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Was that logical? Demonstrating decision-making
constraints in the contemporary workplace
Ashley K. Barrett & Melissa Murphy
To cite this article: Ashley K. Barrett & Melissa Murphy (2019) Was that logical? Demonstrating
decision-making constraints in the contemporary workplace environment, Communication Teacher,
33:4, 309-314, DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2019.1575426
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2019.1575426
Published online: 15 Apr 2019.
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ORIGINAL TEACHING IDEA—UNIT
Was that logical? Demonstrating decision-making constraints
in the contemporary workplace environment
Ashley K. Barrett
and Melissa Murphy
Department of Communication, Baylor University, Waco, USA;
McCombs Business School, University of
Texas at Austin, Austin, USA
Courses: Organizational Communication, Small Group
Communication, Organizational Decision-making, and
Objective: The objectives of this activity are twofold: (1) to engage
students in the practice of small-group decision making bounded by
temporal, situational, and cognitive constraints; and (2) to
demonstrate how these constraints inﬂuence the success of small-
group decision making by facilitating logical, illogical, or
Received 1 September 2017
Accepted 8 June 2018
Introduction and rationale
Research in small-group decision making has typically described decision making as an
interactive process, falling on a continuum from logical to illogical reasoning, or analogical
in nature (Simon, 1987). Decision making is characterized as more logical when the
process unfolds according to a series of linear, rational stages wherein members of the
group (1) deﬁne the problem, (2) formulate criteria for potential solutions, (3) generate
potential solutions, (4) conduct a cost–beneﬁt analysis of each potential solution, and
(5) select the optimal solution (see Hirokawa & Gouran, 1989; Nutt, 1993). On the
other hand, illogical (or less logical) decision making is not based on pure rationality
due to several constraints in the decision-making environment. For example, March
and Simon’s(1958)“satisﬁcing”model describes how, rather than pursuing an optimal
solution, decision makers often settle for a “good enough”solution. Although humans
try to make logical, rational decisions, our rationality is bounded by cognitive (i.e. personal
biases), temporal (i.e. deadlines), and situational (i.e. place and space) constraints. These
cognitive and practical limitations can result in lower gradations of rationality in the
Similarly, Simon (1987) later oﬀers what he calls an intuitive process of organizational
decision making in which decision makers rely on analogical reasoning to pinpoint a sol-
ution quickly when confronted with temporal constraints. Analogical reasoning entails
recalling similar decisions that have been successfully made in the past and using them
as an analogy for current decision-making needs. To elaborate, managers often use
© 2019 National Communication Association
CONTACT Ashley K. Barrett Abarrett.firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Communication, Baylor University, One Bear
Place #97368 Waco, TX 76798-7368
2019, VOL. 33, NO. 4, 309–314
their professional judgment that has accumulated over time—derived from their extended
knowledge and past experiences—to make quick decisions in the present (Simon, 1987).
Given advances in organizational technology and the ever-increasing distributed nature
of work, today’s organizational environment is riddled with an unprecedented number of
cognitive, temporal, and situational constraints (O’Neil, Hambley, & Chatellier, 2014).
Telework, mobile work, virtual work, remote work, and ﬂexwork are terms that character-
ize working arrangements wherein employees spend time working outside of the conven-
tional workspace. Rapid advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs)
have made workers accessible beyond their desktops; their work can span time and space,
as technology allows them to remain in constant contact with co-workers (O’Neil et al.,
2014). Although there are several advantages to the evolving distributed nature of work
accompanying technological innovations—such as enhanced workplace ﬂexibility and
autonomy—traditional workplace processes that heavily rely on face-to-face interaction
and engagement can suﬀer (O’Neil et al., 2014). Decision making is one such process.
As ICTs continue to develop, students will experience the beneﬁts and ramiﬁcations of
how these tools alter decision making—in both their classrooms and future career work-
places. Many students will discover that distributed work is not only an opportunity but a
necessity that can bombard decision-making processes with additional constraints that
impair rationality. As a result, it is important to integrate lessons and activities into
college courses that exemplify how technology and the evolving nature of work impact
important organizational decision-making processes.
Two class periods before the activity, the instructor should lecture over the following
decision-making models and assign students the corresponding readings: Nutt’s 5 Stage
Normative Model (Nutt, 1993), March and Simon’s Satisﬁcing (March & Simon, 1958),
Simon’s Intuitive Process (Simon, 1987), Functional Theory (Gouran & Hirokawa,
1996), and Groupthink (Janis, 1982). Each of these readings is a formative work in the
decision-making literature, focusing on the diﬀerent communicative and cognitive pro-
cesses group members utilize to reach a solution. Each article or book chapter is 25
Lecturing over these ﬁve models and concepts should take two full class periods in a 75-
minute class or three class periods in a 50-minute class. During these lectures, instructors
should emphasize the diﬀerences between the analogical reasoning driving less rational
decision-making models (Satisﬁcing, Intuitive Process, and Groupthink) and the logical
reasoning facilitating rational decision-making models (Nutt’s Model and Functional
Theory). It is also important to elucidate how decision makers are confronted with tem-
poral, cognitive, and/or situational constraints that often impede their ability to be com-
pletely rational in the decision-making process, even if they have a calculated goal to be
Learning these ﬁve models will provide students with a landscape of the literature on
decision making and oﬀer insight into the problems associated with making high-
quality and eﬃcient decisions in organizations. Instructors should leave 30 minutes at
the end of the second (or third) day to engage students in a classroom discussion. Students
must debate and understand the advantages and disadvantages of both logical and
310 A. K. BARRETT AND M. MURPHY
analogical/intuitive reasoning and the communicative processes associated with each
before they can apply this material in the activity, for example spotlight the time and
deep analysis that logical reasoning demands, and the damaging role emotion and
faulty heuristics can play in analogical reasoning.
After two (or three days) of instruction, the following class period should commence
the group portion of the activity. To begin the group portion of the activity, students
should be divided into six groups. For the purpose of this paper, we will assume a class-
room of 25 students. Instructors should assign:
(1) Three students to a face-to-face group.
(2) Three students to an instant messaging group (text message, G-chat, etc.).
(3) Three students to an email group.
(4) Three students to a group that must sit silently for the ﬁrst four minutes of the eight-
minute exercise, but afterwards can talk freely face-to-face.
(5) Three students to a group in which only two of the students can be present in the
room at one time.
(6) Ten students to another face-to-face group.
The parameters of each group have been designed to imitate (1) the temporal con-
straints decision makers encounter in the contemporary world due to ICT advancements
(i.e. instant message, email, and sit silent groups), (2) cognitive constraints (i.e. 10-person
group and silent group), (3) situational constraints decision makers encounter due to new
working arrangements such as ﬂex time (i.e. two in and one out group), and/or (d) a posi-
tive decision-making experience with fewer constraints (i.e. three person face-to-face
group). Prior to the activity, instructors should not inform students how the parameters
of each group are speciﬁcally designed to reﬂect decision-making constraints. Students
will make these connections themselves during the debrieﬁng period. If the classroom is
larger than 25 students, increase the number of groups rather than increasing the
number of students in each group. If instructors have less time for the activity and
cannot engage six groups in the post-activity discussion, the six groups can be reduced
to four. Rather than assigning students to an email, text message, and sit silent group,
instructors can include only one of these groups in the activity, given they are all designed
to mirror temporal decision-making constraints.
After assigning each student to a group, give each group the handout shown in Figure 1.
Spend 5–10 minutes explaining the handout to the class and answering any questions stu-
dents present. Remind students they can only speak through the channel they have been
assigned and must abide by any other rules given to their group (e.g. only having two
people in the room at one time). Encourage students to take individual notes regarding
the group’s decision-making process. For example, did the group follow a linear process
that involved distinct decision-making stages or was the process more erratic? Did the
group generate criteria for each potential solution? What communicative challenges did
the group encounter? After the activity is over, students must reﬂect on their decision-
making procedures, and taking notes will aid their memory.
Students will ultimately discover there is no correct answer to this exercise. However,
instructors should introduce and present the assignment to students as if a ﬁxed answer
COMMUNICATION TEACHER 311
does exist. As indicated in Figure 1, students should be given eight minutes to decide
which seven people will be granted continued access to the shelter. Instructors should
place a timer on the overhead projector so students know exactly how much time they
After students have reduced the list of 12 people to 7, they should be given ﬁve minutes to
reﬂect personally and individually on their group’s decision-making experience. Place the
following seven questions on a PowerPoint slide. Ask students to answer the questions and
reﬂect on their experiences.
(1) Did you make decisions in a rational and logical way?
(2) How did you structure your decision making? (Process, stages?)
(3) What speciﬁc decision-making constraints challenged your group (temporal, situa-
tional, cognitive, or a combination)? Did technology,time,orsize of the group
factor into your ability to make decisions?
(4) What actions, if any, did your group take to counteract these constraints?
(5) Did your group optimize or satisﬁce? How do you know?
Figure 1. Activity instruction sheet.
312 A. K. BARRETT AND M. MURPHY
(6) Did groupthink come into play? If so, how?
(7) What are the implications of this activity for organizational decision making?
After the ﬁve minutes is over, use the same seven questions to facilitate a classroom dis-
cussion wherein students reﬂect upon how their decision-making experience as a group
compares to others. At the very least, instructors should ask each group about the per-
ceived logic and rationality guiding the group’s decision-making methods and inquire
into the speciﬁc constraints each group encountered. Students often characterize their
decision-making procedures as rational and/or logical. However, analogical reasoning is
necessary due to the simulated constraints placed upon each group. All groups will be
forced to satisﬁce rather than optimize in an eight-minute exercise, but some group’s pro-
cesses will be more rational than others. Students often quickly acknowledge the temporal
constraints operating against their group, but the situational and cognitive constraints are
harder to identify. Encourage each group—especially the 10+ person group—to consider
the speciﬁctype of groupthink that aﬄicted their group. Did students actively censor
themselves? Did dominant communicators discourage the exploration of potential
In addition, encourage students to contemplate whether they were given a suﬃcient
amount of information to make decisions properly. The handout only provides the
ages, gender, and occupation/education of each potential bomb-shelter occupant.
Explain to students that a lack of information functions as a cognitive constraint. When
facing this constraint, biases or predispositions are key ingredients facilitating the
decision-making process. Yet, decision makers are often unaware of their powerful
inﬂuence. For example, when reﬂecting on their decisions, students often comment
how gender and age (i.e. “women and children ﬁrst”) and professional stereotypes (i.e.
all medical students are smart, and all parolees are dangerous) formulated biases that
drove their decision-making process. It takes guided critical reﬂection for students to
realize that these biases can play a crucial role in their decision making—especially if infor-
mation is scant or time is of the essence.
After the activity, students are better equipped to analyze how constraints in the contem-
porary workplace environment aﬀect the rigor of organizational decision-making pro-
cesses yet are oftentimes unavoidable. They demonstrate a clearer understanding of the
decision-making steps that correspond with rational, irrational, and analogical reasoning.
For example, students often pinpoint how certain stages necessary for rational models—
such as a willingness to evaluate the cons of each potential solution critically—are
bypassed, and how this omission reduces decision makers’rationality, even when they
are attempting to be rational.
Most importantly, students walk away understanding that no decision-making process
is perfect because constraints are ubiquitous and often reinforce one another. For example,
temporal constraints can result in increased cognitive constraints (i.e. reliance on biases)
and situational constraints (i.e. making decisions in diﬀerent times and spaces) can exacer-
bate temporal constraints. Students’major take-away should be that they, as decision
makers, must do their best, given the unique constraints operating against their group
COMMUNICATION TEACHER 313
that limit communicative processes. This necessitates that they identify, analyze, and
reﬂect upon the constraints challenging their groups. Remind students that the stage
decision-making models such as Functional Theory and Nutt’s Model are prescriptive
in nature; they depict how decisions should be made in a perfect working world.
However, as technology continues to mature and multiply, our working world becomes
less traditional, more ﬂexible, and more fragmented, which complicates decision
making. Students should understand that in their future careers, they will be responsible
for developing practices that protect the quality of decision-making processes.
Ashley K Barrett http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3518-501X
References and suggested readings
Gouran, D. S., & Hirokawa, R. Y. (1996). Functional theory and communication in decision-making
and problem-solving groups: An expanded view. In R. Y. Hirokawa, & M. S. Poole (Eds.),
Communication and group decision making (2nd ed., pp. 55–80). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hirokawa, R. Y., & Gouran, D. S. (1989). Facilitation of group communication: A critique of prior
research and an agenda for future research. Management Communication Quarterly,3,71–92.
Janis, I. L. (1982). The groupthink syndrome. In I. L. Janis (Ed.), Groupthink: Psychological studies
of policy decisions and ﬁascos (pp. 174–197). Boston, MA: Houghton Miﬄin.
March, J. G., & Simon, H. A. (1958). Cognitive limits on rationality. In J. G. March, & H. A. Simon
(Eds.), Organizations (pp. 157–182). New York, NY: Wiley.
Nutt, P. C. (1993). The formulation processes and tactics used in organizational decision making.
Organization Science,4, 226–251. doi:10.1287/orsc.4.2.226
O’Neil, T. A., Hambley, L. A., & Chatellier, G. S. (2014). Cyberslacking, engagement, and person-
ality in distributed work environments. Computers in Human Behavior,40, 152–160. doi:10.
Simon, H. A. (1987). Making management decisions: The role of intuition and emotion. Academy of
Management Executive,1,57–64. doi:10.5465/AME.1987.4275905
314 A. K. BARRETT AND M. MURPHY