The human relations theory of management began development in the early 1920s. Today, it is integral to every business, and understanding the involved skills and theories is key to employee success.
In the 1920s, Elton Mayo, an Australian-born psychologist and organizational theorist, began his research on the behavior of people in groups and how it affects individuals in the workplace, known as the Hawthorne studies.
At the time, Taylorism, or the application of science in the workplace to improve productivity, viewed individuals as machines that could work in unethical or unrealistic environments. Mayo, in contrast, popularized the idea of the "social person," meaning organizations should treat people as individuals – not machines – with individual needs.
The human relations management theory is a researched belief that people desire to be part of a supportive team that facilitates development and growth. Therefore, if employees receive special attention and are encouraged to participate, they perceive their work as having significance and are motivated to be more productive, resulting in high-quality work.
Definition of human relations
Merriam-Webster defines "human relations" as the "study of human problems arising from organizational and interpersonal relations (as an industry)." That definition has translated to a business approach focused on supporting employees in their career development and agency at work in addition to running a profitable company.
A human relations-centric approach to management and business requires a special skill set on the part of employers and managers. To effectively carry out a human relations-focused workplace culture, five skills are essential.
The 5 human relations skills
While managers must have a vast array of skills, these five, in particular, are essential to successful human relations.
Open lines of communication are essential to any workplace, but this is especially vital for leaders practicing human relations management. Effective communication helps ensure that all employees not only are on the same page, but also feel motivated and valued in their work. This refers to in-person conversations as well as written communication such as emails and social media.
As a leader, you should be able to adapt your language to various situations, such as by modifying your word choice and formality for high-level executives versus the customer base. One useful communication technique is mirroring the other person's approach – people are more likely to respond well to those similar to them. Finding your common interests with them and matching their tone of voice or physical stance are great ways to subtly connect with your conversational partner.
2. Conflict resolution
Managing individuals with differing personality types, worldviews and goals can make universal agreement incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Therefore, you must be comfortable and well versed in conflict resolution. You will help your team work together in a civil manner – even if they don't agree with each other on all points – to ensure the work gets done in a timely manner.
When dissent arises, you must be able to take individual perspectives into account and make each person feel heard and understood. Once you've synthesized the presented information, you must work with all parties to come up with a solution where everyone feels comfortable moving forward. While it's impossible to make everyone happy 100% of the time, good conflict resolution skills can maintain or restore team harmony in the face of disagreement.
Managers face countless tasks, questions and issues to solve on a daily basis. They are responsible for not only themselves, but the success of their team, which means time spent checking in with their team and ensuring things are moving smoothly.
A good leader must be able to manage multiple, often competing priorities at once, without missing deadlines. Another important aspect of multitasking is flexibility; as a manager, you must adapt to policy or workplace changes that affect your employees' daily workflow.
Whether there's an employment offer to navigate, an agreement to establish between stakeholders and the company, or just opposing viewpoints to manage, negotiation happens regularly in the workplace. Strong negotiation skills are key to keeping the peace between two parties while reaching an agreement where all parties are satisfied. Effective communication techniques such as mirroring and adapting your language to your audience can also be useful in negotiations.
Organization is one of the most important human relations skills, as it impacts all other areas of work. You must keep your physical workspace, as well as your workflow process, highly organized. This is especially important when you're filing paperwork or employee records, because everything must be completed correctly and on time. Staying organized is also a key part of time management and an efficient workflow.
As a leader, you must work efficiently and manage your time appropriately, especially when tackling multiple and often time-sensitive priorities, which is only possible when there is an organized process.
The skills of communication, conflict resolution, multitasking, negotiation and organization are all vital to human relations. Leaders who possess or develop these skills are well on their way to successfully implementing human relations management practices.
Popular human relations management theories
These are some of the human relations management theory basics:
- Individual attention and recognition align with the human relations theory.
- Many management theorists support the motivational theory, which ties in to the human relations theory.
- Studies support the importance of human relations in business.
The results of Mayo's Hawthorne studies showed that relationships are the most influential factor in productivity. The researchers realized productivity increased due to relationships and supportive groups where each employee's work had a significant effect on the team output. As a side result, the attention the workers received from the researchers increased their motivation and productivity, in an example of what is now known as the Hawthorne effect. [Read related article: Popular Management Theories Decoded (Infographic)]
How motivational theory fits with human relations in management
After the Hawthorne studies, Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor revealed how the motivational theory ties in with theories of human relations. Maslow suggested that five basic needs (physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualization) are motivating factors in an employee's work values, because the employee is motivated to ensure the most important of these individual needs are met. McGregor supported motivational beliefs by recognizing that employees contribute more to the organization if they feel responsible and valued.
Remember, human relations falls under the umbrella of human resources; therefore, the human resources theory is different from the human relations management theory.
The bottom-line results of human relations management theories
The result of the studies regarding human relations in the workplace show that people want to feel a sense of belonging and significance while being treated with value and respect. If you treat an employee with that value and respect, their individual productivity and quality will increase to support the organizational team.
Gail L. Perry contributed to the writing in this article.