Human Relations vs. Social Systems Theory 1

In grad school, I studied Organizational Communication under Dr. Shirley Drew at Pittsburg State University‘s Communication Department. Below is the second part of my response to a final question about persuasion and human attitude theory.


Since classical theories of organizations were proposed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several other theories have been developed in an attempt to look at organizations from different perspectives. These perspectives are theorists’ answers to questions that did not fit into the traditional understanding of organizations with the hope of achieving better understanding and explanation of why organizations are organized, function or reach entropy the way they do.

While classical theory was very mechanical and focused on the machine-like qualities of the parts of an organization, theorists made a distinct swing away from this generally inflexible, non-communicative perspective with the introduction of the Human Relations Theory of organization.

Human Relations Theory of organization was developed, in part, as a result of an observation that researchers made while conducting a study of the effect of lighting on workers in a factory. This study, known as the Hawthorne Studies, showed that workers work better, are more productive, and seem to gain more satisfaction from their work when they feel important. In this case they felt important simply because they were being studied. As theorists expanded on this study, the Human Relations Theory was developed as a strong focus on self-actualization of the individual by encouraging the individual to work with the attainment of basic needs as a reward. As the organizational theory’s focus turned from the production or attainment of organizational goals to the betterment and fulfillment of the individual, opposing scholars and critics voiced their concerns. Some thought human relations theorists were too focused on giving employees a good feeling about themselves. In part this aspect of Human Relations Theory may have been a contributing factor to the development of the Social Systems Theory that turned again toward viewing organizations not as a machine but more as an organism of parts that are all working together for the common purpose.

Read on about Social Systems Theory.