“The price of peace is ambiguity.”
From International Law and the Use of Force.
“There are opportunities in grey areas.”
Ambiguity, which might be simply defined as lack of clarity, does not have a good reputation. The word is often used to connote evasiveness, equivocation, or lack of rigour. Politicians are sometimes accused of being ambiguous to avoid commitment. However, most of us use it. Anyone who has struggled to find the right word to avoid hurting some-one’s feelings, will have insights into how ambiguity can be helpful.
Much of our early education is deterministic, even bi-polar. There are right, as opposed to wrong, answers to questions. This outlook is fostered by technical careers. An engineer needs to be able to calculate stresses accurately, an accountant profit and loss, and so on. Training and discipline enables the professional to arrive at answers accurate to within useful limits. Ambiguity can lead to wrong analysis, so we have to dispel it. We need to have the “right” answer as a precursor to right action.
The reality we face, however, is that sometimes ambiguity cannot be dispelled. If this is the case, we need to learn to deal with it. The good news is that ambiguity is not always a hindrance. In the hands of a skilled and thoughtful leader, it can make a critical contribution.
Promotion brings responsibilities of increasing complexity, and complexity is ambiguity in one of its many guises. In the field of leadership, the time-tested methods don’t seem to work as they once did. Complexity arises because leaders at the top tend to become less involved in organisational inner workings, and more concerned with the organisation’s environment, and the future. This sort of management will often involve engagement with national and international agencies such as non-government organisations, international organisations, government departments, regulatory authorities, staff unions, and powerful suppliers. It may be necessary to build alliances with other organisations, and secure cooperation with powerful stakeholders. This is inter-organisational leadership, and it is very different in its nature and requirements from the intra-organisational form in which most leaders will have been schooled. Inter-organisational leaders have to operate in conditions of low or no authority. In the absence of authority, there is an overriding need for persuasive, consensus-building skills.
Negotiators, who are also consensus seekers, learn to love ambiguity. Opening rounds are all about trying to gain clarity on the other side’s true position, while remaining vague about your own. Ambiguity can confer strategic advantage, which is why negotiators often try to raise the level of debate away from detail. A skilled negotiator will feel for the level of generality at which an agreement will be possible. I experienced this some years ago when I was the Senior Manager responsible for negotiating service level agreements for British Airways with BAA, at the time owner and operator of Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Stipulating something as precise as “All maintenance work will take place during hours of closure” would be firmly refused. However, changing the words to “Maintenance work will be carried out in such a way as to minimise inconvenience” gained agreement, precisely because it was less precise. Increasing ambiguity made an agreement possible.
Consensus can also be built on the ambiguity of silence. Some years ago I acted as a spokesman for a large number of airlines in representations to the Competition Commission. To make an effective representation it was necessary to gain complete agreement throughout this large group of airlines about our case. But the airlines were competitors, commercial rivals, and would readily fall out over issues that were critical to competitive advantage. We achieved consensus, and therefore success, by agreeing only to deal with the areas about which we could make common cause – and to remain silent about the rest. It meant there were issues that could not be dealt with in that process, but better deal with most than none at all.
Ambiguity has been researched to try to discover the areas where ambiguity can be generally useful. As long ago as 1980, Stanford University investigated the role of means and ends clarity amongst senior managers involved in joint ventures, in over a hundred large US corporations. They used objective measures to assess the success of these inter-organisational projects. Against all intuition, the research revealed the corporations that consistently out-performed all others were those that ensured both parties were clear about how they were going to do things (means), but where there was ambiguity about final objectives (ends). It challenged all previously held assumptions about the leadership of joint ventures, which always emphasised the need for clarity of ends. Clarity about what we are trying to achieve can, it appears, damage the consensus on which performance depends because of its fundamental nature; as opposed to less disruptive niggles about how to do things. The findings recommended a judicious use of ambiguity when defining ends.
There is diplomacy in these skills – using language in a way that will sooth rather than exacerbate a problem. Peace negotiators know that certain topics must be kept off the agenda. They admit only things that bring the sides closer. They deploy ambiguity in dangerous areas for the best possible reason – to prevent the talks breaking down. In situations of high emotion and raw sensitivity, mediators too rely on re-framing, and ambiguous language, to avoid the risk of over-reaction and disruption between disputing parties. Keeping sore points vague can make the difference.
To end at the beginning, some people have reservations about the uses of ambiguity in leadership – they suspect that it might be manipulative. I believe it is no more manipulative than leadership generally. All leadership is about getting groups of people to make some sort of concerted effort. The leader is critical to producing that effort, and in shaping it to an end. Whether this is manipulative in a pejorative sense is determined by the integrity of the leaders, not by the subtlety of the method.
Dr Peter Saxton (Director, Capstick Saxton Associates) is an expert consultant, speaker and trainer in the field of collaborative working. He has 25 years of management and leadership experience, serving as an RAF pilot, a British Airways Captain and chief pilot, a senior manager with the airline, a company director, and as founder-director and Chairman of Capstick Saxton Associates Ltd. He has advised and trained executives from a wide variety of organisations including Toyota, the armed forces of Britain and NATO, government, several banks and law firms. “We help build the competence and confidence of leaders and managers, through the provision of advice, training and coaching”.