Increasing productivity in the workplace has long been a focus for business owners and theorists alike. Prominent studies dating back a century focused on increasing human productivity in the workplace by trying a different approach. Today, that research has led us to the concept we know as human relations management theory.
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.
These are some of the human relations management theory basics:
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)]
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 result of the studies regarding human relations in the workplace shows 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 of work will increase to support the organizational team. [Read related article: Management Theory of Frederick Herzberg]
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. [Read related article: 7 Ways to Create a Happy and Motivated Workplace]
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.
A useful communication technique is mirroring the other person’s approach; people are more likely to respond well to those similar to them.
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 percent 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 themselves as well as 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 possible only when there is an organized process.
Communication, conflict resolution, multitasking, negotiation and organization are all vital to human relations. Leaders who develop these skills are on their way to successfully implementing human relations management practices.
Though human relations management theory presents new ways of supporting employees in the workplace, it has some limitations.
When it comes to treating each employee as an individual, the task gets more challenging the larger your company is. While there are ways to personalize each employee’s experience, a large company should focus on the bigger picture and look at employees from a broader perspective.
Although the human relations management theory is useful, the Hawthorne studies were conducted in a controlled environment, so measuring success was easier in this situation than evaluating a real workplace. A real-world organization may find it difficult to determine whether implementing this theory into their daily practices has led to any results since so much comes into play when determining a business’s – and its employees’ – success. While they can conduct surveys and other forms of measurement strategies, it would be hard for employers to get a solid and unbiased understanding of how the theory has been applied and changed their workplace culture without observing all potential factors.
Though the Hawthorne studies place a heavy emphasis on healthy interpersonal relationships, they aren’t the only motivator for employees to increase productivity; workplace satisfaction is another key factor.
While it’s important to highlight how humanizing employees can lead to an improvement in productivity, this change can also come from other sources, from the company’s technology to its infrastructure to its leadership. However, the Hawthorne studies focused only on the importance of human interaction and not on the overall work environment, which can affect one’s experience.
Having employees who are dissatisfied in their current role – whether it’s due to the work they’re doing, the amount they are being paid or the tools they’re mandated to use – may lead to lower productivity and, in turn, strained interpersonal relationships that would not exist in a workplace where the employee enjoyed the nature of their work.
Sean Peek and Gail L. Perry contributed to this article.