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What is the human relations theory (and why should you care)?

Imagine that you’re an employee of Company A. 

They expect you to be as efficient and productive as possible, and there are rigid workflows and processes you need to follow. In their eyes, there’s only one right way to get the job done, and no room for your own creative approach or interpretation. You feel like a cog in a wheel. 

Now, imagine that you work for Company B. 

They value your opinions about your work environment and treat you as an individual with unique preferences and perspectives. They encourage close relationships with your colleagues and your manager, and they offer plenty of praise for a job well done. 


In which organizational culture do you think you’d be more productive? Are you thinking, “Oh, without a doubt, Company B!”? Well, that’s the human relations theory at work.

What is the human relations theory?

The human relations theory was established by Elton Mayo, an Australian psychologist. He conducted a series of experiments at the Hawthorne plants in the 1920s (now aptly named the Hawthorne Experiment or the Hawthorne Studies). 

At the time, the prevailing management approach was something called Taylorism, where workers were viewed as machines. However, following a series of experiments on the employees of the Hawthorne plants, Mayo had different ideas.

He altered different elements of the work environment, like the level of lighting. But, what he found surprised him.

The gist of his theory is that social factors—think things like job satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and inclusion in decision-making—had a huge impact on people’s productivity and work performance. Those were the real motivators for workers, and not the environmental factors (like lighting) he had set out to study. 

He concluded that workers weren’t machines, but individuals who had unique preferences. Thus, the human relations theory was born. The theory covers a lot, but as Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld noted in his own report, it can be boiled down to five main conclusions:

  1. Humans are complex, and their work behaviors are influenced by a variety of factors
  2. Workers are influenced by the norms their primary work group establishes
  3. The social structure of these work groups are maintained by job-related symbols of power
  4. Managers should understand the unique needs of workers, rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach
  5. Employees will be more open to changes if you give them the opportunity to participate

In short, the factors that most impact a worker’s performance are more psychological than anything. People are social beings, and their workplace is a social system on its own.

The good and the bad of the human relations theory

That sounds a lot like how effective organizations are managed today, right? This theory caused a major shift in how organizations were run, and most businesses still incorporate aspects of this movement.

But, much like anything, it isn’t without its criticisms. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of the human relations theory. 

Advantages of the human relations theory

It makes sense that treating an employee as a unique individual would offer some advantages. And it’s true that this theory has some pretty big perks for employers, including: 

  • Greater engagement: When employees feel valued, they’re more engaged in their work and invested in their employers. 
  • Boosted productivity: Because employees have greater commitment to their organizations, they work harder. In fact, research says that an engaged workforce can boost productivity by as much as 21%. 
  • Improved retention: All of this means employees are more likely to stick around for the long haul. A survey of over 50,000 employees found that engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave a company

Criticisms of the human relations theory 

While the human relations theory did place more emphasis on positive treatment of employees than most previous management models, critics argued that it was still another way to manipulate workers in the interest of increasing their output. 

Additionally, others maintain that the Hawthorne Experiments themselves were unscientific and couldn’t provide any real, tangible conclusions.


This theory is also criticized as being somewhat narrow-sighted, as it didn’t account for broader social, economic, and technological factors. Peter Drucker, one of the most well-known management thought leaders, said that the experiments focused solely on interpersonal relations without any consideration for the nature of the work itself.

How to put the human relations theory into action

Despite the fact that it’s not without its naysayers, the human relations theory does still have merit in the modern workplace. But, how can you actually put it into practice in your own work environment? Here are five different strategies. 

1. Provide context around tasks

Employees want to see the value in their work. In fact, a whopping nine of 10 people are willing to earn less money if it means they can do work that’s more meaningful to them.

But, it’s hard for your employees to extract a sense of fulfillment from their tasks if they have zero visibility into the bigger picture. 

Help them zoom out by providing adequate context around their responsibilities. What does that assignment accomplish for the broader organization? Why does their work matter? 

You’ll empower your employees to feel less like a machine required to crank out a specific task, and more like a vital and valued member of your team and overall company. 

2. Collect feedback from employees

Your employees likely have a lot of ideas about things you could improve at work—but you have to listen to them. Unfortunately, 34% of employees worldwide say that their companies don’t listen to their suggestions.

The human relations theory requires that you involve employees in decisions, and also that you actively solicit their feedback.

But here’s the important thing to remember: If you gather feedback and never act on it, that will only breed more frustration. Ask Gallup explains, “Employees doubt the motives of managers who ask for their opinions, then don't do anything with them. Employees expect and need resolution, and one of the best ways to do this is through action planning.”

3. Understand employees as unique individuals

Remember that one of the core tenets of the human relations theory is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to management. Your employees are individuals, and managers need to understand their unique preferences and perspectives.

One of the best ways to do that is to complete an assessment like Fingerprint for Success. You’ll get detailed information about the different motivations and work styles on your team.

You’ll be able to tailor your management style accordingly, match tasks and projects to your team members’ strengths, and deliver messages and feedback in a way that resonates with each of them individually. 

Ready to know your team on a deeper level? Start your assessment now

4. Offer adequate praise and recognition

How motivated would you be to continue to produce if you felt like your hard work was never recognized or celebrated? Your motivation would quickly wane, wouldn’t it?

Your employees crave recognition. 69% of employees say they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized. 

Keep in mind that this is another area where individualization matters. As Gallup’s data concluded, “The most effective recognition is honest, authentic and individualized to how each employee wants to be recognized.”

If you aren’t sure how employees prefer to receive praise, ask them. Do they like to receive positive feedback in front of the team? Individually in a one-on-one meeting? Via writing? What types of rewards and incentives are most meaningful to them?

That information will help you implement employee appreciation in a way that’s especially personalized and impactful. 

5. Leave time for relationships and bonding

The human relations theory emphasizes the importance of social structures at work, and that workers will often follow the norms and rules that are set by their team. 

Think about it: Your work team probably has a lot of unspoken standards about how you act in meetings or what’s considered a solid day’s work. 

But beyond those expectations for how they get their work accomplished, your employees also value the bonds they share with the people they work with. One survey found that 55% of employees said their work relationships were “very to extremely important” to their quality of life.

Make sure you’re encouraging these relationships and this level of connectedness. Even something as simple as dedicating a few moments at the beginning or end of team meetings for social catch ups will give your employees necessary time to connect on a more personal level. 

Your employees are humans, not machines

Work environments are all different, but there’s no denying that some of the most successful ones treat their employees as individuals. They make sure to:

  • Show employees the value of their work by providing context around tasks
  • Collect and act on feedback from employees
  • Understand their employees’ unique preferences and approaches
  • Provide praise and recognition for hard work
  • Dedicate time to support social bonds between employees

Today, those might sound like fundamentals of management. But, they weren’t always. When Elton Mayo drew these conclusions of the human relations theory, these were actually considered quite groundbreaking. They contradicted previous management concepts that viewed employees as productivity machines.

Use this as your guide to understand the fundamentals of the human relations theory and implement these strategies within your own team. They’ll help you build a positive culture where your employees feel valued and supported—and not like another cog in a wheel. 

With F4S you can find out exactly what motivates your team and get free online coaching — sign-up today.

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