Chapter 1: What Is Human Relations?

I present myself to you in a form suitable to the relationship I wish to achieve with you.

By Luigi Pirandello

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.

By Maya Angelou

No One Wants to Work with Her

Jenny is going to a BBQ at Monica and Harvey’s house this afternoon. Because it is a big annual event, it is usually a large party. She will likely know about half the people, as Monica and Harvey invite people from all aspects of their lives. As Jenny enters the backyard, she sees familiar faces, as expected, but also sees a lot of people she doesn’t recognize. Immediately she starts fidgeting, as Jenny isn’t good at making small talk.

Instead of making eye contact and going over to people who are acquaintances, she drops her potluck dish down, grabs a drink from the cooler, and tries to find Monica so she will have someone to talk with.

At work, Jenny avoids interpersonal relationships and small talk because she is uncomfortable revealing too much of herself. When Jenny attends meetings at work, she sighs impatiently when someone is late and when people veer too far from the topic, and she makes sure to bring people back to reality. When choosing project teams, people rarely want to work with Jenny, even though she is very capable in her job. Some of the women from the office get together for lunch on Tuesdays, but Jenny is never invited.

Needless to say, Jenny isn’t well liked at work.

We have all met someone like Jenny, who is seemingly uncomfortable with herself and unpleasant. We may even try to avoid the Jennys we know. Despite Jenny being good at her job, no one wants to work with her. You would think that success at work only takes talent at job-specific tasks. However, this isn’t the case. As we will discuss throughout this chapter and the book, successful people have the skills to do the job, but they also have the human relations skills to get along with others. The focus of this chapter will be personality, attitudes, self-esteem, and perceptions—all of these topics and more impact our ability to get along with others.


Why Study Human Relations?

Learning Objectives

  • Be able to define human relations.
  • Discuss why human relations skills are necessary in your future workplace.
  • Explain how the progression of human relations studies relates to today’s human relations in your life.


The study and understanding of human relations can help us in our workplace, and as a result, assist us in achieving career success. The better our human relations, the more likely we are to grow both professionally and personally. Knowing how to get along with others, resolve workplace conflict, manage relationships, communicate well, and make good decisions are all skills we will discuss throughout the book.

Why Human Relations?

We can define human relations as relations with or between people, particularly in a workplace or professional setting.[1] From a personal perspective, there are many advantages to having good human relations skills.

  1. Of the top ten reasons people are fired, several reasons relate back to lack of human relations skills—for example, the inability to work within a team, personality issues, sexual harassment, and dishonesty.[2] Other reasons, perhaps not directly related to human relations, include absenteeism, poor performance, stealing, political reasons, downsizing, and sabotage.
  1. People who are competent team players and have a good work ethic tend to get promoted faster.[3] In fact, according to one expert on personal development, Brian Tracy, 85 percent of your success in life is determined by social skills and the ability to interact positively and effectively with others.[4]
  1. Another reason to develop good relationships with others relates to your own personal happiness. According to psychologist Sydney Jourard, most joy in life comes from happy relationships with other people.[5]

Consider John, a very talented project manager but lacking in human relations skills. While he is easily able to plan and execute the finest details for a project, no one likes to work with him. He doesn’t make efforts to get to know his team members and he comes across as unfriendly and unapproachable. How successful do you think John will be in his workplace? While he has the skills necessary to do the job, he doesn’t have the people skills that can help him excel at it. One could say he does not have emotional intelligence skills—that is, the ability to understand others—therefore, he may always find himself wondering why he isn’t more successful at work (we will discuss emotional intelligence in Chapter 2 “Achieve Personal Success”). While project management skills are something we can learn, managers find it difficult to hire people without the soft skills, or human relations skills. We aren’t saying that skills are not important, but human relations skills are equally as important as technical skills to determine career and personal success. Consider human relations skills in your personal life, as this is equally important.

Human relations skills such as communication and handling conflict can help us create better relationships. For example, assume Julie talks behind people’s backs and doesn’t follow through on her promises. She exhibits body language that says “get away from me” and rarely smiles or asks people about themselves. It is likely that Julie will have very few, if any, friends. If Julie had positive human relations skills, there is a much better chance she could improve her personal relationships.

We can benefit personally and professionally from good human relations skills, but how do organizations benefit? Since many companies’ organizational structures depend upon people working together, positive human relations skills reduce conflict in the workplace, thereby making the workplace more productive. Organizational structures refer to the way a company arranges people, jobs, and communications so that work can be performed. In today’s business world, teams are used to accomplish company goals because teamwork includes people with a variety of skills. When using those skills in a team, a better product and better ideas are usually produced. In most businesses, to be successful at our job, we need to depend on others. The importance of human relations is apparent in this setting. If people are not able to get along and resolve conflicts, the organization as a whole will be less productive, which could affect profitability. Many organizations empower their employees; that is, they give employees freedom in making decisions about how their work gets done. This can create a more motivated workforce, which results in more positive human relations. We will explore this topic further in Chapter 6 “Understand Your Motivations”.

Most organizations employ a total person approach. This approach recognizes that an organization does not just employ someone with skills, but rather, the whole person. This person comes with biases, personal challenges, human relations skills, and technical skills but also comes with experiences. By looking at a person from this perspective, an organization can begin to understand that what happens to an employee outside of work can affect his or her job performance. For example, assume Kathy is doing a great job at work but suddenly starts to arrive late, leave early, and take longer lunches. Upon further examination, we might find that Kathy is having childcare issues because of her divorce.

Because of a total person approach perspective, her organization might be able to rearrange her schedule or work with her to find a reasonable solution. This relates to human relations because we are not just people going to work every day; we are people who live our personal lives, and one affects the other. Because of this, our human relations abilities will most certainly be affected if we are experiencing challenges at home or at work.


Joan Harrington, a blogger and life coach, says there are a few key things to getting people to like you.[6]

Evolution of Human Relations Study

Human relations, however, was not always central to the conversation on organizational success. In fact, until the 1940s, little thought was given to the human aspect of jobs.

Many of the jobs in the early 1900s were focused on production and located in factory-like settings where the jobs themselves were repetitive. The focus in these types of work environments was on efficiency. We can call this time period of human relations studies the classical school of management. This school of thought took place from 1900 to the early 1920s. Several theories were developed, which revolved around the idea of efficiency, or getting a job done with the least amount of steps.

Frederick W. Taylor was an engineer who today is known as the father of scientific management. He began his career in a steel company and, because of his intimate knowledge of the industry, believed that organizations could analyze tasks to make them performed with more efficiency.

Following his work, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth performed numerous studies on physical motions workers took to perform specific tasks and tried to maximize efficiency by suggesting new ways to perform the tasks, using less energy and thereby being more efficient.

While Taylor and Gilbreth’s research was more focused on physical motions and tasks, Henri Fayol began looking at how management could improve productivity instead of focusing on specific tasks and motions.

Fayol created the Fourteen Principles of Management, which focused on management but also hinted to the importance of human relations:[7]

  1. Division of work. Work should be divided in the most efficient way. Fayol believed work specialization, or the focus on specific tasks for teams or individuals, to be crucial to success.
  2. Authority. Authority is the right to give orders and accountability within those orders. Fayol believed that along with giving orders and expecting them to be met, that person in authority also assumes responsibility to make sure tasks are met.
  3. Discipline. Discipline is penalties applied to encourage common effort, as a successful organization requires the common effort of all workers.
  4. Unity of command. Workers should receive orders from only one manager. In other words, reporting to two or more managers would violate Fayol’s Fourteen Principles of Management.
  5. Unity of direction. Everyone in the organization should move toward a common goal and understand how the team will achieve that goal.
  6. Subordination of individual interests to general interests. The interests of one person shouldn’t have priority over the interests of the organization as a whole. This focuses on teamwork and the importance of everyone acting toward the same goal.
  7. Remuneration. Many things should be considered when paying employees, including cost of living, supply of qualified people, and business success.
  8. Centralization. The degree of importance in the subordinates’ (employees’) role in their organization and the amount of decision making that occurs at a central level versus a decentralized level. For example, in many organizations decisions are made centrally (i.e., in the “corporate office”), which does not allow as much flexibility as decentralized decision making; this would mean each individual area can make its own decisions.
  9. Scalar chain. This refers to how authority is divided among managers. Specifically, Fayol said lower-level managers should always keep upper-level managers informed.
  10. Order. All materials and people related to one kind of work should be organized and neat. Things should be easy to find.
  11. Equity. All employees should be treated equally.
  12. Stability of tenure of personnel. Retention of employees should be a high management priority. The cost of hiring a new worker is expensive, so efforts should be maintained to keep current employees.
  13. Initiative. Management should take steps to encourage workers to take initiative. In addition, workers should be self-directed and not need a lot of management control to accomplish tasks.
  14. Esprit de corps. Managers should encourage harmony among employees. This harmony creates good feelings among employees.

Fayol’s research was some of the first that addressed the need for positive human relations in a work environment. As further research was performed into the 1920s, we moved into a new period of human relations studies called the behavioral school of management. During this time period, employees had begun to unionize, bringing human relations issues to the forefront. Because workers demanded a more humane environment, researchers began to look at how organizations could make this happen.

One of the more notable researchers was Elton Mayo, from Harvard Business School, and his colleagues. They conducted a series of experiments from the mid-1920s to early 1930s to investigate how physical working conditions affected worker productivity. They found that regardless of changes such as heat, lighting, hours, and breaks, productivity levels increased during the study. The researchers realized the increased productivity resulted because the workers knew they were being observed. In other words, the workers worked harder because they were receiving attention and felt cared about. This phenomenon is called the Hawthorne effect (named for the electrical plant for which the experiments were conducted). In the 1950s, researchers began to explore management techniques and the effect on worker satisfaction.

This was called the behavioral science approach. These techniques used psychology, sociology, and other human relations aspects to help researchers understand the organizational environment.

Since the 1960s, research on human relations has been much easier to assimilate because of technology and a focus on statistical analysis. Hence, this is called the management science school. So while research today focuses on the human relations aspect, we are now able to use complex statistical models to improve efficiency and productivity while still focusing on the human relations component.

Human Relations, Technology, and Globalization

While we discuss the impact of technology on human relations throughout the book, it is important to mention here the immense impact technology has had on this field of study. Inability to see body language indicators make it more difficult to communicate using technology, creating conflict and misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can obviously affect human relations. Also consider that through globalization, we are working with people from all over the world in many time zones who have different perspectives.

Between technology and globalization, humans have never had to work with such a diverse group of people—using diverse methods of communication—at any time in history.

Technology has allowed us to do this: e-mail, Skype, and instant message, to name a few. The impact on human relations is obvious—there is less face-to-face interactions and more interactions using technology. Add in the challenge of a global environment and this creates a whole new set of challenges.

Many organizations today are focusing on how to use technology to save workers time commuting to work. In fact, an estimated 26.2 million workers telecommute, or work from a remote location at least once per month.[8] Global Workplace Analytics cites the following benefits to telecommuting:

  1. Improved employee satisfaction
  2. Reduced unscheduled absences
  3. Increased productivity

However, Global Workplace Analytics also says there are some key drawbacks:[9]

  1. Social needs may not be met
  2. People must be self-directed
  3. Employees must be comfortable with technology or it won’t work

While technology has greatly impacted human relations at work, there are some common denominators for human relations success in today’s workplace—whether or not technology is used. These factors will be discussed throughout this book:

  • Chapter 1 “What Is Human Relations?” Understanding how personality, attitudes, self-esteem, and perception impact human relations. How we are, how we behave, and our belief systems all impact how we view ourselves and others.
  • Chapter 2 “Achieve Personal Success.” Understanding the components to personal success, such as goal setting and emotional intelligence skills. Being able to achieve personal success is the first step in attaining career success.
  • Chapter 3 “Manage Your Stress.” Managing stress and understanding how too much stress can negatively impact our human relations.
  • Chapter 4 “Communicate Effectively.” Communication abilities. Everything we do at work and in our personal lives involves communication. Understanding how to communicate effectively is the cornerstone of positive human relations.
  • Chapter 5 “Be Ethical at Work.” Ethical decision making is necessary because ethical decisions must be made all the time in our personal and work lives. Understanding how to make an ethical decision can help us become better employees and human beings.
  • Chapter 6 “Understand Your Motivations.” Understanding what motivates you can help you know the right career path and can assist you in guiding your supervisor. Without an understanding of our own motivations (our own self-knowledge) we may not be able to complete tasks as efficiently. Of course, this skill is the key to successful human relations.
  • Chapter 7 “Work Effectively in Groups.” Working in teams has become necessary in most every work environment. Understanding how teams work and how they achieve success together will provide you with the tools to be an effective team member.
  • Chapter 8 “Make Good Decisions.” Good decision-making, both personally and professionally, can help our human relations in that it provides a framework to make sure we are thinking about all aspects of the decision. We tend to be happier when we make better decisions, which means we relate better to others.
  • Chapter 9 “Handle Conflict and Negotiation.” The ability to manage conflict is necessary in today’s workplace. Not everything will work exactly as we planned, nor will we get along with everyone we meet. Learning how to work through these challenges can help us become better at human relations.
  • Chapter 10 “Manage Diversity at Work.” The ability to work with a diverse workforce. In a globalized workforce, we will work with people from all cultures and backgrounds. Understanding how to effectively work with people different from us can help us be more successful at work.
  • Chapter 11 “Work with Labor Unions.” Understanding labor unions and their role in the workplace will help us understand how unions work, should we become employed in a union environment. Understanding the concepts in this chapter gives us the working knowledge to apply the human relations skills we have learned.
  • Chapter 12 “Be a Leader.” Leadership and management skills can assist us in understanding how we can be leaders in our workplace, even if we do not have a formal title.
  • Chapter 13 “Manage Your Career.” Managing one’s own career, such as etiquette, dealing with change, and networking. This capstone chapter will relate our discussion back to these key components to human relations.

We will focus on human relations in a work setting, but many examples will also relate to personal settings. The examples provided will give you tools to have positive relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and people in your personal life. These positive relationships—both at home and at work— help us become more rounded, happier individuals. This is good for everyone, including the company you work for.

Key Takeaways

  • Human relations is an important part to our career success. It is defined as relations with or between people, particularly in a workplace setting. Because a company depends on good human relations through its organizational structure, developing these skills is important.
  • Technology has greatly impacted human relations because so much of our communication occurs without the advantage of seeing body language. This can result in miscommunications. Many workers telecommute to work. There are advantages and disadvantages, more notably a disadvantage being the lack of human, face-to-face contact.
  • There was an evolution in human relations study. In the classical school of management, the focus was on efficiency and not on human relations.
  • Employees began to unionize in the 1920s due to lack of positive human relations, and therefore the behavioral school of management was created. During this time period, researchers began to focus on the human relations aspect of the workplace.
  • One of the major theories developed was the Hawthorne effect, which determined that workers were more productive when they were being watched and cared about by researchers.
  • During the 1950s, the behavioral science approach looked at management techniques as a way to increase productivity and human relations.
  • In the 1960s and beyond, sophisticated tools allow researchers to analyze more data and focus on the statistical aspects of human relations and management data.


  • Have you ever worked with anyone like Jenny (in the opening case), either in school or at a job? Discuss your experiences and how you handled working with this person. How could they have benefited from an understanding of human relations?
  • Discuss two advantages to learning about human relations skills. Why do companies value good human relations skills?
  • Would you be interested in telecommuting for work? What are the advantages and disadvantages to the employee? Discuss in small groups.
  • Draw a timeline of human relations research. On the timeline, indicate the events that changed human relations thinking. Bring your timelines to class and discuss in small groups.


End Notes

[1] Merriam Webster Dictionary, accessed January 30, 2012, http://www.merriam-

[2] Natalie Jones, “10 Most Common Reasons Why People Are Fired,” Wikinut article, February 28, 2010, accessed January 31, 2012,


[3] Jean Maye, “7 Steps to Getting Promoted,” Chicago Tribune, 2012, accessed January 31, 2012, promotion,0,6989913.story

[4] Brian Tracy, “Mastering Human Relationships,” Brian Tracy International, August 19, 2009, accessed January 31, 2012, success/mastering-human-relationships/

[5] Tracy, Brian, “Mastering Human Relationships,” Brian Tracy International, August 19, 2009, accessed January 31, 2012, success/mastering-human-relationships/

[6] Joan Harrington, “Eight Persuasion Tips to Make Anyone Like You,” Joan Harrington’s True Successes, January 19, 2012, accessed January 31, 2012, make-anyone-like-you/

[7] Girish Sharmaa, “Henri Fayol’s Principles of Management,” Publish Your Articles, no date, accessed February 1, 2012, hub/business-studies/henry-fayols-principles-of-management.html

[8] Telework 2011, “A World at Work Special Report,” World at Work Organization, June 2011, accessed February 1, 2012,

[9] Telework Research Network, “Costs and Benefits: Advantages of Telecommuting,” Telework Research Network, no date, accessed February 1, 2012,


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