Sustainability and Strategic Ambiguity

The beauty and the curse of the term sustainability is in its ambiguity. The term resonates with individuals and groups. However, the authors of Our Common Future did not demonstrate its feasibility or provide practical steps for its implementation. In the early 1990s, the Transportation Research Board of the US National Academy of Sciences spent a million dollars just trying to come up with a definition of the concept, with no real success. Even today, a clear definition of the term and a road map for achieving it are lacking. As a result, it can mean different things to different people.

Communication scholar Eric Eisenberg (2007) crafted a seminal essay almost 30 years ago where he discussed a concept he called strategic ambiguity. Speakers intentionally design ambiguous messages. Eisenberg argued strategic ambiguity serves four functions related to a speaker's goals—to promote unified diversity, to facilitate change, to foster deniability related to both task and interpersonal communication, and to preserve privileged positions by protecting a speaker's credibility. Later, he acknowledged that strategic ambiguity can also mask and sustain power abuses. In terms of unified diversity, organizational values are often expressed through the creative use of symbols that allow for multiple interpretations while promoting a sense of unity. We see this use of strategic ambiguity in terms of sustainability occurring in organizations' mission statements, goals, and plans. Leaders often speak at the abstract level about sustainability initiatives so that agreement can occur. Strategic ambiguity regarding sustainability efforts can be used to encourage creativity, minimize conflict, and facilitate change. Such ambiguity creates conditions where organizations can change their operations over time in response to changing environmental conditions. It can be used to build cohesiveness within groups around sustainability initiatives and allow employees to protect their private opinions, beliefs, and feelings, while maintaining their relationships.

In the sustainability-related research, the strategic ambiguity concept was used as a framework for analyzing five documents the New Zealand government designed as guides for the development of genetically modified (GM) organisms (Leitch and Davenport 2007). Conflict exists in New Zealand, and elsewhere, around the use of GM organisms. Groups which feel economic growth should be the primary goal see GM as a way to achieve this goal, while others feel economic growth should be secondary to concerns about the society and the environment. Some see the environment as a set of natural resources to manage and use, while others see it as a complex ecosystem to be protected. Finally, some see genes as proteins to be manipulated to make new organisms, while others see them as a natural or God-given order with which people should not interfere. Leitch and Davenport investigated how the strategic ambiguity discourse strategy explained the use of the keyword sustainability in these government documents. A discourse strategy is how people use talk and text to achieve their goals. They concluded that the term sustainability lent a coherence to the texts, allowed multiple perspectives and objectives to coexist, and facilitated participation by discourse partners who held conflicting economic, environmental, and cultural/spiritual beliefs. The authors contend it is equally useful in discourse contexts where multiple organizations and individuals are interacting. Strategic ambiguity serves seven functions which can facilitate coalition formation between discourse communities which differ in their focus (i.e., on people, on the planet, or on profit) (Wexler 2009). The lack of a clear-cut definition for sustainability allows stakeholders to challenge existing understandings, adapt quickly, and explore new innovative ideas and practices. Christensen et al. (2015) term this as having a license to critique. Key Point: Strategic ambiguity is an important concept for understanding the current state of how people talk about sustainability (and climate change) both within and between organizations. Strategic ambiguity can be useful as groups undertake sustainability journeys along trails covered in fog.

Next >