Like most of us I soaked up much of the analysis carried in journals about
the achievements at the end of the last millennium. Due weight was given to
technology and science, innovations and communications. But it struck me that
there was very little about the growth in understanding human relationships and
ways in which they can be improved. It was almost the opposite – the breakdown
I ended up feeling that, yet again, we were undervaluing the progress made
in the field of human relationships. Who in 1980, for instance, could have pre-
dicted perestroika in the then Soviet Union, truth and reconciliation in South
Africa and the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland?
Closer to home in HR terms, the situation that motivated me in the 1970s to
specialise in industrial relations – perennial unrest, dysfunctional
relationships on a collective scale – will be unknown to the HR manager of the
The truth is we now know so much more about how to get it right. A hundred
years ago the debate was over whether labour had any claim on capital and
whether free trade or import tariffs should rule the day. There was nothing
about necessary progress in relationships.
Now we understand that the key issues in collective relationships are not
about structural factors or agitator theory, as we believed 30 years ago, but
about trust, involvement, partnerships, personal relationships, openness and
emotional commitment. In personal relationships we know how to get teams to
work together but the application of basic psychology and sociology is still
the exception, not the rule.
This new decade should be about applying what is known about interpersonal
relationships. But how? This is where HR can enter from off-stage. This can be
the unique contribution of HR in being proactive about raising the level of
consciousness and debate over relationships and the benefits of getting them
I predict that if HR is not centre stage in seizing the opportunity to focus
on strategy and change in improving one-to-one and team relationships, then it
will be condemned to the shallows and miseries. While others take the
initiative, HR will be left to pick up the pieces.
This means that the critical competence for the would-be successful HR
manager is risk-taking, not with peoples’ jobs or lives but because there is
much persuasion of other colleagues to do, much competition for scarce
This leaves me with a final thought. No one questioned the huge expenditure
in freeing us from the Millennium Bug. Will the same licence be given to
freeing organisations from dysfunctional human behaviour?
By Professor Clive Morton