Theories of human resource management
— May 29th, 2019
HR professionals know that a good grasp of organizational behavior and theories of human resource management helps their overall goal: creating and maintaining the best mix of talent to deliver on the company’s aims.
No discussion of HR theory is complete without a nod to Frederick Winslow Taylor. What Taylor, father of the “scientific management” movement, concluded about workplace efficiency guided much of the 20th and early 21st century thinking about the work environment and management practice. Taylor was an efficiency fiend, and his coolly analytical approach to labor relations was designed at squeezing peak productivity from each team member through means like optimizing the tools used, simplifying and breaking down tasks, and redesigning any workflow that didn’t contribute to better output.
Taylor also believed that managers should manage: their time should be devoted to planning and developing training programs, while workers (efficiently) perform their assigned tasks. Efficiency came at the cost of humanity at times: Taylor’s pursuit of a design for a shovel “that would allow workers to shovel for several hours straight” would raise eyebrows today in regards to safety and health.
It’s fair to say that modern approaches to human resource management are more informed by Maslow, whose famous hierarchy of needs states that humans may have their basic physiological and safety needs met, but over and above these are the need for things like self-esteem and self actualization: the ability to be the best version of ourselves.
It’s useful to look at today’s competitive labor market, many of whom consist of millennials, through the Taylor lens as well as the Maslow lens. Low-margin industries such as airlines may put the Taylor squeeze on employees, focusing on efficiency and productivity above all else; but ultra-competitive industries like financial services and ICT, who are continuously afraid of their staff being poached, may be more inclined to put a strong emphasis on being employee-centered.
What motivates millennials? It’s not all about compensation and benefits. India has one of the world’s most competitive labor markets: Manish Gupta, Hyderabad business school assistant professor, says that staff turnover in India is often due to employees not feeling “psychologically attached“ to the company they’re being asked to invest their time in. She urges companies to ignore employee handbooks that say engagement can be fostered with old-fashioned parties or team-building events: millennials want to be appreciated, inspired, and most importantly given opportunities to train and develop their skills.
As with most HR challenges, helping ensure that employees feel that psychological attachment to the organization begins at the beginning, with the hiring process. Harvard Business Review conveys a fascinating anecdote about an anonymous billboard that appeared along Silicon Valley’s Highway 101 in 2004. A simple puzzle on the billboard led those who were curious (and math-minded) to a website, where they were asked to solve a second equation. Those who did were thanked for taking part and asked to submit their resume to a new company called Google. The HBR article, Why Curiosity Matters, is worth a read: it looks at how hiring for curiosity can benefit not just Google, but any organization who needs and values creativity — that is to say, every organization — because of the strong and proven correlation between creativity and curiosity.
It’s not just during the hiring stage but during management changes that a company has the opportunity to ensure a good psychological fit between the leadership, the team and the mission. When Greg Dyke took over as BBC Director General, his tireless travels the length and breadth of the company to listen to employees bore fruit: he not only found what problems staff thought were most urgent, he also reflected these back to the organization in a public speech which clearly signaled he’d been interested in their feedback and intended to action it. A good reminder, if one were needed, that staying in close communication with staff and proactively seeking their views, through means such as regular surveys, is a key success factor – whatever theory of human resource management you adhere to.