2 Chapter 2: The Critical Approach & Human Relations School

The Critical Approach

The critical approach to studying and understanding organizational communication are nested in the idea that power is not equally distributed.  This imbalance of power creates a hierarchy that can be seen in both society as a whole and in the workplace.  The overarching goal of the critical approach is to uncover the reasons for the imbalanced power and bring those causes to the attention of the oppressed so that they can push for power equalization in their organization.

As someone who will be entering the job market in the near future, it is important to understand the critical approach to organizational communication.  The traditional power hierarchy is still very common in the workplace.  If you are capable of critically analyzing the communication in your workplace you may be able to improve the overall effectiveness of the organization’s communication.  Before you are ready to employ the critical approach, you must first have a grasp of the concepts that it consists of.

There are five key concepts to take into consideration when utilizing the critical approach.  They consist of: power, ideology, hegemony, emancipation, and resistance.  By breaking them down and understanding each of them, you can have a much better idea of how to employ the critical approach to organizational communication.  It is important to understand all five of the concepts and how they work together because they often form somewhat of a step-by-step process and build off of one another.

The Pervasiveness of Power

Power is arguably the most important of the concepts as it is what drives the critical approach.  Whoever is in the position of power can drive and control the organization.  Corporate structure and relationships play a large role in creating positions of power.  This is easily seen in the classic corporate hierarchy where everyone reports to someone else all the way up to the CEO who is in control of the organization.  With these hierarchies, the CEO is the person behind all of the decisions and he or she has the final say on everything in the organization.  The end goal is to be the person with the power which can lead to cutthroat promotion hunting and great stress in the workplace.


Ideology are the things that we take for granted on a daily basis and give very little thought to, even though they shape who we are and how we act.  Ideology are what we use to determine good from bad, right from wrong, normal from strange, and so on.  There is a common ideology that hierarchy is not only normal- but necessary for an organization to function.  This gives rise to the supervisor-subordinate relationship that can be found in almost every organization.  These relationships where someone has power over the other are accepted because it is been instilled in them as an ideology.  The eventual goal would be to eliminate that ideology to disperse the power in the organization more evenly.


Hegemony is the idea that a group can instill an idea as the norm into a subordinate group.  This is seen in the workplace when a group that supervises another group plants the idea that it is normal for the subordinate group to answer to the supervising group.  The end result is that the people in the subordinate group believe that they are supposed to be controlled by the group above them and they don’t resist the idea because it feels normal.


Emancipation is the overarching goal of the critical approach.  Emancipation occurs when the subordinate group is freed from unnecessary power relationships, oppressing ideologies, or false hegemony.  If the emancipation is successful, the subordinate group will be able to communicate more freely about the power struggles and oppression that they may feel in the workplace.  It does not mean that they are no longer in a subordinate position, just that their voices are heard and they carry some weight in decision making.


Resistance is the way in which the subordinate group counteracts power relationships.  On the large scale, resistance consists of strikes and boycotts, but it happens more frequently on a small scale with things like sarcastic communication behind the scenes or witty office decorations that promote resistant concepts.



A short lecture on the role of the Frankfurt School in 20th-century thought.



An introduction to the basic concepts and influential theorists in the work of British Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 1980s.




Human Relations School

Because classical management was so mechanical and did not treat people as humans, organizational scholars wanted to focus on the human elements of organizations. The human relations approach focuses on how organizational members relate to one another, and how individuals’ needs influence their performance in organizations. In 1924 Elton Mayo and his team of Harvard scientists began a series of studies that were initially interested in how to modify working conditions to increase worker productivity, decrease employee turnover, and change the overall poor organizational effectiveness at the Hawthorne Electric Plant near Chicago (Roethlisberger & Dickson).

Mayo’s team discovered that, no matter what changes they made to the work environment (such as adjusting lighting and temperature levels, work schedules, and worker isolation), worker productivity increased simply due to the fact that researchers were paying attention to them. Simply paying attention to workers and addressing their social needs yielded significant changes in their productivity. This is where the term “The Hawthorne Effect” developed. Mayo’s work provided an impetus for a new way of looking at workers in organizations.

Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that human beings are actually motivated to satisfy their personal needs. His theory is still of interest to us today as we try to comprehend the relevance of human relations in the workplace. Papa, Daniels and Spiker s describe McGregor’s contributions: “As management theorists became familiar with Maslow’s work, they soon realized the possibility of connecting higher-level needs to worker motivation. If organizational goals and individual needs could be integrated so that people would acquire self-esteem and, ultimately, self-actualization through work, then motivation would be self-sustaining” (33). Remember that Theory X managers do not trust their employees because they think workers are inherently unmotivated and lazy. At the other end of the managerial spectrum, Theory Y managers (those that take a human relations perspective to employees) assume that workers are self-motivated, seek responsibility, and want to achieve success. As a result of this changing perspective, managers began to invite feedback and encourage a degree of participation in organizational decision-making, thus focusing on human relationships as a way to motivate employee productivity. Today many companies make employees happy by keeping them well-rested and supplying them with ways to catch up on sleep even at work.

Human Resources Perspective

The Human Resources perspective picks up where human relations left off. The primary criticism of human relations was that it still focused on productivity, trying to achieve worker productivity simply by making workers happy. The idea that a happy employee would be a productive employee makes initial sense. However, happiness does not mean that we will be productive workers. As a matter of fact, an individual can be happy with a job and not work very hard. Another reason scholars tried to improve the human relations perspective was because manipulative managers misused it by inviting participation from employees on the surface, but not really doing anything with the employees’ contributions. Imagine your boss encouraging everyone to put their ideas into a suggestion box but never looking at them. How would you feel?

Human Resources attempts to truly embrace participation by all organizational members, viewing each person as a valuable human resource. Employees are valuable resources that should be fully involved to manifest their abilities and productivity. Using this approach, organizations began to encourage employee participation in decision-making.

An example of the human resources perspective is William Ouchi’s Theory Z. Ouchi believed that traditional American organizations should be more like Japanese organizations. Japanese culture values lifetime employment, teamwork, collective responsibility, and a sound mind and body. This contrasts with many American work values such as short-term employment, individualism, and non-participation. Many U.S. companies implemented Japanese organizational concepts such as quality circles (QC), quality of work-life (QWL) programs, management by objectives (MBO), and W. E. Deming’s notion of total quality management (TQM). Each of these approaches was designed to flatten hierarchies, increase participation, implement quality control, and utilize teamwork. Human Resources works “by getting organizational participants meaningfully involved in the important decisions that regulate the enterprise” (Brady 15).




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The human relations theory of management began development in the early 1920’s during the industrial revolution. At that time, productivity was the focus of business. Professor Elton Mayo began his experiments (the Hawthorne Studies), to prove the importance of people for productivity – not machines.

The human relations management theory is a researched belief that people desire to be part of a supportive team that facilitates development and growth. Therefore, if employees receive special attention and are encouraged to participate, they perceive their work has significance, and they are motivated to be more productive, resulting in high quality work. The following human relations management theory basics became evident during human relation studies:

1. Individual attention and recognition align with the human relations theory.

2. Many theorists supported the motivational theory.

3. Studies supported the importance of human relations in business.


Elton Mayo: Human Relations Theory, Hawthorne (UPSC Public Administration by Ashish)

This is Part 1 of the two-part session on Elton Mayo, and deals with Hawthorne Experiments conducted by Mayo and his team over a period of 10 years.


Link to Part 2:




This is the official website for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This is the world’s largest association devoted to human resource management. SHRM provides resources, global best practices, and a network of valuable contacts to more than 5,000 members in over 140 countries.



The Free Management Library provides free, easy-to-access, online articles to develop yourself, other individuals, groups, and organizations (whether the organization is for-profit or nonprofit). Over the past 15 years, the Library has grown to be one of the world’s largest well-organized collections of these types of articles and resources.





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Organizational Communication COMM 3893 & MGT 3123 Copyright © 2017 by Julie Zink, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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