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Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication
Written more than two decades ago, this essay was my first attempt to counter the prevailing ideology of clarity and openness in organizational communication theory and research that stood in sharp contrast to most people’s experience of organizational life. Cited hundreds of times in the fields of Communication and Organizational Studies, this essay identified four functions of strategic ambiguity— specifically, its capacity to promote unified diversity, to preserve privileged positions, to foster deniability, and to facilitate organizational change. The discussion of plausible deniability foreshadowed a central theme of the Iran-Contra hearings, during which an American Lieutenant Colonel (Oliver North) testified to the U.S. Congress about the role and importance of “plausible deniability” in the illegal sale of weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. The lack of serious consequences for the Colonel or anyone else connected to the case showed the power as well as the potential for abuse inherent in this kind of communication. In retrospect, this essay reflects my youthful desire to edify and explore the more mysterious and less rational aspects of human connection (I was 23 when I began work on it and 26 when it was published). In focusing on these things, I paid little attention to other dynamics, such as how ambiguity can mask and sustain abuses of power. Looking back, I am also unsure about my relational definition of strategic ambiguity; it seemed to make sense at the time, but has proven difficult to study. Nevertheless, the paper accomplished what I had hoped it would, prompting scholars and practitioners alike to reflect on their assumptions about the centrality of clarity and the potential uses of ambiguity in successful organizing. SOURCE: Eisenberg, E. M. (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227–242. Copyright © 1984. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Group, LLC., http://taylorandfrancis.com. 3
onceptions of organizations have changed drastically in recent years. This change has occurred in two ways. First, while past conceptions paid little attention to the role of cognition in organizing, current work reflects a shift toward viewing organizational participants as thinking individuals with identifiable goals (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Harris & Cronen, 1979; Pfeffer, 1981; Smircich, 1983; Weick, 1978, 1979a). Second, whereas previous analyses of organizational behavior treated communication as an epiphenomenon, recent work focuses directly on communication processes in organizations (Dandridge, 1979; Farace, Monge, & Russell, 1977; Pacanowsky & O’Donnell-Trujillo, 1983; Pfeffer, 1981; Pondy, Frost, Morgan, & Dandridge, 1983; Smircich & Morgan, 1982). Interest in organizational symbolism has been far-reaching and is a central concern of students of Japanese management (Pascale & Athos, 1981) and of organizational culture (Jelinek, Smircich, & Hirsch, 1983). Pfeffer (1981, p. 44) provides a concise statement of this new emphasis: “If management involves the taking of symbolic action, then the skills required are political, dramaturgical, and language skills more than analytical or strictly quantitative skills.” This change in emphasis corresponds to developments in various fields. Researchers in communication (Bochner, 1982; Clark & Delia, 1979; Hart & Burks, 1972; Monge, Bachman, Dillard, & Eisenberg, 1982; Pearce, Cronen, & Conklin, 1979; Tracy & Moran, 1983) and linguistics (Brown & Levinson, 1978; Fowler, Hodge, Kress, & Trew, 1979; Levy, 1979) are studying communication competence in ways which have implications for organizational behavior. Most of these writers view competent communication as the strategic use of symbols to accomplish goals. Moreover, a communicator’s goals are not assumed to be unitary or even consistent; rather, individuals have multiple, often conflicting goals which they orient toward in an effort to satisfy rather than to maximize attainment of any one goal in particular. This perspective has evolved largely as a critical response to the “optimal” model of communication which equates effectiveness with clarity and openness. Communication theorists have rejected this particular ideology in favor of a more rhetorical view of communicator as strategist (Bochner, 1982; Parks, 1982; Wilder, 1979).1 While the more practitioner-oriented journals continue to publish essays which equate effective communication with open communication (e.g., Bassett, 1974; Fisher, 1982; Frank, 1982; Lorey, 1976; Sigband, 1976; VonBergen & Shealy, 1982; Wycoff, 1981) recent theoretical work reflects a genuine willingness among leading scholars and practitioners to accept the notion that organizational members use symbols strategically to accomplish goals, and in doing so may not always be completely open or clear (e.g., Pascale & Athos, 1981; Pfeffer, 1981; Pondy et al., 1983).
not offending others. 1969). The present definition of ambiguity is a direct outgrowth of the relativist view of meaning. a more precise definition of strategic ambiguity is offered. p. Putnam. What I am advocating is a shift in emphasis away from an overly ideological adherence to clarity toward a more contingent. I am not suggesting a retreat from clarity. Skilled executives develop the ability to vary their language along the spectrum from explicitness to indirection depending upon their reading of the other person and the situation. and maintaining one’s self-image. develop multiple and often conflicting goals. and in advancing innovation. 1983). This essay goes beyond the assertion that people in organizations manipulate symbols to achieve goals toward a more rigorous conceptualization of how this process operates. or changing the topic. strategic orientation. From this perspective. remaining silent.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 5 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. organizational communication is the process by which organizing occurs. the problem facing the typical organizational member is one of striking a balance between being understood. and respond with communicative strategies which do not always minimize ambiguity. it is not a linguistic imperative. Many different strategies are used to orient toward conflicting interactional goals.” The idea that people choose communication strategies to accomplish multiple goals is in sharp contrast to the classical-structuralist view of organizational behavior. Defining Strategic Ambiguity Before a definition of strategic ambiguity can be considered. this paper explores how people in organizations use ambiguity strategically to accomplish their goals. 102) capture the sentiment: “Explicit communication is a cultural assumption. what strategies work under what conditions. in facilitating interpersonal relationships. One intriguing strategy which is of key importance to organizing involves the application of one’s “resources of ambiguity” (Burke. and with what effects. which sees communication as primarily facilitating production..2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. In the multiple-goal approach. not something which takes place in organizations (Johnson. People in organizations confront multiple situational requirements. I must provide a philosophical context for its understanding. communication is instrumental in building and maintaining self-image. There are numerous occasions in organizations in which greater clarity is desirable. Specifically. Pascale and Athos (1981. but may nonetheless be effective. 1977). as well as in aiding production (Farace et al. Furthermore. some examples include avoiding interaction altogether. This .01-Eisenberg-45095. In the next section. 1977. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——5 The overemphasis on clarity and openness in organizational teaching and research is both non-normative and not a sensible standard against which to gauge communicative competence or effectiveness.
1979. Putnam and Sorenson (1982) define ambiguity both in terms of message attributes (lack of specific detail. From this perspective. In their study of equivocal messages in organizations.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 6 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. This is an impossible task. vagueness (Pascale & Athos. 6——Chapter 1 perspective is critical of logical empiricism and the mirror metaphor of science (Rorty. the definitional process can proceed. language. ambiguity) is not an attribute of .e. and all meaning is seen as fundamentally contextual and constructed. abstract language. 1982). 1982) or deviate from this hypothetical ideal. the receiver’s interpretations. or anything else. is a result of going beyond the information given. the existence of “literal” language becomes questionable. The relativist position does not consider ambiguity to be a special problem. It is reflected in the “interactional view” of communication advanced by Watzlawick and Weakland (1977). In contrast. This view is most suitable for the study of strategic ambiguity. Szasz. Bavelas & Smith. Nofsinger. Students of communication theory have found the relativist view of meaning to be appealing. 1974). 2). It arises through the interaction of that information with the context in which it is presented. and knowledge are completely interdependent. the meaning of which is heavily dependent upon the interactional context. 1983. including indirectness (Branham. whether it resides in the source’s intentions. Bavelas and Smith (1982) and Fowler et al. italics added). 1.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. Most writers have endorsed the interactional view while at the same time attempting to identify specific messages which are more or less ambiguous. Ortony (1979) provides an elegant summary of the argument: “Knowledge of reality. p. absence of a course of action) and receiver interpretation (perceived equivocality of the message). whether it is occasioned by perception. the concept of an ideally clear message is misleading in fundamental ways. 1980. Some examples will illustrate the problem. 1968). and unclarity (Wender. by individuals. not inherent in discourse. With no purely “objective” reality to describe. all action is seen as potentially communicative. Ambiguity has been addressed under a variety of labels. perception. disqualification (Bavelas. and more than one researcher has glossed the issue by remaining vague about the locus of ambiguity. the nonconstructivist position considers non-literal language to be unimportant and parasitic on “normal” usage (Ortony. at least partly.. and context is the key factor in determining meaning. Now that the important epistemological issues have been addressed. 1981). since meanings are constituted by individuals. (1979) both posit an ideal message which is complete and clear and examine the ways in which actual messages are disqualified (Bavelas & Smith. memory. Clarity (and conversely. 1979).01-Eisenberg-45095. Language. 1976. Unfortunately. primarily due to an inconsistent view of meaning. The distinctions among these terms have themselves been unclear. it rejects the notion that an objective world exists which waits to be discovered. and with the knower’s pre-existing knowledge” (p. or in the message itself. i.
and (3) the receiver understands the message as it was intended by the source. The particular message strategy chosen is not equivalent to whether an individual has been relatively clear or ambiguous. individuals take into account the possible interpretive contexts which may be brought to bear on the message by the receiver and attempt to narrow the possible interpretations.2 In trying to be clear. Returning now to the central argument. Alternatively. figurative language. The focus of this paper is on the strategic use of ambiguity in organizations. When communicating with close friends. Weick. Conceived of in this way. incomplete phrases and vague references may engender high degrees of clarity. In a free society. A final qualification is in order. message. Not all communication is strategic. low levels of perceived ambiguity may often accompany high levels of strategic ambiguity. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——7 messages. Clarity exists to the extent that the following conditions are met: (1) an individual has an idea. Clarity. and receiver factors. (2) he or she encodes the idea into language. Strategic Ambiguity Promotes Unified Diversity Within every social system there exists a tension between the individual and the aggregate. Furthermore. a balance must . literal language as well as through imprecise. clarity is only a measure of communicative competence if the individual has as his or her goal to be clear.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 7 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation.01-Eisenberg-45095. as evidenced by recent work on mindlessness and scripts (cf. It is often preferable to omit purposefully contextual cues and to allow for multiple interpretations on the part of receivers. through the use of a restricted code. 1983). then. ambiguity is totally independent of perceived ambiguity.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. is a continuum which reflects the degree to which a source has narrowed the possible interpretations of a message and succeeded in achieving a correspondence between his or her intentions and the interpretation of the receiver. The aspect of strategic ambiguity which makes it essential to organizing is that it promotes unified diversity.. and vice versa. ambiguity may be unrecognized (the speaker has no idea to communicate) or inadvertent (the speaker intends to be clear. This process is described in the next section. it is a relational variable which arises through a combination of source. One important implication of accepting a contextual view of meaning is that ambiguity can be engendered through detailed. the parts and the whole. I am limiting the discussion to those instances where individuals use ambiguity purposefully to accomplish their goals. as such. in fact. people in organizations do not always try to promote this correspondence between intent and interpretation. but is unable to do so). which is a psychological variable. the same message strategies applied in less close relationships may lead to confusion and ambiguity.
” Becker contends that this paradox makes a fitting. This balance is closely allied to the dialectic of self-actualization and self-transcendence through others. creativity.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. 1977). Strategic ambiguity is essential to organizing because it allows for multiple interpretations to exist among people who contend that they are attending to the same . It is therefore not the case that people are moved toward the same views (in any objectively verifiable sense) but rather that the ambiguous statement of core values allows them to maintain individual interpretations while at the same time believing that they are in agreement.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 8 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. and plans. Mohr (1983) concludes that there can be many advantages to cultivating inconsistency among goals. such as increased creativity and flexibility. sagas. 1975. it is not always necessary or desirable to promote high levels of consensus among individual attitudes and goals (Weick. if unreachable goal for social systems. The same theme appears repeatedly in the literature: How can cohesion and coordination be promoted while at the same time maintaining sufficient individual freedom to ensure flexibility. Contrary to traditional arguments. p. to the individual’s need to feel both a part of the social world and to develop a unique sense of self apart from the social world. goals. But how can this be accomplished? One way of managing this paradox is through the creative use of symbols. This use of ambiguity is commonly found in organizational missions. Strategic ambiguity fosters the existence of multiple viewpoints in organizations. Organizational values are often implicit in myths. Values are expressed in this form because their equivocal expression allows for multiple interpretations while at the same time promoting a sense of unity. and stories which are used as points of symbolic convergence (Bormann. In summarizing one school of organizational thought. and adaptability to environmental change? This paradox has been referred to as the simultaneous seeking of self-determination and security (Peters & Waterman.01-Eisenberg-45095. When organizational goals are stated concretely. Perhaps the most elegant expression of the tension between the individual and the aggregate is given by Kant (in Becker. While organizations must generate sufficient consensus to survive. 1968) who argued that social systems should have as their goal “Maximum individuality within maximum community. 1981). 1979a). 56). the “problem” of divergent goals is not always best resolved through consensus (through socialization or accommodation) but instead through the development of strategies which preserve and manage these differences. 1983). 1982) and as the “unresolvable conflict” between centralization and decentralization (Pascale & Athos. 8——Chapter 1 be maintained between “the requirements for dependable patterns of action and for independent initiatives” (Hollander. they are often strikingly ineffective (Edelman. A similar balance is necessary in formal organizations.
italics in original). It is a political necessity to engage in strategic ambiguity so that different constituent groups may apply different interpretations to the symbol. perceive the message to be clear. 1983) which convey core organizational values may have a mantra-like ability to bind a group together while at the same time not limiting specific interpretations.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 9 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. Strategic ambiguity is often employed to make the group appear to speak in a single voice. and leaving key meanings implicit. For example. and even poetic (Weick. There is too much American trust in increasing the clarity of communication between people.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. 1983) and to infuse employees with values and purpose (Peters & Waterman. 1978). Smircich. Getting a currently hopeless impasse clear is often unwise and likely to make things worse” (Pascale & Athos.e. Group members appeal to a repertoire of increasingly ambiguous legitimations which both retain the appearance of unity and reasonably represent the opinions of the group. Selznick. the final product is presumed to represent the will of the group. 1981. If leadership is the ability to make organizational activities meaningful to members. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——9 message—i.” When confronted with difficult decisions. In the above discussion. This juggling involves using less than explicit language. When a group composed of individuals with divergent perspectives on a topic convenes to author a document collectively. Similarly.01-Eisenberg-45095. Effective leaders use ambiguity strategically to encourage creativity and guard against the acceptance of one standard way of viewing organizational reality. “Vagueness in communication can cause problems. being purposefully vague. Ambiguity is used strategically to foster agreement on abstractions without limiting specific interpretations. Pondy. 1978.. to be sure. 1957) the process of doing so is less one of consensus-making and more one of using language strategically to express values at a level of abstraction at which agreement can occur. managers must often “juggle” multiple goals. Multiple interpretations are inevitable in social . evangelical. While a primary responsibility of leaders is to make meanings for followers (Pfeffer. The writing of group documents provides a final example of how unified diversity can be promoted through the use of strategic ambiguity. university faculty on any campus may take as their rallying point “academic freedom.” while at the same time maintaining markedly different interpretations of the concept. especially when disagreements are substantive. Focusing on organizational symbolism casts leadership in a new light as well. organizational myths (Smith & Simmons. 1982. 94. I have taken issue with the typical emphasis on consensus in organizations. 1981. the language required for such a task is abstract. but it can also serve to hold strained relations together and reduce unnecessary conflict. p. Pascale and Athos (1981) make a similar observation in their discussion of “Zen and the Art of Management.
Metaphor structures our lives in pervasive and subtle ways (Lakoff & Johnson. Organizational Goals and Central Metaphors Organizational goals are articulated at many levels. The organizing strength of any central metaphor lies in the way it promotes unified diversity. 1983). for example. regarding the image of the company as an entity. and chain of command. Each of these issues is discussed in detail below. 1975). 1980. from the specifics of daily operations to the general relationship of the organization to the society. Numerous organizations have turned away from the military metaphor and replaced it with the family (cf. Organizations change when their members change their metaphors of thinking about them (Pondy.01-Eisenberg-45095. At the interpersonal level. at certain critical points in history. now we turn our attention to how ambiguity functions to bring about more specific individual and organizational outcomes. . could have widespread implications for behavior in the organization. p. with its corresponding orders. is developed both internally for organizational members and externally for organizational publics. We have seen how strategic ambiguity can promote unified diversity which is essential to the process of organizing. Strategic Ambiguity Facilitates Organizational Change At the organizational level. One fundamental goal. a shift from military to family. According to Nisbet (1969. have discouraged the perpetuation of the military metaphor for organizing. The first is the facilitation of change.” yet their actual interpretations may remain quite different.” Much has been written of late about the metaphors which characterize American organizations. What Kanter (1983) refers to as “strategic eras” in organizations can be launched through the careful use of metaphor. individuals believe that they agree on what it means to be part of a “family. Peters & Waterman. 10——Chapter 1 systems. revolutions in thought are quite often “no more than the mutational replacement. Ortony. Many writers. The strategic use of ambiguity aids in the effective statement of this goal. notably Weick (1979a). and ambiguity allows for both agreement in the abstract and the preservation of diverse viewpoints. the second is the amplification of existing source attributions and the preservation of privileged positions. and self.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. strategic ambiguity facilitates change through shifting interpretations of organizational goals and central metaphors. of one foundation metaphor by another in man’s contemplation of universe. society. tactics. ambiguity facilitates change through the development of relationships among organizational members. 1982).qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 10 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. 6).
305). “The University shall be responsive to its surrounding areas.01-Eisenberg-45095. a conceptual. Kanter (1983) reminds us that while symbols are important to organizing. While endorsing the spirit of Bormann’s (1983) assertion that symbolic changes can often shape technological ones. The definition of this domain is always problematic. Naisbitt (1982) argues that the question facing organizations in the 1980s is. The creation of inspirational. they have an intellectual. One last point deserves mention. In this case. an ambiguous goal allowed these organizations to adapt by providing new types of services. employing a statement such as. A rational organizational strategy is to be ambiguous. but it is not usually sufficient to sustain innovation. not narrowly as transportation.” in public documents so as to retain flexibility to adapt to future opportunities and to satisfy multiple constituencies.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 11 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. in which ambiguous goals can preserve a sense of continuity while allowing for the gradual change in interpretation over time. durable meanings is a crucial part of the change process. When an individual projects. a more realistic scenario entails a mutual relationship between symbolic and technological change. “The tools of change masters are creative and interactive. and overly broad definition leaves local communities feeling deserted. The more ambiguous the message. Interpersonal Relationships At the interpersonal level. Change masters deal in symbols and visions and shared understanding as well as the techniques and trappings of their own specialties” (Kanter. 1983. such as pleasure cruises to nowhere and activities on boats that never left the dock. “What business are you really in?” When air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe. This occurs when organizational members are purposefully ambiguous and those attending to the message “fill in” what they believe to be the appropriate context and meaning. and students are exchanged. In her analysis of innovation.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. strategic ambiguity can facilitate relational development. p. of a manager’s ability to operate both at the symbolic and at the practical level. the greater the room for projection. a limited geographical area in which services. funds. those cruise lines that survived did so because they defined their goals broadly as entertainment or hospitality. he or she fills in . of ideas and actions. and a cultural aspect. This characteristic of ambiguity is especially important to organizations in turbulent environments. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——11 Organizations must be ambiguous in stating goals which concern their publics. they are not the whole story. narrow definition excludes outlying regions which may have something to offer. Organizational goals are expressed ambiguously to allow organizations the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time. A common goal of state-supported universities is to establish a reasonable domain of concern.
ambiguity may be used inclusively to build the cohesiveness of an in-group and exclusively to allow certain people access to the “correct” interpretation. In organizations. beliefs. In the context of relational development. Edelman. it acts as a kind of incantation. George Orwell maintained that all societies are organized upon the principle of unequal power. This allows them to be more tactful. or living. This use of ambiguity is examined in the next section. In addition to facilitating change at the organizational and interpersonal levels. while purposefully mystifying or alienating others. 12——Chapter 1 the meaning of a message in a way which is consistent with his or her own beliefs. 1981. the discourse is strange. who believe that their privileged interpretations qualify them as part of an in-group. particularly when we anticipate working with someone in the future. an implicit expression of loyalty to the group or organization (Broms & Gahmberg. nicknames.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. 1982. to those inside. and that this power .3 Strategic ambiguity can facilitate relational development through the emergence of a restricted code to which only certain individuals are privy. secrecy. Projection results in greater perceived similarity between source and receiver. p. one of the results of strategic ambiguity is that camaraderie may form among those for whom the messages are not ambiguous. to avoid conflict. Finally. technical. jargon. research has shown that perceived similarity can lead to increased attraction and hence facilitate relational development (Clore & Byrne. Pascale and Athos (1981) see this in terms of indirection versus “brute integrity”. Many relationships in social systems are noninterpersonal and rely on imprecise and incomplete information which allows untested assumptions to persist (Moore & Tumin. Weick.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 12 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. Put differently. 1948. information control is often accomplished through the strategic use of ambiguity. openmindedness. and to understand one another without jeopardizing the relationship. Strategic ambiguity may be used inclusively or exclusively in organizing. Strategic Ambiguity Amplifies Existing Source Attributions and Preserves Privileged Positions Throughout his life. As an alternative to unrestricted candor. and in-jokes can serve this function. 1974). co-workers may use strategic ambiguity to control what they share of their private opinions.01-Eisenberg-45095. 102). and receptivity to change” (Pascale & Athos. 1983. Parks. 1977). 1979b). strategic ambiguity can also amplify existing attributions and preserve privileged positions. or feelings. To those outside of the language community. it is important to consider whether unrestricted candor is worth the price of “the listener’s goodwill. or purposefully ambiguous.
Gilfillen. For those who are highly credible. While this is surely true for relatively clear communication as well. but it is one of the only ways they can improve other’s impressions of them through communication. in Wilson. In his discussion of responses to ambiguous stimuli. p. It is important to remember. & Courtright. people are sometimes willing to lose face in order to get a particular point across. that communicators do not always have maintenance of self-image as their primary goal. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——13 differential is maintained largely through the use of language by elites (Hodge & Fowler. 1975). 1979). language usage is a strong determinant of receivers’ inferences about sources (Bradac. but a low-credible source speaking identically may be dubbed a fool. Bowers. the opposite is true. 1973. the tendency is to select information which is consistent with the initial assessment. & Keith. 1972). the average person would be more strikingly influenced by his own views than he would be when interpreting a non-ambiguous statement. In particular. once an initial attribution is made about an individual. People act to maintain a consistent set of beliefs about others.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 13 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. In organizations. . Highly credible people have greater freedom in what they can say to maintain a positive impression. 76) states that “in interpreting an ambiguous statement or opinion. however. While strategic ambiguity may be thought of as a way of coping with multiple goals. Beliefs tend to be self-sealing. Williams & Goss. and hence dispositional attributions have considerable inertia. Ambiguous communication has been shown to amplify existing impressions (Rogers. increase the match between a reader and a literary work (Skinner. strategic ambiguity is one way in which supervisors and subordinates can take out “character insurance” in order to maintain their formal or informal standing in the company (Williams & Goss. Manis (1961. One common strategy for preserving existing impressions and protecting privileged positions is strategic ambiguity. one would expect even greater distortion when ambiguous communication is considered. this implies that the same communication directed at the same receiver by sources differing in credibility would be interpreted differently.01-Eisenberg-45095.” In practice. 1979).2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. Similar findings have been reported by attribution theorists (Jones & Nisbett. 1978). For those with low credibility. A source deemed credible who speaks ambiguously may be called a prophet. since it provides the receiver with new information which can result in a potentially negative reevaluation of character. the priorities individuals assign to these goals may be highly variable. On the contrary. clarity is always risky. 1975). and help to preserve and enhance attributions of credibility (Weick. clear communication remains a risk. 1971).
Metcalfe. 14——Chapter 1 Strategically Ambiguous Communication Is Deniable In organizations. this seems clearly applicable to superior-subordinate dyads.2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. people would create one. the American ambassador to the United Nations recently stated that Central American allies are consistently too explicit in discussing their affairs. Sophisticated managers seldom “lay down the law” in areas of great importance to the organization. p. and therefore deny the U. the deniability of ambiguous communication is a key element in the maintenance of privileged positions and has both task and interpersonal implications. This strategy applies to the interorganizational realm as well.S. 1974. What Wheelright (1968) argues to be true for expressive language is true for other forms of ambiguity as well. in the formation of interorganizational agreements. Gottfredson & White. Szasz views indirect strategies as especially common in significant relationships wherein dependency needs and monetary problems are discussed. Szasz (1974) contends that indirect communication serves as a useful compromise between total silence and clear. ambiguous communication is characterized by its “assertorial lightness” and hence is more easily denied than its less equivocal counterpart. organizational communicators often employ some form of deniable discourse. Deniability of task-related communication.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 14 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation. Indirectness works because it “permits the expression of a need and its simultaneous denial or disavowal” (Szasz. 1981.01-Eisenberg-45095. if one did not exist. the “comforts of ambiguity. they claim. Disclosure of information in unequivocal terms limits options and may prematurely endanger plans (Bok. . For example. 141). Many supervisors who have been overly clear in setting policy have found that the slightest violation of a rule by a valued employee places the supervisor in the untenable position of having to make a good decision while remaining consistent. 1981). In organizations.” Similarly. Ambiguity can be used to allow specific interpretations of policies which might do more harm than good to be denied. potentially offensive communication. The deniable aspect of strategic ambiguity is essential to interpersonal relationships in organizations as well. Labov and Fanshel (1977) argue that people need a form of discourse which is deniable in order to communicate. Strategic ambiguity in taskrelated communication can preserve future options. Rather than being entirely secretive or clear. such as strategic ambiguity. Yoder (1983) has argued that the exercise of power is impossible if political actors are denied the use of ambiguity. 1981. ambiguity is called for when a clear formulation will reduce flexibility of decision-making or lead to costly commitments which are hard to terminate (Aldrich & Whetten. should they arise. Examples of this are common in the realm of international politics. 1983). Deniability of interpersonal communication.
2005-2009 For Evaluation Only. to express and protect. while politicians try to retain multiple possible interpretations. While Goffman (1967) is astute in observing. and not as a property of messages.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 15 Edited by Foxit Reader Copyright(C) by Foxit Corporation.01-Eisenberg-45095. In this final section. Since ambiguity is defined relationally. When we know these three things. By complicating the sense-making responsibilities of the receiver. In operationalizing strategic ambiguity. “There is much to be gained in venturing nothing. interviewers attempt to narrow the interpretive context. Even the most literal-appearing utterance can become highly ambiguous given certain relational contexts. Alternatively. should it become necessary to save face. This interplay between ambiguous assertions and requests for clarification is common on news shows that feature interviews with politicians. I have defined strategic ambiguity and offered an explanation of how it promotes the unified diversity essential to organizing. Research Strategies Thus far in this paper. measurement of the construct requires a knowledge of communicative goals. The use of strategic ambiguity complicates the task of interpretation for the receiver. the easier it is to deny specific interpretations. Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——15 strategic ambiguity helps to preserve the “close-but-not-too-close” nature of organizationally sanctioned interpersonal relationships (Pacanowsky & O’Donnell-Trujillo. some popular approaches can be ruled out. experiments which assign levels of ambiguity to specific messages should be avoided. on closer inspection. Two pervasive applications of strategic ambiguity were described as well: the facilitation of change. an individual can disclose an important piece of information ambiguously (“I feel uncomfortable in this job”) and then deny specific interpretations should they arise (“You mean you can’t get along with the boss?”). 1983) by allowing participants to express their thoughts and feelings and simultaneously to deny specific interpretations which may be especially face-threatening. suggestions for how these ideas might be evaluated through empirical research are presented. For example. it is important to note that clear communication is also deniable. Lastly. it is just more difficult to do so and at the same time save face. the more ambiguous the communication. and the maintenance of attributions and privileged positions.” there is often even more to be gained by giving the appearance of venturing something which. from most clear to most ambiguous. we can assess the level of correspondence between intent and . may be made to seem like nothing. strategically ambiguous communication allows the source to both reveal and conceal. Strategic ambiguity must be viewed as a continuum. linguistic choices. and receiver interpretation.
A four cell matrix suggested by these dimensions is presented in Figure 1. and procedures structure the reality-definition of organizational members. Examples of communication of this kind are conversation. Jablin. In Cell 2. a successful research strategy would be discourse or conversation analysis. formal internal communication. this communicative context is especially amenable to rhetorical analysis. texts of these messages are likely to be available for analysis. Informal communication could be analyzed to reveal the ways in which individuals attempt to balance among multiple interactional goals. differences in ambiguity were calculated and examined in relation to message strategies chosen and overall judgments of effectiveness in superior and subordinate roles. 1979). Examples of this type of communication are organized goals. In Cell 1. as well as examine the linguistic forms which are used to accomplish this correspondence. policies and procedures. (1979) could be used to examine how the microscopic aspects of the texts reflect attitudes and behavior. group discussion. the message strategies they used in giving the feedback. which would focus on the role of ambiguity in the persuasive aspects of the texts. Naturalistic research could aim to describe how goals. policies. Since these kinds of communication are usually oral. and the interpretations and attributions of receivers. students roleplaying superiors and subordinates were instructed to give negative feedback on a letter that their partner had written. This study should be followed up by field investigations which distinguish among the use of ambiguity in different communicative contexts. Linguistic analysis such as that done by Fowler et al. One approach to the study of strategic . Finally.4 In this study. As a result. Two important dimensions of context are the type of audience (internal or external to the organization) and the level of formality of the communication (formal or informal). One example of this type of operationalization can be found in a recent study of superior-subordinate communication. the research focus should be on how ambiguity is used in the development of interpersonal relationships. rules. Information was collected concerning their communicative goals. More traditional work with superior-subordinate communication is also appropriate here (cf. the research focus should be on how ambiguity promotes unified diversity and maintains privileged positions. and the telling of organizational stories. informal internal communication. particularly getting the job done and preserving interpersonal relationships. 1983).qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 16 16——Chapter 1 interpretation. appropriate methodologies include naturalistic and critical research in the interpretative tradition (Bantz.01-Eisenberg-45095. Critical research might examine how these same messages perpetuate the status quo. From this information.
and interorganizational agreements. 1977. 1979) could also be helpful in this context. Coorientation theory is well suited to the study of ambiguity since it cuts across systems levels and focuses on relational concepts such as agreement. Poole & McPhee. In Cell 4.. Examples of communication of this type are public relations campaigns. formal external communication. regulations policies and procedures II conversation group discussion organizational story-telling INFORMAL AUDIENCE III EXTERNAL public relations advertising sales interorganizational agreements IV informal agreements weak links “old boy” network overlapping directorates Figure 1. or rhetorical analysis. they may use strategic ambiguity to avoid exposing those areas where their attitudes diverge from others with whom they work.01-Eisenberg-45095. In Cell 3. a major function of strategically ambiguous communication between superiors and subordinates may be the maintenance of metaperspectives which facilitate positive evaluation. Monge.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 17 Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——17 ambiguity in this context is coorientation on communication rules (Eisenberg. & Farace. 1983). and perceived agreement. informal external communication. missions rules. Theories of marketing and of the relationship between organizations and their environments (Aldrich. As in Cell 1. People in organizations do not always seek consensus on rules and often avoid situations where conflicting perceptions would be apparent and might have a negative effect on relationships. critical. the research focus should be on the preservation of future options and the deniability of formal statements to external audiences. much of this communication is written and texts are available for naturalistic. accuracy.1 Dimensions of Communicative Context Appropriate for the Study of Strategic Ambiguity . From the standpoint of coorientation theory. 1984. If communicators balance among multiple goals. advertising and sales information. the focus should be on how strategic ambiguity is used to develop interorganizational linkages which FORMALITY FORMAL I INTERNAL goals. Farace et al.
weak links. and whether it is effective depends upon the goals of the individual communicators. the key issues here are those of interpersonal politics and the balancing of individual. Conclusion The model of meaning suggested in this paper is compatible with both a more realistic and desirable conception of organizations.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 18 18——Chapter 1 are often covert and highly political. As in Cell 2. in press). however. and informal agreements (Eisenberg et al. membership in professional clubs and associations. In the final analysis. Particularly in turbulent environments. such as overlapping directorates. Examples of communication in this context are informal agreements. The use of more or less ambiguity is in itself not good or bad.01-Eisenberg-45095. 1980). and organizational goals. Unlike internal communication. interpersonal. one in which disagreement and idiosyncrasy are not necessarily minimized. Once we gather a better understanding of how people use ambiguity in organizations. The deniable aspect of this type of communication is extremely important. . problems specific to this context include both legal ramifications and the difficulties encountered by boundary role occupants in maintaining loyalties and eliciting trust from co-workers (Adams. Regardless of which communicative context is chosen for study. and what are its ethical constraints? Empirical research on strategic ambiguity should prompt further inquiry into these and related issues. ambiguous communication is not a kind of fudging. whether a strategy is ethical depends upon the ends to which it is used. Studies in this area might focus on less obvious records of interorganizational communication. It is easy to imagine the ethical problems that might result from the misuse of ambiguity. however. researchers should focus on three basic questions: (1) What factors influence the formation of interactional goals? (2) How do people in organizations try to accomplish these goals through communication? and (3) How are different communicative strategies interpreted by others in and outside of the organization? Some important questions remain. and interactions in the “oldboy” network. but rather a rational method used by communicators to orient toward multiple goals. how will this affect what we tell managers and employees about what constitutes effective communication? What is the pedagogy of ambiguity. both the effectiveness and the ethics of any particular communicative strategy are relative to the goals and values of the communicators in the situation. effective or ineffective. but managed..
those instances of communication which most influence our lives (Branham. 3. . This definition is taken in part from a program of research Karen Tracy and I are conducting on the use of clarity in multiple goal situations. Wheelright’s (1968) commentary on metaphor and myth can be extended to apply to ambiguity: The metaphor and myth are necessary expressions of the human psyche’s most central energy-tension. 2. James Dillard. Linda Putnam. Notes 1. honest communication is not a prerequisite for cooperation. indirect language led to reciprocal concessions. Cohen (1978) presents an intriguing argument about the relationship between metaphor and intimacy: There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another. they will remain unenlightened about the most dramatic aspects of organizations. whereas more firm commitments led to conflict escalation. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful comments and suggestions of Karen Tracy. (p.01-Eisenberg-45095. 123) It is a common observation that humans are both social and symbolic animals. mankind would succumb to the fate that the Forgotten Enemy holds ever in store for us. Louis Cusella. They conclude from the literature that open. falling from the ambiguous grace of being human into the unisignative security of the reacting mechanism. What is less frequently recognized is that the strategic use of symbols can facilitate the operation of the social order. Although he diverges from the definition of ambiguity offered in this paper. and Patricia Riley. without it . more flexible commitment communicated via tentative.qxd 11/10/2006 2:59 PM Page 19 Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication——19 As long as organizational scholars regard ambiguity as deviational rather than as contributing to normal interaction. (2) the hearer extends . in fact. We should turn our attention toward how this is accomplished in organizations. Arthur Bochner. Three aspects are involved: (1) the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation. 1980). . An example of this perspective is given by Putnam and Jones (1982) in their discussion of the role of communication in bargaining. Richard Buttny. Lori Roscoe.
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