An organization comprises of human beings and it is their behaviour that ensures the success of the organization. The organization's strategic competitive advantage, its long and short term goals and objectives are also largely contributed by the way the employees behave with each other. These employees are part of human society where people live on a social relationship. Employees of an organization bring with them the outcome of this social relationship to their workplace contributing to their workplace behaviour. Their thoughts and emotions further contribute to their workplace behaviour affecting their organizational performance in a positive or negative manner.
This essay will explore the contribution that sociological and psychological theories make to the effective management of human resources. In doing so, the essay will take into account three theoretical perspectives of sociology - Functionalist, Conflict and Symbolic Interactionist and three theories of work psychology - motivation, personality and behaviourist. The outcome of the evaluation will then be used to identify how and to what extent these theories contribute to the practice of human resource management and how as a human resource practitioner they can be used in HR practices ranging from recruitment through to professional development and performance management.
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Sociology is the study of society and social beings i.e. us, human beings. Whilst Sociology is a broad discipline, its traditional focus includes class, religion, culture, law, education, technology, social psychology and employment. Sociology gives us the tools we need to understand our lives and the lives of people living around us (Bessant & Watts 2007). On an individual level we maintain different lifestyles even if we may be in similar age, gender, earning and where we live. The same applies to a workplace where people behave quite differently in different situations and sometimes their personal life directly affects the way they behave in the workplace. Symbolic interactionist theory of George Herbert Mead can help us explain this differing workplace behaviour.
Symbolic interactionism is a major sociological perspective developed by George Herbert Mead, that places emphasis on micro scale social relation and establishes the fact that man is a symbol manipulating animal. It also proves that man has developed conventionalized signs which have become organized into language. This language again acts as the vehicle for transmission of culture providing the major means for carrying on social interactions. Blumer (1969), a student and interpreter of Mead, who coined the term "Symbolic Interactionism" summarizes the perspective: people act according to the meaning that the action carries for them. Usually these meanings remain hidden in social interaction and individuals modify them through interpretation. As employees within an organization interact with their colleagues, they form a concept of self relationship with their organization. As soon as individuals get introduced to the culture of an organization, they learn behaviour that best match the culture of that particular work environment (Wood 1999). When an individual joins an organization, he/she is faced with uncertainty requiring them to rely on symbolic messages so they are able to understand their environment (Brown 1986). Symbolic behaviour creates and maintains organizational cultures and this gives the managers an opportunity to create and maintain the organization's values (Colvin 2000). When individuals share these values, it can help them reduce uncertainty and stress within an organization (Harris & Nelson 2008).
However, an over reliance on symbolic interaction may lead to an array of meaningless actions and wrong interpretations in an organization. In some organizations individuals are continuously forced to be productive and this makes them look busy even if they are not doing anything. Symbols can cause the development of "Them Vs Us" environment in an organization by creating subcultures between managers and workers. (Harris & Nelson 2008)
Whilst symbolic interactionist perspective looks broadly at the symbols or signs, functionalist perspective, based on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Marton, looks at broader scale of social institutions such as family, education, government, religion, and economy. According to functionalist perspective, society is a system of interconnected parts that work to maintain a social equilibrium for the whole. For example, family provides a context for nurturing and socializing children; education equips them with knowledge to fit for work life; politics provides opportunity to select appropriate governing members of society; economics provides for availability of goods and services and religion provides a means for worship of a higher power. The structural functionalist perspectives focus on how each part of the society influences and be influenced by other parts. For example, the increasing number of women in the workforce has contributed to the formation of policies against sexual harassment and discrimination. The functionalist perspectives also put particular emphasis on workplace diversity in its broadest form such as issues of gender, race/ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and age. These perspectives assume that positive and negative dimensions of workplace diversity can be identified, monitored and controlled to benefit the organization. The goal of work from a functionalist perspective is to identify how workplace diversity can enhance overall organizational productivity, responsiveness and effectiveness. According to Cox (1993), managing diversity means planning and implementing organizational systems and practices to manage people so that the potential advantages of diversity are maximized while its potential disadvantages are minimized.
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However with all these advantages, functionalism does come with a set of limitations. First, in emphasizing equilibrium, integration and interdependence, functionalism fails to take into account two basic elements of social actions - change and conflict. These elements are also common to any organization and must be taken into account in the management of human resources. The focus of functionalist perspective on order, stability and predictability is ill-suited to the flexible nature of contemporary business activity required to respond to turbulence and rapid changes (Brown & Eisenhardt 1997).
A sociological theory developed in part to illustrate the limitations of structural functionalism is conflict theory. The basic idea of conflict theory is that there is competition over limited resources that result in conflict. The structural functionalists argued that society tends towards equilibrium, focusing on stability at the expense of social change. This is contrasted with the conflict approach which argues that the social structure - the relatively fixed aspects of society - is inherently unequal. However the conflict theory that emerged to illustrate the limitations of functionalist perspective has its own limitations. The primary limitation of social-conflict theory is that it overlooks the stability of societies. While society is in a constant stage of change, much of the change is minor. Many of the broader elements of society remain remarkably stable over time.
Understanding the contribution of these three theories to the effective practice of human resource management requires the findings of a link between sociology and HRM. This can best be done by exploring Performance Management. Whilst in most of the organizations, there is no such specific position for performance management; someone is designated to look after the welfare and performance of employees. This person is also engaged with setting policies and procedures in consultation with the key stakeholders who may be affected by these activities. Determining company policies and procedures is an important aspect of the personnel management process. Overseeing the emotional welfare of employees is another aspect of personnel management. A personnel manager considers a well adjusted employee as an asset to the company and as such try to ensure support or counselling for employees if needed. Counselling is like an investment that can strengthen the future relationship between the employer and the employee. An efficient human resource practitioner will understand the value of such relationship and puts effort to make this kind of support is available.
Likewise Sociology, psychology is another area that may impact the functions of a human resource management. Fitting the man to the job (FMJ) and fitting the job to the man (FJM) is a significant development work psychology, necessitated by the demands of 1st and 2nd world war when workers were required to work long hours in munitions factories. FMJ approach is concerned with recruitment, training and vocational guidance with a view to achieve an effective match between job and person. On the other hand, FJM approach is concerned more with the design of tasks, equipment and working conditions that best suit the physical and psychological characteristics of a person (Arnold et al 1998).
According to Blum and Naylor (1969) Workplace psychology can be defined as the application and extension of psychological facts and principles to the problems concerning human beings operating within the context of business and industry. Work psychology centres round the problems in a workplace and this can be described more with the three theoretical perspectives of work psychology - motivation, personality and behaviourist. Behaviourist approach, promoted by John. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, is a theory of learning based on the fact that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning that occurs through communication with the surrounding environment. Skinner's (1974) focus was on the relations between behaviour and environment and based on that he tried to analyse open and concealed behaviour as a function of the life form interacting with its environment. Our behaviour is also heavily influenced by the reinforcement in our past. For example, someone's polite behaviour may be the result of repetitive enforcement in his/her childhood for being polite. With the change in reinforcement comes the change in behaviour. For example, if employees are rewarded for coming on time, they will put their best effort to come on time and this is not an outcome of personality change, but the outcome of reinforcement. Behaviourist approach is based upon the behaviour that can be observed and this can help us to quantify and collect data for the purpose of research. That the employees' increased frequency of attending the workplace can be quantified by observing how many days in a week they are coming on time compared to the past record. However according to some critics Behaviourist approach only focuses on behaviour and does not take into consideration our freedom of choice and inner influences such as our moods, feelings and thoughts. Furthermore, it does not allow for learning that may take place without reinforcement or inflicting punishment.
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Whilst reinforcement causes changes in our behaviour, motivation also plays an important role in the way we try to do things. Motivational approach can be defined as the invigoration of goal oriented behaviour. In an organizational setting, employees are motivated by money or salary or sometimes by bonus. According to the incentive theory of motivation, an individual can be rewarded for achieving a target, which eventually can cause this achievement happen again. For example, a sales person may be rewarded with a bonus or incentive once he/she has reached their Key Performance Indicator (KPI) and this will drive that person to achieve more sales target. Sometimes a simple "Thank You" letter may prove to be as effective as monetary reward.
One of the most widely discussed theories of motivation is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. In his theory, Maslow discussed the needs of an individual with the metaphor of a pyramid in which physiological needs should be satisfied before satisfying other needs such as safety, love, esteem and self actualisation. Today's leaders and HR practitioner can be greatly benefitted by using Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory for the purpose of motivating employees - providing generous salary for the physiological needs, a safe working environment for the safety needs, promoting team building for social needs, recognizing their work for esteem and assigning more challenging work for self actualisation. Another perspective of motivation, goal setting theory proposes that an individual is sometimes driven by a pre determined goal. As long as an employee keeps himself/herself focused on that goal, they are likely to achieve success once the task is finished. Achieving goals is also closely connected to performance. Goals that are difficult to achieve and specific tend to increase performance more than goals that are not (Swezey et al 1994). However, if there is no alignment between the organizational and individual goals, performance may deteriorate.
Achieving success is also linked to personality of an individual. Whilst there is no specific definition of personality, it can be compared to a mask that we wear. According to Carver and Sheier (2000), "Personality is a dynamic organization inside the person, of psychophysical systems that create a person's characteristic patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings." Psychoanalytic perspective on personality, developed initially by Sigmund Freud, suggests that human behaviour remains largely hidden in the unconscious like an ice berg and is revealed when individuals go through a negotiation with conflicting desires. Unconscious psychological conflict can result in the reduction of personal effectiveness. Cognitive perspective is concerned with how an individual thinks, understands and solves a problem. It is also concerned with how individuals indentify, understand and analyse information. These perspectives on personality have helped the researchers develop different type of testings which can assess a candidate's personality that best suits for a job. Businesses now-a-days use personality tests and behavioural assessment to cull appropriate candidates to interview, to identify training needs for existing employees, to improve their interpersonal and communication skills and to screen for consciousness and emotional reactions. One such test is psychometric testing that comprises of written questions and is used to assess one or more aspects of a person's cognitive ability or personality.
Both psychology and sociology, to some extent, can provide guidelines for a human resource practitioner to manage their workforce. With the help of the theories of sociology and psychology, a human resource practitioner can ensure an environment where employees can compose a sense of security and confidence which can together contribute to their work performance and help the organization accomplish its goals. This is even more important during recession or economic uncertainty when decisions on restructuring, redundancy and outsourcing become a challenging task for a human resource practitioner. However, in the context of an ever changing, flexible and competitive business world, the contribution of these theories may not prove to be sufficient. One of the main reasons behind that is the time the theories were developed. Some of them were necessitated by the changing social systems caused by the turbulence of wars. Social system is never static and evolves in the course of time. Psychology of human beings, on the other hand, is heavily influenced by the changing macro environmental factors. Understanding the link between contemporary human resource issues, the current level of employees' needs including their social and psychological needs in the current context can only ensure greater success for a human resource practitioner.