The Ethics of Strategic Ambiguity

Article excerpt

It is widely recognized that communication within organization is often unclear and ambiguous. Although clarity is usually considered desirable for communication, ambiguity may be more effective in certain organizational circumstances. While prevalent in organizations, Eisenberg and Goodall (1993) raise the concern that the strategic use of ambiguity "minimizes the importance of ethics" (p. 26). In this article we demonstrate the importance of strategic ambiguity and propose a model for determining the ethicality of strategically ambiguous communications. We begin by examining the concept of strategic ambiguity and its implications for communication. This is followed by a discussion of general ethical standards and an analysis of intrapersonal ethics. Finally, we discuss the relationship between strategic ambiguity and intrapersonal ethics, and pose questions for future research.

Strategic Ambiguity

Eisenberg (1984) uses the term strategic ambiguity to refer to "those instances where individuals use ambiguity purposefully to accomplish their goals" (p. 230). Strategic ambiguity may be particularly useful in organizations by promoting a unified diversity (Contractor & Ehrlich, 1993), preserving privileged positions, and facilitating organizational change (Eisenberg & Goodall, 1993). Organizational missions and goals are often intentionally ambiguous since they "allow divergent interpretations to coexist and are more effective in allowing diverse groups to work together" (Eisenberg & Witten, 1987, p. 422). Organizational values may be expressed at "levels of abstraction at which agreement can occur" (Eisenberg, 1984, p. 231). These uses of strategic ambiguity require organizational communicators to agree only in the abstract and thus preserves the plurality of voices in the organizational discourse.

Strategic ambiguity is also appropriate for addressing difficult issues, improving interpersonal relations, and resolving conflicts that arise between individuals in organizations. It allows difficult issues to be addressed when "the circumstances seriously limit the probability of successful persuasion" by limiting disagreement and getting people to focus on the more abstract concepts on which they agree instead of the specific points upon which they disagree (Williams, 1976, p. 17). Strategic ambiguity provides a mechanism whereby "various constituencies can claim victory" (Eisenberg, 1984, p. 423). Strategic ambiguity can also enhance a communicator's credibility with other organizational communicators. In the absence of a clear disconfirming message, a receiver will "attach a meaning that is congruent with his attitudes, thus assimilating the message" (Goss & Williams, 1973, p. 166). Williams and Goss (1975) describe this use of strategic ambiguity as "a kind of character insurance for people who are perceived as credible" (p. 265).

Another important property of strategically ambiguous communications is deniability. This characteristic is especially useful for preserving future options (Eisenberg, 1984), allowing people to save face, delaying conflict, testing reactions to ideas, and avoiding personal responsibility (Clampitt, 1991). Despite these benefits, Eisenberg and Goodall (1993) suggest that the utility of strategic ambiguity for escaping blame may limit its usefulness for ethical communication in organizations. Strategic ambiguity may emphasize goal-attainment at the expense of ethics. Since strategically ambiguous communications leverage the vagueness inherent in language, an explicit consideration of the ethics of strategic ambiguity is warranted.


While strategic ambiguity can create beneficial outcomes for both senders and receivers in organizations, the deniability of ambiguous communications allows senders to avoid responsibility for their communications. Since receivers are at a greater risk of being held responsible for perceived communication effectiveness, does strategic ambiguity minimize the importance of ethics? …