Module MT070

Human Relations Approach


Module author

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School
Harvard University

Learning Outcomes

After you studied this module, you will be able to

  • explain what the human relations approach is about and what it tries to explain;
  • explain why it is relevant to know about this approach in today's economic environment and management practice.
Workload units


Reading extract Human Relations Approach


Why Open School of Management believes that knowing the human relations approach is helpful

If you agree that the best ideas come and go like the seasons, you're in a good place to understand the dynamics of taking a human relations approach to running any type of business or corporation, because the basics of this movement have remained the same for centuries. Human relations-focused workplace philosophies are both an art and a science, which is why sociologists, anthropologists and organizational behaviorists repeatedly return to theories and principles first proposed as early as the 19th century. But you're probably not interested in the pedantic side of this social science. You want to know how to make this popular, recurring approach work for you as you attempt to run a business in today's complex, competitive world. The following should help you separate wheat from chaff as you move into the future.


Contemporary theorists are quick to point out that there's really nothing new about human relations, though for purposes of your education, it helps to look back to the 1930s and 1940s when behavioral experts first suggested applying theories within work environments that improved the way employees were treated by management. Back then, enlightened corporations like Eastman Kodak, United States Steel, General Motors, Sears Roebuck and International Harvester decided employees needed more than just a paycheck to compensate them for hard work, so they drew up menus of benefits that ranged from better treatment, more benefits and on-the-job extras that were supposed to turn even the most apathetic staffers into more productive workers. These programs and benefits, at the heart of the human relations model, were courtesy of "the corporation" and in many instances, results of this largess dramatically changed work environments. While the dynamics of human relations have expanded over time, these first efforts are at the root of the larger industrial relations movement.


It's no secret that job satisfaction can drive productivity, but the question of how to motivate workers enough to cause them to feel good about showing up at work every day remains the essence of the human relations challenge. Toward that end, trade publications and management seminars continue to interpret and reinvent basic theories that revolve around nurturing employees so they feel part of the corporate culture and thus develop not just a willingness to "give their all," but to exhibit true feelings of loyalty, allegiance and dedication. Toward that end, corporations subscribing to the theory of human relations-related employee treatment began expanding their lists of benefits, tailoring them to meet specific worker desires gleaned from surveys and other information-gathering techniques. From birthday cards and in-house training to medical benefits, pension plans and recreational experiences underwritten by the company, it was thought that these extras would be catalysts to promoting higher productivity, loyalty and job satisfaction.


Both management and employees saw the objectives of a human relations-focused approach to employee treatment and morale to be justified. On paper, management promotes "worker democracy" and rolls out benefits that put the corporation in a positive light. In some cases, it worked. Employees felt valued. Needed. They experienced a sense of belonging; thought themselves essential members of the team. In return, employers reaped benefits: fewer grievances, heightened productivity, drops in absenteeism and higher morale. Objectives were being met and both management and the rank and file benefitted. Of particular note is the formation of worker committees that gave employees some decision making power, thus incentivizing segments of work forces convinced that their opinions and recommendations mattered. But it didn't take long before some employees reported that this cooperative atmosphere was nothing more than a false illusion. For some, only corporate objectives were being served, not the objectives of employees, and this contradictory behavior was seen as particularly egregious by employees who promptly lost their power when they promoted unionization.

Why study this course?

Does today's corporation show that it has learned from the past? The answer is yes—though if you wish to practice a true application of human relations as it impacts your corporate goals, mission statement and philosophy, it's important to understand your true motives before you put into place the programs and benefits that can win over most of the hearts, minds and loyalties of employees. Of particular importance is understanding the qualifier "most," because anyone who believes they can get buy-in from every member of a corporation isn't being realistic. Applying theories of human relations in a sane and logical manner requires management to acknowledge motives up front and develop a healthy set of assumptions about human behavior in general. Management expectations can become reality when the right human relations-focused system is put in place that takes into consideration all parties, but before that can happen, know exactly what employees want and then tailor that benefits list to what your business can reasonably afford to offer.

Your interest in putting into place a human relations-focused plan that will keep your business on a level playing field for management and employees can be furthered if you to adopt four specific goals and commit to keeping these at the forefront of your business plan and human resources philosophy:

1. Promote cooperation

This doesn't mean giving lip service to the word—instill a genuine human resources initiative prioritizing camaraderie, teamwork and an open-door policy that's more than an illusion. Prove your intention of administering cooperative priorities via a business model that promotes shared responsibility and a genuine interest in making sure that staffers pull together to set policies by example. Cooperation is dynamic word. When practiced correctly, it reflects the true essence of the human relations movement.

2. Reward communication

Not all needs and feelings are appropriate fodder for management/employee conversations, but when open communication is prioritized by management, it can be one of the best tools for understanding on the planet. Excellent communications build trust, encourage straight talk, limit gossip and thwart negativity. When open communications are on display for staffers of all levels to witness, attitudes change and improve. Active listening is one of the most powerful facets of the human relations model. Everyone wants to be understood and acknowledged, so make frank communications a priority.

3. Acknowledge yearnings

Everyone on Earth has yearnings. Find out what your employees' yearnings are and understand that you have the power to provide those that you deem reasonable. Some employees are motivated by paychecks. Others seek advancement. A surprising number may crave power. It's within your power, as the force behind your human relations-based management system, to acknowledge the yearnings of those on your payroll and deliver universally-sought benefits that complement your corporate goals and budgets. Is it possible to nurture a large employee roster? Of course it is: by holding supervisors accountable for finding out what their direct reports want and bringing these yearnings to upper management so employees know they are being heard.

4. Provide satisfaction

Can you satisfy every person in your firm? You can try. Finding ways to offer more satisfaction can be as easy as providing ergonomically-correct work chairs, querying personnel about what they want in break room vending machines or adjusting work hours to suit personal demands arising from unusually long commutes, child-care conundrums and personal situations like visits to ailing relatives. In each scenario, satisfaction-producing outcomes can be delivered simply by asking employees what they need. A lavish Christmas party is nice, but taking time to care about what goes on in the life of the person on the lowest rung of your corporate ladder is the essence of the human relations movement. It may take less effort than you think to turn your business into a model workplace now and in the future.


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