this in your initial contact and contracting phase you risk being excluded from the system.

Types of contracts

Berne (1961) Speaks of three types of contracts: administrative, professional and psychological. These 'types' are actually always in play so we could speak of areas of contracting.

An administrative contract defines the business arrangements e.g. payments, services, planning. Like all elements of the contract, it is subject to Steiner's (1974) four criteria: mutual consent, valid consideration, competency, and lawful object. I would say the administrative contract is the most Parental element in contracting.

The professional contract defines the boundaries of the professional relationship e.g. problem definition, methods, agreed upon results. The professional contract should be specific, measurable, visible, do-able, positively worded and explicit (Stewart and Joines, 1987). I would say it is the most Adult area of contracting.

The psychological contract is based on the conscious and unconscious personal needs of the coach and the client (Berne, 1966). A positive psychological contract can lead to a feeling of alliance or a working relationship. A negative psychological contract however can lead to the reconfirmation of games and script. I would say the psychological contract is the most Child driven aspect of contracting.

General differences between these areas of contracting are:

Degree of consciousness: administrative and professional contracts are conscious, psychological contracts are usually pre- or unconscious.

Degree of finality: administrative and professional contracts end when the set goals are realised, psychological contracts can continue in a process of (intrapsychic) interaction.

Emotional value: a breach in administrative and professional contracts lead to disappointment, a breach in psychological contracts can lead to extreme emotional reactions.

Managing the psychological contract

What becomes apparent when reviewing the literature is the importance of the psychological contract. Where the administrative and professional contract structure the coach-client relationship, the psychological contract determines its effectiveness.

Managing the psychological contract is therefore one of the key competencies of a coach or supervisor. The following model of this management function is based on an article by Sherwood and Glidewell (1972):

Figure . Managing the psychological contract

Management of contracts in an organisational context

Managing contracts in organisational contracts is a complex business. Many factors and people are involved. Even basic contracting questions are not always easy to answer:

Who is the client ? An organizational intervention usually deals with one part of the system, with the focus shifting over time. This means that the consultant has to negotiate a work contract, within the framework of the overall contract, with each new party involved. Furthermore, the person who commissions the project is not always the client. For example, in one organization top management commissioned a coaching project, delegated responsi­bility for contrac­ting to the staff, and identified the client as being the marketing depart­ment. One conse­quence was that ownership of the project was multiple and sometimes unclear, as were the degrees of motivation to change.

How is the problem defined ? Within an organization, each part of the structure fulfills a different role. Berne (1961) actually specified four roles : the leadership, the external apparatus, the internal apparatus and the membership. These tally with the structures Mintzberg (1983) identifies within organizations. Each ‘role-carry­ing’ structure defines problems in a specific way. For example, in one organization a conflict arose when top management wanted to re-centralizeall training and development activities because they felt coordination had become impossible, while middle management thought decentralization had not gone far enough. In other words, THE problem definition depends on who your client is.

What should the focus of intervention be ? Within an organization many levels of intervention are possible : the personal and interpersonal level, the group level, the organiza­tional structure and culture, the strategy of the organization. Choosing a focus is largely dependent on the problem definition of the consultant, which is usually based on their personality, experience and training. In other words, “what you view, is what you do” (Tichy & Nisberg, 1976). For example, clinicians in an organizational setting often work from the assumption that developing the person leads to them delivering better work. As a consultant I think self-awareness is only 25% of the work.

How large is the ability to influence ? : The balance of power between an organi­zational consultant and the client is often more equal than in a therapeutic relati­onship. The client has usually oriented herself on the market. The consultant often has to actually sell her wares and negotiate about goals and methods. Furthermore, the organiza­tional consul­tant literally works on the client’s territory, whereas clinical clients ‘work’ on the therapists’ territory. In organi­zational interventions the ability to influence is reciprocal to strongly in favour of the client.

What is the nature of the relationship ? : A consultant’s work is of a public nature, whereas the therapist often works in a more private setting. This influences the degree of intimacy, the protection one can give to a client and sometimes even the depth of interventi­on. For instance, during an open discussion about race issues in the fire department during a team coaching, I was very conscious of the fact that these men not only worked together, but ate and slept together. Because I could not offer 24 hour protection to people willing to share personal experiences in this tough environ­ment, I decided to concentrate on cognitive aware­ness and not the working through of emotional experien­ces.


Working with an explicit bilateral contract is already an intervention in working with organizational clients. Different contracts are in play at different times. One could say the administrative and professional contracts are developed gradually through first a soft, then a hard and finally session contracts.

The psychological or relationship contract however is in play from the first moment of contact. Managing this area of contracting is one of the core competencies of coaching and supervising. It determines the effectiveness and level of change possible with a client.

Writing this case study has made me aware again of the complexity and delicacy of working in an organizational setting. I will explore this relationship building and termination more in the following case study.


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