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Why Social Contracts Matter in the Modern Workplace


A Social Contract is defined as an implicit agreement between members of a community. While it has been long-debated in political conversations, I believe there’s an opportunity to relook at Social Contracts in corporate cultures and teams.


Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are thought to be the three predominant thought leaders about the laws of human nature and the social contract. Their lens on the social contract was political, economic and philosophical. I’ll skip the overview of each philosopher’s views, but here is a link with more detail for your education.


Instead, I’d like to start a conversation on the modern social contracts that exist today. Trevor Noah brought this into mainstream consciousness while talking about Black Lives Matter.  In the powerful video, he describes society as a contract that we all sign with each other, implicitly or explicitly, on a set of common rules, common ideals, and common practices that will define us as a group. Just like any other contract, the contract is only as strong as the people abiding by it. What we see today around the world, specifically with police brutality and acts of violence and hate, is a breach of the social contract we live in. If authorities, people in power, and people in law enforcement breach the contract, how can Black people be expected to maintain the contract.


The same thing is true in corporate cultures, and Millennials and Gen Z employees have high expectations on the follow-through.  Every company invests in inspiring mission statements, re-designs their logos every few years, and have a PR engine that pumps out inspiration regularly. But how many of those companies reflect this culture back inward to their full-time employees, contractors, and interns? What is it like to be a Black employee at your company and on your team? How do people experience their managers in their day-to-day? In a world where a company’s employee base might have 10X+ more reach through their personal and social networks, what your employees say about your values and actions will matter more than what is shown through PR and Marketing. In other words, it will become increasingly important for companies to invest in their teams, their leaders, and the inner workings of their culture to create safe, diverse, inclusive, and empowering environment.


How about we all start now? Don’t go away and work with a small executive team to redefine the company’s culture. Open it up and listen to what your people have to say. Start creating a social contract at work between a company and its employees, between a leader and his/her team, and between peers. Do the work together.


Here are some questions to get you started:

  • “What defines us as a group and as a team?” Drop the buzzwords. Get real.

  • “What do we consent to establishing as fair terms for all involved parties?” A contract isn’t legitimate without consent from the parties it serves.

  • “What do you expect from me? What do I expect from you?” The social contract will involve some kind of value exchange and mutual sacrifice. Are those clear?

  • “What are our shared values and principles?” Co-create and discuss them.

  • “What are our team norms?” How do we practice better ways to communicate, collaborate and practice creating a shared culture?

  • “What is our shared moral code?” How can we bring ethical standards into the ways we work?

  • How can we support each other?” Knowing different people have different needs, how can we find ways to help each other?

  • “What might show up? How do we manage it in healthy way?” Any kind of change. involves trial and error and course correction. How can we think about things that might show up and get ahead of them? How do we create a process to course-correct together when things unexpectedly happen?

  • “How will we manage a breach in the contract?” What are ways to create safeguards to address breaches of the contract in a safe and helpful manner? How do we remove the fear of retaliation that exists at so many companies?

Do you have additional suggestions or thoughts? Leave them in the comment below for shared learnings.

Thanks for participating in this important work.


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