The Human Relations Approach
What Conrad & Poole (1998) refer to as a "relational strategy of organizing" is more commonly called the "human relations approach" or "human relations school" of management by organizational theorists. This human relations approach can be seen as being almost entirely antithetical to the principles of classical management theory. Where classical management focused on the rationalization of work routines, human relations approaches stressed the accommodation of work routines and individual emotional and relational needs as a means of increasing productivity. To a great extent, the human relations approach can be seen as a response to classical management -- an attempt to move away from the inflexibility of classical management approaches.

The human relations approach can also be seen as a response to a highly charged and polarized social climate in which labor and management were viewed as fundamentally opposed to one another, and communism was seen as a very real and immediate danger to the social order -- the notion of class struggle propounded by Marxist theorists was taken very seriously. By focusing on the extent to which workers and managers shared economic interests in the success of the organization, the human relations approach can be seen as an attempt to move beyond the class struggle idea. Of course, the human relations approach (which really emerged in the late 1930s) was made possible by the fairly coercive suppression of the most radical organized labor movements. The sidebar describes one such movement, and is provided in order to indicate the social climate extant in the period immediately preceding the emergence of the human relations approach.

In essence, the human relations approach sees the organization as a cooperative enterprise wherein worker morale is a primary contributor to productivity, and so seeks to improve productivity by modifying the work environment to increase morale and develop a more skilled and capable worker.

The Human Relations Approach: Basic Principles

The basic principles of the human relations approach are as follows:

(1) Decentralization -- The strict notion of hierarchy employed by classical management theorists is replaced with the idea that individual workers and functional areas (i.e., departments) should be given greater autonomy and decision-making power. This requires greater emphasis on lateral communication so that coordination of efforts and resources can occur. This communication occurs via informal communication channels rather than the formal, hierarchical ones.

(2) Participatory Decision-Making -- Decision-making is participatory in the sense that those making decisions on a day-to-day basis include line workers not normally considered to be "management." The greater autonomy afforded individual employees -- and the subsequent reduction in "height" and increase in span of control of the organizational structure -- requires that they have the knowledge and ability to make their own decisions and the communication skill to coordinate their efforts with others without a nearby supervisor.

(3) Concern for Developing Self-Motivated Employees -- The emphasis on a system of decentralized and autonomous decision-making by members of the organization requires that those members be highly "self-motivated" (that is, able to set their own task-related goals and monitor their own performance in achieving them). So one goal of managers in such an organization is to design and implement organizational structures that reward such self-motivation and autonomy. Another is to negotiate working relationships with subordinates that foster effective communication in both directions.

Thus, the human relations approach suggests changes in the structure of the organization itself, in the nature of work, and in the relationship between supervisor and subordinate. Each of these changes relies upon assumptions about the individual, the organization, and communication -- just like any other theory of organizations. What are these assumptions? From your reading of Conrad & Poole (1998), can you identify them?

In-Class Exercise: The Human Relations Paradigm

Instructions: Working alone or in groups, identify the fundamental assumptions about the nature of the individual, the organization, and communication that is made by proponents of a "relational strategy of organizing."

The Individual

The Organization


Human Relations Approaches and Organizational Structure

Human relations approaches assume that hierarchy is not the most efficient or effective way to structure an organization. Instead, a relational strategy emphasizes the necessity of informal communication to make sure that the interdependent functions of an organization are successfully coordinated. Likert's (1961) "System Four"(1) model of functional groups connected by "linking pins" with dual membership is an example of such a strategy, which attempts to "build in" informal communication.

Human Relations Approaches and the Nature of Work

The emphasis on individual autonomy and participatory decision-making ("PDM") is accompanied in human relations approaches by efforts to enlarge and enrich the jobs that are performed by workers. That is, instead of simplifying and systematizing work routines, as in scientific management, human relations approaches argue that individuals require jobs that are sufficiently challenging and complex so as to engage the worker, provide novelty and opportunities to succeed, grow, and learn. Workers are expected, in other words, to take on more responsibilities and to be able to handle ambiguously defined or complex tasks.

Human Relations Approaches and Supervisor-Subordinate Relations

Transactional Leadership. Calling leadership a "transactional" process implies that it is a two-way street, involving some type of negotiation or exchange between the leader and the follower. Specifically, transactional leadership involves the negotiation of communication and work routines on a case-by-case basis between a leader and each of his or her subordinates. If the subordinate needs guidance or training, the leader provides it. If he or she needs a sounding board or someone to vent to, the leader serves that purpose. If he or she just needs occasional pats on the back or "attaboys" or "attagirls," then that's what the leader does.

Contingency Theories of Leadership. A "contingency theory" is one that suggests that a particular outcome is the product of the interaction of multiple factors. Contingency theories of leadership investigate the factors that affect how successful a particular leadership style is.

According to one leadership theory, leadership outcomes depend upon (1) quality of the relationship between the leader and his or her subordinates, (2) how structured the task the leader's group has to perform is, and (3) the formal power or authority invested in or delegated to the leader. The combination of different values for these factors influences what "leadership orientation" will be most effective in achieving the group's task goals.

Fiedler's (1967) Contingency Theory of Leadership Effectiveness(2)
Leader-Member Relation Quality Task Structure Leader Power Effective Leader Orientation
Structured Strong Task-Oriented
Weak Task-Oriented
Unstructured Strong Task-Oriented
Weak Relationship-Oriented
Structured Strong Relationship-Oriented
Weak Relationship-Oriented
Unstructured Strong Relationship-Oriented
Weak Task-Oriented

"Leader-Member Relation Quality" refers to the amount of mutual trust, respect, and so forth that exists between the leader and his or her subordinates. Leader-member relation quality is either "good" or "poor."

"Task Structure" refers to how well-defined the task facing the leader and his or her subordinates is. This depends upon a number of contributing factors, includings (a) the clarity of its goals, (b) how many different courses of action can result in task completion (path-multiplicity), (c) to what extent the outcome of a particular course of action can be determined (effect verifiability), and (d) how specific a decision as to a course of action the group must make (specificity). Tasks are structured when goals are clear, few alternative courses of action exist, effects of choices are easily verified, and specific decisions are required. Tasks are unstructured when such is not the case.

"Leader Power" refers to amount of authority invested in the leader's position.

Under different sets of conditions, Fiedler argues, different "leadership orientations" are more effective. In some situations, task orientation is called for, where the leader emphasizes "traditional" leadership functions of organizing, commanding, controlling, and coordinating. In other situations, a relational orientation is required, where the leader focuses on providing subordinates with the autonomy to make their own decisions and encourages informal communication geared toward both building group cohesiveness and coordinating their activities. Can you describe the sort of situation that would call for task-oriented leadership? Can you describe the sort of situation that would call for relationally-oriented leadership?

Other contingency theories include House's (1971) "path-goal theory"(3) which suggests that leaders can maximize their subordinates' job satisfaction by using different communication strategies depending upon the complexity of the task and the extent to which performing the task is a satisfying activity (high or low "intrinsic reward"). Note that the definition of "leadership effectiveness" used here is "the extent to which a leader's activities increase subordinate satisfaction" -- not productivity.
High Intrinsic Reward Low Intrinsic Reward
High Complexity Directive

Provides structure and offers clarification when possible.


Consults subordinates for ideas and suggestions.

Low Complexity Achievement-Oriented

Sets challenging goals and monitors performance.


Offers support to offset job frustration.

Other contingency theories link the leader's strategies with the characteristics of the follower:(4)
Follower Characteristics Willing Unwilling
Able "Delegating" "Participating"
Unable "Selling" "Telling"

More Literature Review Guidance

A student sent me e-mail with this question:

I have a question. I went over the directions that you gave out for the literature review several times, and I'm still kind of puzzled as to how to go about figuring out a topic. You had mentioned that it could deal with a particular industry, so I had been thinking about doing mine on some aspect of the sports industry. I'm really not sure as to how I am supposed to be looking at it next. What kind of step am I supposed to take next?

This was how I answered that question:

Having decided that what you're interested in is some aspect of the sports industry, what you need to do is start asking yourself some questions to try to home in on something that you'll be interested in following up on.

Remember that the course is about organizational communication theory, and so at the broadest level, your "org. comm. problem" is "How can theories about (and research into) organizational communication help me understand what occurs in the sports industry?"

So, first, you need to think about what exactly you mean by the sports industry. Do you mean the game-playing organizations themselves -- the ones that recruit, train, and field athletes, sell tickets, promote games, and so forth? Do you mean the organizations that manufacture and market sporting gear to professional and amateur athletes? Do you mean the industry of advertising, marketing, and promoting athletes as celebrities, endorsers, and so forth? Some combination of the above? Or something else?

Once you've articulated what you mean by "sports industry," you should then ask yourself "How do the characteristics of the sports industry tie back in to the perspectives on organizational communication that the textbook talks about?" That will lead you to a basic "organizational communication problem" that you can then refine as the semester progresses.

For example, let's say you decide you want to focus on the "sports industry" as being the sports leagues and the teams of which those leagues are comprised. What is unique, different, or notable about these organizations? You might say, well, those players aren't typical employees -- they're fairly highly paid in most cases, they have the potential to leverage their position as "pro athlete" into celebrity and even higher income, and they can't count on very long careers -- a 40 year-old athlete is a rarity, after all.

So how does this tie back in to organizational communication as we've been talking about it? Well, remember that we talked about the three perspectives on organizations that Conrad & Poole feel are important. Try to think about what questions emerge from seeing the sports industry through the lens of those perspectives. For example, you can ask: "How do pro athletes' career expectations influence the strategies they employ in making career decisions?" [Strategic Perspective] You can ask, "What are the athletic values or norms that athletes apply to interacting with each other and with their organizations?" [Contextualized Perspective] You can ask "What patterns of information exchange and relational influence exist among athletes and their coaches and managers?" [Network Perspective]. (Remember that these are just examples).

Having picked a question that brings together a topic that you're interested in with some organizational communication dimension, you'll have a better idea of what to look for when you finally go out and search the literature. Say you pick the second question, which basically asks about the effects of "athletic culture" on the organizational life within the sports industry. Now you can look for articles that (a) talk about "athletic culture," if such a thing can be said to exist, (b) talk about the effects of culture on organizations in general -- you don't need to limit yourself to stuff that talks about the "sports industry"; you can use articles that use as their basis industries that have similar structures or properties as the sports industry does (any entertainment industry, really), or (c) talk about coach-athlete or teammate-teammate interactions.

If you find too much, you can narrow down your question to focus on a particular aspect. If you find too little, you can broaden your question. If you find stuff that addresses the topic from a somewhat different perspective, you can shift the emphasis or focus of your question to follow it.

Really it's just a matter of sitting down and asking, "Well, what do I think is going on here?" and then going out and looking for stuff that can answer questions that emerge from what you think.

I think that many people probably have the same question as this student did, and so I'm giving you the same guidance, in the hopes that it will prove helpful to you.


1. Likert, R. (1961). New patterns of management. New York: McGraw-Hill.

2. Fiedler, F.E. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

3. House, R.J. (1971). A path-goal theory of leadership effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16, 321-339.

4. Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K. (1977). Management of organizational behavior (3rd ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall).