human relations


Also found in: Acronyms.

human relations

a concept of the MANAGEMENT of human resources based on the belief that the character of social relationships at work has a profound effect on employee performance. The task of management is to understand and influence these so as to gain employee commitment to organizational goals and to improve individual and collective performance. The main way of doing this, according to human relations theory, is for management to be seen to be taking an active interest in employee aspirations and welfare, which in turn will stimulate the development of work GROUPS which cohere well and are committed to the formal objectives of the organization.

The main architect of human relations was Professor Elton Mayo (1880-1949) of Harvard University. He based his work on the investigations known as the HAWTHORNE STUDIES, though it is debatable how far Mayo was actually involved in these. The key findings of these studies were that informal work groups which operate against the organization's objectives could emerge and that friendly supervision was correlated with steady improvements in employee performance. Mayo placed these findings in a broader philosophy of modern industrial society. He claimed that people had a fundamental ‘need to belong’ (more powerful than economic needs) which had not been actualized in industrial society (see ANOMIE), and they therefore suffered a sense of loss which could be overcome by the creation of a community at work. The Hawthorne studies, according to Mayo, showed how managerial action could achieve this: the friendly supervisor had helped workers to cohere in an effective social group.

The upshot of this is that MANAGEMENT STYLE is a key consideration in the management of people. Managers should display concern for people as well as simply getting the job done. It can be argued that human relations put a welcome emphasis on the human dimension at work. However, the concept can be criticized for its manipulative character in that it advocates that managers should mould social relationships in a way that is conducive to organizational goals. It also requires that managers stifle the expression of interests which are contrary to those of the organization. Hence human relations practice can be hostile to trade unions. Human relations has also been criticized on the grounds that it understates the influence of other factors, such as financial incentives and job design (see JOB DESIGN AND REDESIGN), on worker behaviour and JOB SATISFACTION. Despite these criticisms human relations was an important stage in the development of the SOCIOLOGY OF WORK, in that it focused attention on the role of work groups and social factors in influencing individual attitudes and behaviour. Human relations was fashionable amongst managers in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s but lost favour subsequently. It has had something of a revival recently in the guise of such management methods as TEAM BRIEFING. See SOCIOLOGY OF WORK.

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