Human Relations Theory: Overview


A common assumption in management today is that workers have other needs other than financial ones and that those needs must be acknowledged and taken care of by employers. This kind of thinking is derived from the human relations theory which postulates that employees are not driven by economic self interest alone but by complex values and motives. This was radically different from scientific management which held that workers were part of organisational machinery and that their production was directly linked to pay. The paper shall look at the reasons behind the emergence of human relation theory and how this was different from classical theory like scientific management; the benefits of this theory shall also be examined.

The reason for human relations theory being a new form of management

Classical theories of management had drastically failed at the time when human relations theories were being developed. Most workers who operated in scientific management environments tended to feel that they lacked control at their workplace. This was largely brought on by top level decisions making abilities at their organisations and also the overemphasis on physical aspects of production alone. There was a need to deal with this situation; hence the creation of human relations theory. Workers needed to feel like they were part of the organisation by being allowed to take part in decision making, communication and other non task related aspects of the organisation’s functions. (Dubri, 2008)

Scientific management had also failed in motivating their workers since most of them were recording less than optimum production. Workers were bored by their tasks as they had been reduced to nothing more than parts of the entire organisational machinery. This was seen through continuous absenteeism as well as low physical output from the workers. It could be seen that finances were not a good enough incentive for the concerned workers as they would not be producing such poor results at work.

Human relations theory management was therefore a new form of management as it introduced a concept in which employees could be seen from a new light. First of all, it accepted the fact that the mere process of giving attention to workers was a way of changing their behaviour for the better. These sentiments were not widely believed by supervisors who prescribed to the scientific management school of thought. Aside from that, human relations theory also emphasised the importance of the relationship between workers and supervisors. Here, it was postulated that if the quality of interrelationships in an organisation was good enough, then this could be translated into effective work output. Also, decision making processes were placed at the heart of organisational functions. All these issues were radically new in management.

Human relations theory was also a new form of management because it recognised two parts of the organisational machinery i.e. the formal and informal aspects. Other classical theories like scientific management tended to focus on only formal elements where the latter elements were highly structured, definite and had a common purpose. On the other hand, the new form of management i.e. human relations theory also introduced the informal organisation where several interactions between parties were acknowledged. (Brandt & Reece, 2006) This was based on the fact that almost all firms have a history in which the morals, customs, social norms and ideas of the parties in the organisation have contributed to current conditions. Therefore, there are a series of structure less subdivisions that influence employee behaviour and these have taken centre stage within the human relations theory.

Cooperation was not a critical component in classical theories such as scientific management. However, human relations theory introduced this element in management. This is seen as the total satisfaction and dissatisfactions that workers go through in their current circumstances as compared to alternative opportunities. Human relations adherents assert that a cooperative organisation was one that attempted to bridge the gap between these two aspects. Once again, the latter created a different perception of how management was seen. The importance of communication was also brought out in human relations theory since without it, it is almost impossible for cooperation to exist. The latter theory brought in some new light on the topic because in the past, there were no accounts given for communication that could enhance relationship formation. It therefore became necessary to introduce a new management technique that acknowledged the relationship between communication recipients, communicators as well as the kind of communication itself. (Rose, 2005)

Prior to introduction of the human relation theory, greater emphasis was given to the importance of authority over leadership. In this regard, one’s knowledge and ability took greater precedence than one’s leadership ability. However, the human relations theory changed all this when it was suggested that an organisation had a much higher chance of succeeding if leadership took greater precedence over position.

Human relations theory also emphasised the importance of assumptions existent in an organisation. This was something that had not been considered before. Every organisation tends to have boundaries and these boundaries are normally set by employees. When new ones join an organisation, there are certain expectations that they immediately learn from their surrounding and this is what forms the backbone of their actions in the future. Some things are automatically done by employees since this is what falls within their organisational boundaries. On the other hand, there are other times when workers can question such roles and it therefore becomes difficult to implement any of them. This means that other factors have come into play. Human relations theory introduced this new concept on employee behaviour and therefore went a long way in encouraging organisations to make such improvements. (Hamilton, 2007)

Before human relations theories, it had been assumed that all people tend to have a dislike for work. It was therefore the prerogative of management to direct, control, coerce and threaten employees with punishment so that they could get them to work. Additionally, scientific management theories assume that the average worker was not ambitious enough; he seeks as little responsibility as possible and all that he or she is after is security. However, human relations theory sought to get rid of such thinking by asserting that punishment or control from above were not effective strategies in management. In other words, most average workers actually accept responsibility and frequently look for it if they are operating under conducive environments. Human relations theory also asserted that commitment to company objectives can also be seen as a form of reward linked to achievement. In this theory, it was assumed that various workers have the capacity to become creative and hence offer solutions to organisational problems. This should not just be a reserve for supervisors. In line with the latter was the fact that a huge chunk of human intellectual capability is underutilised by most organisations and that the key to success among these enterprises lies in adequately tapping those resources. All such perspectives were related to human nature and they were all new in the field of management. (Gabris, 2008)

Extent to which the human relations theory was a departure from scientific management

Human relations theory traces back its origins from the early twentieth century especially the nineteen twenties. At that time, some researchers called Roethlisberger and Mayo were conducting a study latter classified under the Hawthorne studies on factors that affect production. They had a control group and an experimental one that both worked in a factory. In the latter group lighting was increased and it was found that productivity went up. However, when it was also decreased, their productivity went up. Consequently, the researchers were shocked to realise that regardless of what they did to the lighting, worker’s output still increased. They later concluded that workers would alter their behaviour at work for the better as long as they felt that they had the interest of their superiors. In other words, they found that there was more to motivation than any kind of fiscal terms. Later, on, other Hawthorne studies revealed that there was a complex interplay of sentiments, feelings, power struggles, conflicts and other informal systems that affected how workers performed. These studies were a serious departure from the conventional assumptions in the nineteen twenties and before. This was because they embraced the role of interpersonal relationships and human relations in general

Scientific management was the prevailing theory and it did not acknowledge any of the latter factors. Instead, scientific management focused on the task function in communication. Communication between staff and their superiors was largely done as part of the productivity cycle and its efficiency was also analysed from this perspective. On the other hand, human relations theory introduced a new way of looking at the functions of communication as it added maintenance as well as relational functions. Managers now realised that they had to communicate to their workers in order to boost these two new changes. What this implies is that in human relations theory, emphasis of the manager’s job is on the worker while in Taylor’s theory of scientific management, emphasis is given to the tasks to be undertaken by employees.

Scientific management considered human related issues as an obstacle to production and its focus was on controlling or going beyond these humanistic needs. The theories were designed to control behaviour of workers by maintaining predictability of actions. More often than not, this could be done through punishment, coercion and control. On the other hand, human relations theory did not seek to eliminate social relationships but it looked towards embracing and using it to increase effectiveness of the organisation. It acknowledged that organisational success was dependant upon good social relationships and the well being of one’s employees. Issues of coercion or punishment do not take as much precedence as they do in scientific management. (Dubri, 2008)

Scientific management also places the burden of decision making squarely on the hands of top management. Employees at lower level positions are supposed to give minimal input in the decision making process and a lot of bureaucracy is therefore quite prevalent in such kinds of environments. On the other hand, organisations that apply the human relations theory tend to utilise the resources of all their employees. In other words, workers can give in their suggestions, complaints, feelings, satisfaction as well as other related matters. In the end, it is common to find that such workers record greater productions and satisfaction as they perform their duties.

Human relations theory deferred substantially from scientific management theory in terms of the value of the workers. In scientific management, workers were assessed only as a result of the contributions that they could make to a certain organisation. In other words, those workers who did not live up to the expectations of management were frequently removed from the organisation. Human relations theory adherents instead proposed a new approach to contributions of workers. They suggested that cognitive, creative and emotional components of work were just as important as the physical contributions made by those workers. Consequently, their worth to the organisation should not just be judged through physical assessments only as in scientific management but other elements also had to be considered. In fact, the human relations theory wanted a departure from the use of science as a way to guide behaviour and emphasised the importance of sociological factors. (Rose, 2005)

Advantages of human relations theory

Thanks to the human relation theory, it is now possible for managers to utilise fully the human resources available to them. This is because human relations theory emphasises the need to tap both creative and physical resources within an organisation. Additionally, some of the most creative ideas can be found from average workers. Consequently, the human relations theory can assist organisations to carry this forward now and in the future. Through the latter theory, firms also came to realise that most decisions can be made effectively without involvement of top management since the persons who can be directly affected by them are usually subordinates.

The human relations theory also brought out the relations between performance and employee satisfaction. In other words, it is able to show how morale or improved satisfaction can cause increases in control and decision making. Studies have shown that when employees are genuinely heard and involved in organisational decisions, then this increases their feelings of control in their organisation as most of tem feel valued. In the end, performance output heightens. Companies that operate under such assumptions are likely to witness the latter results and this is definitely a plus for them.

Perhaps one of the major advantages of the human relation theories is the concern for people that is advocated very strongly. Through this theory, the self esteem of workers can drastically go up. It also fosters trust and accountability within an organisation, personal commitment to the job is increased and interpersonal relations of workers are also improved. All these issues ensure that employees’ concerns have been met adequately unlike classical theories. (Dalton & Watts, 2004)

Through human relations theory, the issues of compromise and cooperation are also promoted within most organisations. In other words, employers and employees both look for ways in which they can meet each other’s needs. This theory does not ignore the informal elements of an organisation and therefore takes up a more holistic role in dealing with some of the challenges existent within an organisation.


Human relations theory diverged drastically from scientific management owing to the fact that they emphasise more on the needs of the worker rather than the needs of the organisation. When employees are involved in decisions, control and other non task related activities, then chances are that they feel more valued and this eventually leads to higher productivity levels amongst them. This theory is quite important in motivating employees and has formed a very important aspect of effective management within various organisations.


Brandt, R. & Reece, B. (2006). Effective human relations. London: McMillan.

Dalton, M. & Watts, M. (2004). Human relations. NY: Routledge.

Dubri, A. (2008). Interpersonal job oriented skills. Oxford: OUP.

Gabris, G. (2008). Human relations management theory. DeKalb: Illinois University publishers.

Hamilton, V. (2007). Human relations: building effective workplace relationships. NY: Wiley and Sons.

Rose, N. (2005). Human relations theory [online]. Web.

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