Tending the Flock

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Are today’s HR practices really living out the ideologies of the human relations approach?

Although it sounds like a cliche, there is truth to the adage that an organization’s most important asset is its people. If you accept this premise, then it should be readily apparent why human resources (HR) departments came to be and remain necessary. The modern version serves a variety of functions that together are designed to ensure the viability of a vital asset or resource, i.e. the workers (hence the title “human resources”). This role and the attitudes that defined it are hardly consistent with the philosophical intent of the original human resources approach.

The main purpose of HR today could be loosely characterized as “tending the flock” of workers: administering their benefits, determining compensation, defining job descriptions, recruiting, hiring, managing layoffs, evaluating job performance, mediating disputes, providing professional development, and more.

Some of these functions are consistent with the principle of classical HR theory that holds that the prosperity of the organization depends in large part on its ability to enable what Maslow called “self-actualization” of its employees (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Trethewey, 2014, p. 82). For example, HR departments administer professional development programs and training, Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.17.08 PMand help manage each employee’s advancement up through the ranks. In that regard, the HR department fulfills the ideal of helping workers evolve to their fullest potential, by facilitating growth and otherwise bringing the organization’s resources to bear on their behalf.

But these roles are small and lower priority in comparison with other concerns for the organization, such as payroll and benefits management. Human resource departments today seem to be primarily in the business of recruitment and retention of workers. Promising self-actualization has become a means to these two ends, rather than a goal in and of itself.

Maslow theorized that the effort to achieve self-actualization inherently serves the organization by aligning its goals with those of its employees (Eisenberg et al., 2014, p. 82). Likert’s principle of supportive relationships places a high value on employee engagement and “participative management” within the organization (p. 85). Of course, the reaScreen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.02.40 PMlization of both ideals is often undermined by politics, power, privilege and other factors in organizational cultures. For example, practical reality in the workplace (if not society at large) holds that although everyone may be considered equal, some are “more equal than others.” In other words, lower level workers may have a harder time becoming self-actualized than managers and other personnel viewed as more talented or valuable to the organization.

The human resources approach places a high priority on employee wellbeing and engagement, essentially promising that if management put the needs of the worker at the forefront in most if not all decisions, the organization will prosper. But most organizations today treat employees less as their most important asset worthy of that consideration, and more like a commodity. The evidence is writ large in business news feeds every day. When a company is in financial trouble, layoffs are the most likely first step management takes in the attempt to improve profitability. Senior executives rarely put the needs of employeesScreen shot 2015-07-26 at 4.59.48 PM first or engage them in finding solutions to problems (never mind accepting a pay cut themselves) before taking steps that directly affect the workers’ livelihoods such as cutting benefits, closing plants or divesting divisions. Those don’t sound like behaviors that are consistent with the theories of Maslow, McGregor or Likert.

Unfortunately, contemporary HR practices largely reflect the mentality of workers as being expendable, which is far removed from human resources ideology. Rather than strongly advocating for workers and their active and vital involvement in organizational affairs, the HR function is often little more than maintaining the herd and doing management’s bidding.

Is it an appropriate role of an organization to overtly help each employee self-actualize, or “be all they can be?”  Further, is it appropriate for an organization to tie its prospects to the worker’s ability or desire to self-actualize? 


Eisenberg, E.M., Goodall, H.L., Jr., & Trethewey, A. (2014). Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. (ISBN: 978-1-4576-0192-7).


Classical Management in Modern Organizations


Despite tracing its lineage back to the early 19th century (if not before), the classical theory of management is alive and well as a prominent form for today’s organizations of all types. Many corporations, businesses, non-profits, public agencies and other entities reflect the trademark principles espoused by the theory’s adherents Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol, Max Weber and others, such as division of work, reporting discipline, unified direction and order.

Practically speaking, this predominance is not likely to change. Organizations will be hesitant to adopt radically different forms due to an aversion to change generally, and especially if such change threatens two things that people most cherish, power and wealth. Regardless, the viability of classical management, at least in its purest form, for contemporary organizations is questionable.

As evidence of this position, I can cite the many organizations, large and small, in various sectors that I have encountered during a 30-year public relations career. It seems as if every one used a classical management approach with relatively minor variations, and with varying degrees of success. One client, a law firm, is a good illustration.

The firm structure was typical for contemporary law firms. At the top of the organizational chart were the executive board and managing partner, followed in order by the equity partners, department chairs, practice group leaders and associates at the bottom. As this structure suggests, the firm grouped attorneys by departments and areas of practice specialties (in the modern law firm, there are almost no generalists), reflecting Fayol’s principles of management such as division of work and unity of command and direction (Modaff, Dewine, & Butler, p. 31).

The non-attorney support staff constituted its own separate, sub-organizational structure managed by a chief operating officer who reported directly to the managing partner. These staff members included paralegals, legal secretaries and personnel who handled marketing, technology, human resources, facilities, and other specialized operational functions.

Over decades, this law firm achieved respect and consistent profitability with an organizational structure that changed little. In that respect, a classical management approach could be deemed an operational success. However, there were signs that the model was not viable or optimal, especially for non-legal staff. Management allocated comparatively little for their professional development compared to attorneys. This violated the element of Taylor’s theory of scientific management that prescribed “careful selection and training of the best workers” (Modaff et al., p. 27) as well as the principle of equity in Fayol’s Administrative Theory (p. 31). Counter to Weber’s chain of command and Fayol’s Scalar Chain, authority was confusing and often politicized, as equity partners sometimes exerted inordinate influence over matters such as work assignments and compensation regarding non-legal staff and associates, including those they did not supervise (pp. 32, 37).

Certain aspects of classical management would seem to make sense for law firms, such as division of work, unity of command and direction, reporting discipline and esprit de corps (Modaff et al., pp. 31-32). But there is a big difference between theory and application. In my personal and professional experience, the mentality of many lawyers does not complement these concepts. The “billable hour” metric can make lawyers self-focused and less inclined to subordinate their personal interests to the common good (p. 31). Some lawyers can be difficult to manage, especially if they are made answerable to a peer, and many do not accept the premise that trained managers are better qualified to make decisions about the business aspects of the firm. These and other sentiments suggest that some lawyers may not be adherents to either the spirit or letter of the law regarding Fayol’s five Elements of Management: planning, organizing, command, coordination and control. (pp. 34-35).

Moreover, legal work may be too complex to accommodate scientific management techniques that are best suited to “straightforward task situations that require no flexibility in responding to contingencies and that offer no opportunities for initiative” (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Trethewey, 2014, p. 72).

For classical management techniques to be truly viable, managers must heed the enlightened intent of theorists who were as concerned about fairness, respect, morale and job longevity as productivity and efficiency. This is a very tall order. Consider Home Depot, one of the world’s largest retailers, where CEO Robert Nardelli is applying classical management techniques with, quite literally, militaristic precision. Improved profitability and cost efficiencies indicate some success. But after five years of effort, Wall Street remains unconvinced while his approach has created a “culture of fear” among “demoralized” managers and line staff, with a corresponding toll on customer service (Grow, Brady & Arndt, 2006.).

The implications are clear: without proper balance that places equal value on the human condition of the workers, classical management’s applicability and relevance for modern organizations will remain limited.

Classical management theorists worked in periods when social understanding of power and privilege were very different from what we know. Yet their work implies certain egalitarian ideals that, at least theoretically, are still relevant. Would their concepts have been different if they were working today?  How?


Eisenberg, E.M., Goodall, H.L., Jr., & Trethewey, A. (2014). Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. (ISBN: 978-1-4576-0192-7).

Modaff, D.P., DeWine, S., Butler, J.A. (n.d.). Organizational Communication: Foundations, Challenges, and Misunderstandings (2nd Ed). Boston: Pearson.

Grow, B., Brady, D., & Arndt, M. (2006). “Renovating Home Depot.” Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/stories/2006-03-05/renovating-home-depot.

Fellow Mechanics

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For this posting about my reflections on this course, I’ll use a car as the metaphor for my communications skills and expertise. My entire professional career as a public relations practitioner, I’ve driven this car wherever I needed to go, with only a smidgeon of understanding about the theoretical “mechanics” of what actually makes it run. This course has been analogous to sticking my head under the hood and tinkering with the engine to gain that understanding.

A principle of public relations is that perception must change before behavior can. This is the case regardless of whether the desired behavior is voting for a candidate, buying a product, showing up at an event, or countless other actions. Communications theory helps explain the relationship between perception and behavior, and how the two influence each other. Before this course, I had mostly anecdotal understanding about this process based on my own professional experience in a variety of contexts and applications. The course provided a theoretical foundation for my understanding that simply didn’t exist before. (But don’t tell my clients that.)

For example, I know from experience that people sometimes act in ways that don’t necessarily serve their own best interests. A voter may support a candidate who espouses economic policy that is potentially damaging to that voter. Actually, this is a pretty common dynamic in public relations. But I did not know why it happens, from a psychological standpoint. Reading about the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 95) was a revelation because I learned about the factors that give rise to this phenomenon and possible strategies for addressing it.

Of course, learning also occurred through interaction with my classmates. This was especially the case in the last two weeks when we were working on our final projects. There were a wide variety of ideas and interesting approaches on display. Neely employed a thoroughly researched and professional looking presentation, organized in way that made even the most complex principles understandable even to someone with no background in our course material. Melissa chose a film about an extremely timely and relevant issue, cyber-bullying, as a way to illustrate her understanding and application of the subject matter. Tatiana’s video narrative personalized her presentation in way that made it fun to watch and engaging. And Melinda used outstanding graphics to render her points and make them easy to understand and follow. Overall, I learned something from every presentation I watched, which is probably the highest compliment there is.