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Human Relations In The Workplace

Psychologist William Menninger explains the importance of human relations in the work environment:

The only hope for man to be fulfilled in a world of work is that he get along with his fellowmen—that he tries to understand them. He may then be free to contribute to their mutual welfare—theirs and his. Insofar as he fails this, he fails himself and society.1

Human relations are increasingly important in today’s workplace for three reasons: 

  1. More people are employed in service occupations, where success depends on how well the customer is served. Writing in Liberation Management, Tom Peters states: “All business decisions hinge, ultimately, on conversations and relationships; all business dealings are personal dealings in the end.2
  2. To build superior work teams, people need greater competence in human relations skills. In the 1980’s, the National Science Foundation reported that Japanese companies of the period were more productive than American companies primarily because of collaborative work relationships.3
  3. In his essay “Building Community,” John Gardner describes the modern workforce as composed of a varied mix of personalities and cultures, thus the necessity—and challenge—of building strong human relations with all kinds of people. It is interesting to note that the most common cause of supervisory failure is poor human relations.4

Basic Beliefs about People

The quality of human relations in any workplace reflects its members’, particularly its leaders’, views of the essential nature and value of humanity itself.

  • Human Nature: It makes a great deal of difference whether one views people in general as good or bad. If we assume that people are basically good, we can believe that misbehavior is a reactive response rather than a manifestation of character. This positive view of people will lead to a search for causes in experience rather than in nature. If, on the other hand, we assume that people are inherently bad, then we are prone to assume that misbehavior is caused by something within the person that cannot be altered directly.  Accordingly, our attention will focus on limiting freedom to choose and act through external restrictions and controls.
  • Human Value: What is the basic value of human beings? This is a question as old as written history and probably as old as society itself. It stems from the debate as to whether people are ends in themselves or merely means to ends. In simple terms, we treat people as ends when we allow them to establish their own purposes and to choose for themselves. When we view people as ends, we reflect a humanistic view. In contrast, when we treat people as means, we limit their choices and use them primarily as instruments for our own purposes. In 1785, the philosopher Immanual Kant prescribed a categorical imperative: always act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, as an end and never simply as a means.5
  • Where do you stand?: Personal history draws each of us toward a primary tendency that determines the general pattern of our relations with others. Small changes may occur to accommodate the various roles we play, but there is typically a core pattern that represents our basic beliefs concerning human beings. Is your own view of people primarily positive or negative? What experiences and factors have influenced your view? As a result, what principles and practices do you follow in your relations with others?

Principles of Human Relations

Dale Carnegie’s well-known book How to Win Friends and Influence People belongs in every personal and professional library. Five principles for good human relations are drawn from this tried and true source.6

  1. Help People Feel Important
    Every person feels special in some way, and a sure way to the heart is to let people know that you recognize their importance. Give honest and sincere appreciation, and people will cherish your words years after you have forgotten them. A word of thanks, a comment on how well a task is done, and a handwritten note of sincere appreciation—these are “priceless rewards” that satisfy a person’s need to feel important.
  2. Avoid Arguments
    In his biography, Benjamin Franklin tells how he conquered the habit of argument. One day when Franklin was a youth, an old friend took him aside and said, “Ben, your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.” Franklin was wise enough to realize that this was true, and he changed immediately. Carnegie quotes Franklin on his new attitude: 

    For fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils. I made it a rule to forbear all contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all assertion of my own. I even forbade myself the use of every expression that imported a fixed opinion, such as “undoubtedly,” and adopted, instead, “I conceive a thing to be so,” or “it so appears to me at present.” 
  3. Don’t Be a Complainer
    People don’t like complainers and will avoid them if at all possible. Associating with complainers will bring you down in the minds of others and in your own as well. Negative thinking puts one in a negative mood and this can result in negative behavior. It is a destructive cycle that begins with complaining. Instead of complaining, look for the positive. Be an optimist. As a practical matter, develop the habit of smiling. A smile shows interest and appreciation for others. The adage, “smile and the world smiles with you; weep and you weep alone” has truth to it. Complainers go around looking for the negative and putting people down. Don’t be a complainer.
  4. Show Interest in Others
    People are interested in you, but they are interested in themselves as well. If you want to improve your relations, do things for other people—things that require time, energy, and thoughtfulness. This is the secret of success in both personal and business dealings. Remember that the person you are talking to is usually more interested in himself than in any other subject. The ache in his tooth can mean more to him than a famine in China. If you want good human relations, be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Remember People’s Names
    One of the simplest, most obvious, and most effective ways of gaining goodwill is to remember names. Yet so few people do it. Many times we are introduced to a person, talk a few minutes, and can’t even remember the person’s name when we say good-by. Most people don’t remember names for the simple reason that they don’t expend the effort necessary to concentrate and repeat and fix names indelibly in their minds. It takes effort, but “good manners,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “are made up of small sacrifices.” Remember that a person’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the world.

As a review, if you want good human relations view people as basically good and treat others as valuable ends, in and of themselves, not merely means to achieve personal goals.  Also follow five principles of human relations: Help people feel important, avoid arguments, don’t be a complainer, show interest in others, and remember people’s names.

For related reading, see:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor

How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gill


  1. W. Menninger and H. Levinson, Human Understanding in Industry (Chicago: Science Research Associates, 1956).
  2. T . Peters, Liberation Management (New York: Ballantine, 1994).
  3. Macher, “The Politics of People,” Personnel Journal (January 1986): 50.
  4. J. Gardner, “Building Community,” prepared for the Leadership Studies Program of the Independent Sector (Washington, DC: American Institute for Research, 1991).
  5. I. Kant, Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Renaissance Classics, 2012). See also Three Critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of Judgement by .I Kant, J.M. D. Meiklejohn, et al, 2021. (Note: Categorical imperatives are commands or moral laws all persons must follow, regardless of personal desires or extenuating circumstances).
  6. D. Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Simon & Schuster,  


About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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