When it comes to human resources, there’s the practice and then there’s the theory. The conceptual side of this is rooted in what’s called human relations management theory, and this is the study of the relationships between management and subordinates. Business has evolved in so many ways over the last century, and how employees are managed continues to change all the time. Leading millennials takes a different tack from managing baby boomers, and human relations management theory seeks to explain both how and why.

Human Relations Theory: Pros and Cons

Like any kind of philosophy or theory, what’s on paper can sound fantastic, but bringing that to life is a whole other deal. Ironically, it’s people who complicate things – and situations. With individuals, there’s no blanket response, no easy one-size-fits-all scenario that makes it clear how to proceed. What motivates or drives one person can be radically different for another, and it’s important to realize that human beings aren’t just theories on paper.

But that’s also why human relations theory is so needed; because of humanity’s vastness and unpredictability. By having great thinkers like Elton Mayo study what it is that humans are fighting for and why they take action, employers and leaders of all kinds can better understand how to inspire and motivate people to effect change, work hard and make an impact.

Understanding Elton Mayo

In human relations management, Elton Mayo is the guy who changed the game. There was a time when people were deemed unsophisticated, just another tool in the trade for making money; the only way to motivate them, it was thought, was via paying them more money or threatening them. Luckily, Australian Elton Mayo joined Harvard University as a professor, and he began studying the behavior of people at work – weighing in on important behavioral studies like the Hawthorne Studies.

The Hawthorne Studies have had a little revisionism going on in the 80-plus years since they concluded, but the gist of what was taken away was that employees’ productivity was largely dependent on being satisfied with their work situation. Mayo’s continuing studies into work and productivity led to his beliefs that sociology and psychology played a role in worker satisfaction, their productivity and their ambition. Motivation was far more complicated than the “carrot or the stick” method that had been used for so long.

The Evolution of Human Relations Theory

Mayo, and his successors, have learned how employees, when feeling devalued and underappreciated, can scheme to find ways to undermine their productivity. But when value and celebrated, they instead will work harder and be more loyal to their company. Studies in human relations theory have led to light-bulb moments like high turnover often being as much a statement about managerial practices as it might be about the job itself – and that good management can offset the unpleasant reality of working in menial employment.

Today’s “evolved” workplace is a product of those decades of worker studies and theoretical exercises. When workplaces are generous with employees (regarding food and experiences, not just money) and flexible schedules, better work-life balance, supportive environments and open communication, employers often enjoy higher dedication, greater output and lower turnover.

Workplaces are still missing the mark in many instances, though, because human relations management theory is about relationships, as in how employees and management interact with, enjoy and support others in the workplace. If true relationships can develop while employees also feel valued, trusted and encouraged, there’s no telling how strong that workplace team can become.