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.

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.