This blog post is all about: a special kind of contract that is almost never written down, comparing rat-race with inspired evangelism or a quest for workplace happiness, what does happen when "social contract" is broken (& why does it happen), why respecting "social contract" (and first - having it at all!) makes such a difference.

I've started few series of blog posts - one related to compensation, another to the level of commitment required to achieve the success, but ... I've recently found out that I can't conclude any of those without introducing one important concept (that rarely gets named explicitly):

"Social Contract"

What is it? And why is it important?

Wikipedia never disappoints, you can find a definition here, but it's very broad & reaches far beyond what I'd like present here. My, somehow shorted & simplified, definition goes sorta like that:

Social contract is a (usually unwritten) set of cooperation principles individuals align on: common goals & priorities, level of dedication they are (all) eager to sacrifice, norms they are going to follow, common list of values that will guide them towards their purpose.

In simple words: it's a statement of alignment on shared goals & (what's equally important!) ways to reach them. A constitution for the work environment. And it's freaking important, much more than it seems at the first glance.

Social contract is something people are supposed to truly embrace & live by. Not a PR statement or generic, management-imposed mission statement people forget 5 minutes after hearing. They need to believe it & enforce every bloody day - this is what really UNITEs them on their joint mission.


Here's a bunch of statements that could IMHO appear in a social contract of a company in Software Engineering business:

  1. "we won't be satisfied with anything less than building the BEST application for industry/market X - we're reaching for the absolute top & silver medal ain't even an option"
  2. "growth is not important for us, we care for people HAPPINESS - decisions we'll make & directions will follow should match everyone's personal happiness criteria"
  3. "we treat very seriously the EVANGELIC part of our mission - we're a company behind technology X & our priority is to make it flourish in the wider community; we use it & apply successfully in projects not only to earn money but also to help it spread wider & gain larger adoption"
  4. "we're a corporation, yes - no point in denying; we're KPI-driven & shareholders value is our top priority - what matters is ROI & as long as you're following the basic ground rules you're free to do ANYTHING that increases our market value"
  5. "what we do is body-leasing: what matters is client's satisfaction; we follow their ideas, execute them relentlessly & efficiently even if we know they don't make any sense - because this is what clients expect of us: obedience, promptness, flexibility (and all of those with ENTHUSIASM)."
  6. "we're known of being SUCCESSFUL - we're getting hired when the hope is lost & no-one else can help; we're expected to stretch beyond boundaries & do impossible even if it requires extreme personal sacrifice - it's the effectiveness that counts (& that's what we're paid for) while the list of casualties is of secondary importance"

Each of these represent different kind of company, different kind of thinking, different attitude. All of these can work & bring the expected results - you can condemn some, but nevertheless all of those have a niche they excel within - AS LONG as all people on board (such a company) truly adhere to the statement (mentioned above) - in other words: they voluntarily accept such a "social contract" (following before-spoken rule).

Breaking the contract

What if they don't? For whatever reason?

Take scenario #1: what would happen if 50% of people truly strive towards being the best in the world (as a goal) & the rest treats that as a pep-talk & just do what they have been told too (uncritically)?

Or in scenario #2: some people sense the opportunity of a huge leap forward (e.g. getting a new, big client) which requires some crunch / additional effort that lies visibly beyond the border of personal work-life balance (that impacts HAPPINESS) of 50% of people within organization?

A similar issue could apply to scenario #3 as well:  50% people really believe in what the company is evangelizing for, while the other 50% is here just because the salary is decent, but the technology doesn't excite them at all ...

I've used "50%" in the examples above. What if it's 30%? 10%? Does it change anything?

In all these cases people are not aligned, they are not united by the purpose, shared mission & the same principles. They just coincidently do similar stuff next to each other - and they can do it quite well, but ... it's their ceiling.

Why does it (not respecting the contract) happen?

In some cases it's just poor communication, in other it's intended misleading (luring people with false pretenses), but in the majority of cases it's ... people lying - usually to themselves.


Grand visions sound ... grand. Who wouldn't like to do something ground-breaking, break the borders, get fame in the community, etc. But ... when we get inspired with the vision, we may get failed by our ... self-awareness, sense of realism. We want to reach the Olympus, but ... without paying the price (making an effort/sacrifice). And the reality is that ... everything has its price, expressed in tears, sweat & personal sacrifice.

So we lie to ourselves that we're up for the goal. And then we lie to the others. And break the social contract - we become free riders, parasitize on our team-mates, fall under social loafing ... Or we simply do not believe in the GOAL (subject of the social contract) but opportunistically glue ourselves to the team, ironically (or even sarcastically) comment others efforts ...

More important than you think

Which of course has several negative outcomes - creates the tension, pretensions, frustrations, sense of injustice & a feeling that we're getting screwed (because we feel we're putting in more than others do).

Humans are egocentric by design, hence we tend to exaggerate our observations, enlarging the issue. Instead of playing for the same team, we keep looking around to make sure we're not getting screwed by someone else. Trust & fellowship give way to withdrawal & cold calculation.

It's almost as bad as ... no "social contract" at all. This is a separate kind of story - teams w/o social contract are sorta random bunch of people who are not gelled by anything meaningful. Today they are here & tomorrow they will be somewhere else w/o any remorse or even any reflection on what happened (or why nothing happened).

"Social contracts" give the REAL meaning to our work. They enable non-random accomplishments, they make "magic" possible. "Social contracts" reinforce all the positive synergistic effects within and across teams - they inspire people to reach together for something they could have never reached alone.

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