Human Relations vs. Social Systems Theory 2

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 human relations and social systems theories applied to organizational communication.

To read the first part of this discussion click here.


Social System Theory of organization examined organizations much as an organism and was applied to many other fields of research including biology. One of the proposals of Social System Theory of organization is the idea that the parts of an organization are non-summative or synergistic. That is, the results are not only the sum of the parts but are greater than the sum because the parts contributed together. This aspect of Social System Theory agrees with the second of two theories proposed by human relations theorist McGregor.

Another aspect of Human Relations Theory was based on the opposing theories proposed by McGregor: Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X indicated that workers must he coerced to work, they are basically lazy, and they do not want to work. Theory Y suggested that workers do not necessarily view work as a negative thing, they can set their own goals, they have ambition, and they each have something to contribute to the organization if allowed. This contribution of the individual parts, according to Social System Theory is what makes the organization synergistic while it also creates a sense of self-actualization–the goal of Human Relations Theory–as the parts or workers accomplish things together for the good of the organization.

This brings out another similarity of these two perspectives. Social Systems Theory suggests that there is a homeostatic balance that the organization is seeking through the use of feedback loops that help to limit deviation from the norm. These feedback loops included vertical and horizontal communication to avoid deviation.

Communication between management and subordinates was one way in Classical Theory but Human Relations Theory freed communication within the organization to give employees a sense of working “with”, not “under” the management.

An aspect that varied between Human Relations and Social Systems theories was the re-organization factor Social Systems Theory suggested. The desire for negative entropy promoted re-organization to keep the organization from dissolving or becoming ineffective. Human Relations Theory did not address the tendency for organizations to become disorganized.

The strengths of these theories vary as well:

  • For Human Relations Theory the strength is in the recognition of workers as individuals with needs and an attempt at responding to those needs.
  • For Social Systems Theories the strength is found in the understanding of the organization as a living thing that is continually trying to organize itself (when allowed by the organizational structure itself) and maintain a constant norm that is considered productive and helpful to all involved–a type of productive survival.

Human Relations Theory is weak in the area that brought it the most criticism–a lack of task focus due to an emphasis on individual care. Human Relations Theory needed to exhibit a greater sense of structure that both helped the individual achieve self actualization goals while connecting those goals with the goals of the organization to survive. Social Systems Theory had fewer weaknesses particularly since it could learn from the mistakes of both Classical and Human Relations theories that had come before. Still, Social Systems Theory did not account for the organizational factors that do not necessarily make sense to the observer unless that observer has become part of the organization’s culture itself. Theorists attempted to address these weaknesses with the development of Organizational Culture Theory of organization.

After reviewing both Human Relations and Social Systems theories, I conclude that Human Relations Theory would produce the most information in a study about an organization because it seems to have more of an open ended and even psychological approach to understanding why organizations are structured the way they are. While Social Systems Theory may provide more specific information that can be categorized about the development of a structure and the accomplishment of purpose, Human Relations Theory would provide as much a variety of data as there are individuals in the organization. The individual and the needs of those individuals are the focus of this theoretical perspective. Social Systems Theory would provide much information but it would be more categorized and specific to the questions that Social Systems Theory answers about the survival and re-organization of each organization.

While Human Relations Theory of organization would provide a greater amount of information about the individual needs, desires, goals, and purposes of the members of an organization, I suggest that any researcher consider carefully what the original purpose of their study is before deciding upon a theoretical perspective merely because it would provide more information. The chosen perspective should help the researcher to understand the aspects of the organization that are important to the research questions being asked.