Openness and clarity are the keys to effective communication. Or
at least, that is what is taught and encouraged by most educators,
especially in business schools and HR departments. You ask a clear
question, you should be able to get a clear answer. And so when you go
to a management meeting, you expect to find out what’s really going on
in the company. Well, that ain’t necessarily gonna happen.
Before I explain why you won’t get the straight skinny, I need to
clear out some of the underbrush. I’m not talking mostly about
deception or outright lying. Sure, that takes place, but most managers
understand that if they deceive often they’re going to earn a reputation
for it. That’ll make it especially difficult for them to communicate a
straight message when they need to. Also, they know that the trust of
people is a key incentive for organizational productivity and team
motivation. Besides, it takes a lot of energy to keep your lies
consistent which means that you’ll eventually get tired of it–and be
found out. Deception is not an effective path to work and team success.
But if you critically examine the communication of most managers,
execs and government officials, you’ll notice that the usual definition
of (effective) communication as clarity and openness is sometimes, well .
. . just bullshit. So beware of the leadership literature and the HR
department. As a matter of fact, recent research in organizational
communication finds that intentional miscommunication is often as
prevalent as intentionally clear communication. I’d argue that often
“effective communication” is intentionally ambiguous.
Why is this?
On many, many occasions, managers and leaders are caught in multiple,
conflicting constraints. Rather than maximize the achievement of any
one goal in particular, the leader winds up in a catch 22. He’s caught
in numerous conflicting situations, but has no real control over the
Although any senior business manager can recite numerous examples of ambiguity, a great example comes from Tom Friedman’s
article in which he opines on President Obama’s ambiguous statements
explaining the intervention of America and its allies in Libya. These
were the conflicts Obama faced, detailed by Friedman.
In Libya, we have to figure out whether
to help rebels we do not know topple a terrible dictator we do not
like, while at the same time we turn a blind eye to a monarch whom we do
like in Bahrain, who has violently suppressed people we also like —
Bahraini democrats — because these people we like have in their ranks
people we don’t like: pro-Iranian Shiite hard-liners. All the while in
Saudi Arabia, leaders we like are telling us we never should have let go
of the leader who was so disliked by his own people — Hosni Mubarak —
and, while we would like to tell the Saudi leaders to take a hike on
this subject, we can’t because they have so much oil and money that we
like. And this is a lot like our dilemma in Syria where a regime we
don’t like — and which probably killed the prime minister of Lebanon
whom it disliked — could be toppled by people who say what we like, but
we’re not sure they all really believe what we like because among them
could be Sunni fundamentalists, who, if they seize power, could suppress
all those minorities in Syria whom they don’t like.
Sometimes, as Friedman coments, the
truth is too hot to handle. It’s too displeasing, too frustrating, too
messy, too tentative, too incomplete, and so on. In those situations,
inconsistency can’t be avoided. Still, inconsistency is not necessarily
a bad thing. Making a hopeless impasse clear may be unwise and likely
to make things worse. Inherently, many readily succumb to personal,
often destructive biases such as the drive for immediate decisionmaking,
either-or decisionmaking, or even that the most colorful, vivid option
Inevitably, therefore, the wise leader
often chooses ambiguity. And rightly so. He understands that the
downside of ambiguity is a lot better than the downside of a very
tentative set of strategies that may or may not succeed.
Effective communication as “strategic ambiguity.”
Academics have a technical term for
that form of presentation: “strategic ambiguity.” In a seminal piece of
research, Eric Eisenberg argues that clarity and openness are not the
only definition of effective communication. Sometimes, he argues, the
truly effective leader has to be strategically ambiguous.
- Ambiguity can provide the leader with a great deal of flexibility and creativity,
not limiting that leader to a narrow resolution of a problem. In
politics, it’s just good PR. Ambiguity can promote a great diversity of
ideas and actions.
- Ambiguity facilitates organizational change.
It gives the leader permission to make various moves that a single
objective would not permit. He can pilot numerous initiatives and not
have to engage in full disclosure.
- Ambiguity also preserves privileged positions.
If there’s no single objective that can be readily measured, you’ve
limited the critical options of your public, whether subordinates,
commentators or journalists. The ongoing complaint, for example, that
Obama hasn’t revealed his strategy or endgame is reflective of a
governmental or business leader’s smart, purposeful use of ambiguity.
It limits the criticism that can be leveled at him. “he won’t tell us
his strategy and endgame” is not much to critique or write about.
There are plenty of situations for which the dumb thing is for your
boss to be candid. Smart bosses refuse. That’s the nature of effective
Eric Eisenberg, Ambiguity as a strategy in organizational communication.