Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Communicative Rules and Organizational Decision Making

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Communicative Rules and Organizational Decision Making

Article excerpt

This article suggests that managerial awareness of ordinarily unconscious communicative rules (and how these rules potentially influence decision-making processes) might help managers to be more intentional about their communicative choices and may therefore lead to better decisions. The article explores the impact of communicative rules on decision-making processes using the retrospective discourse surrounding the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger as an example case. Communicative rules may have played a part in the course of the eve of the launch debate over whether to launch the Challenger. Four potential communicative rules are identified using quotations from the presidential hearing transcripts. Being aware of communicative rules may be especially important in decision-making situations because it can enable one to make conscious choices concerning communicative behavior instead of unconsciously following intuitive social norms--norms that might have undesirable along with unintended results.

Keywords: decision making; Challenger; organizational communication; communicative rules


Communicative rules surround us and fill our communal world. We usually learn the rules naturally with little effort simply by participating in the social life of the community. Consider the following simple examples. Rule A: If one is summoned and one hears that summons, then one must respond to the summons. Rule B: If one receives a gift or a favor, then one should say "thank you." Rule C: If one is among a large group of people in a public place and the proceedings are formal and orderly, then one should raise one's hand to indicate a desire to speak. As evidenced with just a few simple examples, communicative rules, though often operating below the surface of conscious awareness, are ubiquitous.

Communicative rules are also prevalent in organizations, where not only norms concerning polite interaction are in effect but also where norms and communicative patterns emerge over time alongside and within an organizational culture. Consider a few hypothetical examples. Most organizational members learn the norm fairly quickly that if one is in a professional, business environment and one is requesting a raise from one's boss, then one must not use foul language or swear. For a slightly more in-depth example, it is fairly easy to imagine a company with an assertive, ambitious, goal-oriented culture where employees learn to "look good" by posting positive results. It is almost as easy to imagine some communicative norms developing in this culture that look something like the following. If one has positive news about increasing sales, higher profits, and so on, then one must share that news with upper management directly. If one has negative news about decreasing sales, lower profits, and so on, then one must massage that news into a more positive form before sharing it with upper management. In some cases, the second rule might even be a prohibition against sharing negative news, a norm that could significantly affect decision making. Some of these communicative rules are obvious and easily understood when identified. On the other hand, many communicative rules lie beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. These communicative rules, although hidden and unidentified, may influence communicative behaviors and choices and may therefore have unintended consequences for decision-making processes and outcomes. Managerial awareness that communicative norms exist and that these norms can significantly affect decisions has the potential to improve organizational decision-making outcomes.

One organizational decision that affected not only the people within the organization but also the lives of hundreds of people across the country was the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger. Considerable debate concerning the decision took place on the eve of the launch when Morton Thiokol Inc. …

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