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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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.