communications in a business setting compromise the work of that business, a solution must be found for the benefit of the company and of all who work there. Problems can arise when employees whose tasks require written communications skills are deficient in those skills. Problems can arise also when employees are expected to both understand and explain matters verbally and nonverbally.
The cure for the first problem could be as simple as sending the employee in question for writing instruction.
The cure for the second is, however, much less straightforward. The problem might arise because of the use, or misuse, of strategic ambiguity either by the employee exhibiting the problem, or by managers and colleagues who deal with her. Or it might be caused by an unrecognized personal problem of the employee, for example, a drinking/drugs problem or a cognitive disability of short or long duration. This paper looks at a single case of a financial manager exhibiting distressing verbal communications deficits, and suggests avenues for exploration in curing or minimizing the problem. It also explores the ways strategic ambiguity might be in play either by the other members of the company, or by the employee in question.
Strategic ambiguity ethics
An important contribution to the literature concerning strategic ambiguity ethics was written by Jim Paul and Christy Strbiak. Paul was a doctoral candidate and Strbiak an assistant
Professor in the Department of Management at New Mexico State University when they wrote "The Ethics of Strategic Ambiguity" in 1997.
Paul and Strbiak began with the assumption that strategic use of ambiguity in communications would minimize the importance of ethics. Theirs was not so much a practical investigation of the effect of strategic ambiguity on workplace behavior by individuals or on the behavior of corporations, but rather an investigation into whether -- regardless of effect -- strategic ambiguity created an ethical dilemma.
They noted the strategic ambiguity allows addressing difficult issues and resolving or avoiding conflicts within organizations. They also noted that the absence of a clear message means that the receiver of the message can then apply to it his or her own construct. This might be a factor in the case of Abbie Logan, a group financial manager at an ad agency who has exhibited communications problems upsetting to colleagues and superiors alike. However, this will be further dealt with in the Synthesis section, below.
Paul and Strbiak also commented that ambiguous communications also allow denial of responsibility, another possible factor in the case of Abbie Logan.
But it was the ethics of strategic ambiguity, not its effects, that Paul and Strbiak were most interested in. They describe the problem as being one created when an individuals espoused ethics -- those they intend to live by -- and their 'ethics-in-use -- their actual behavior in any given situation -- are at odds. This, they conclude, constitutes unethical behavior. They wrote: "Strategic ambiguity is ethical when communicative behaviors are congruent with communicators' rational, logically consistent espoused ethics. Strategic ambiguity is unethical when it results from ethics-in-use that are incongruent with communicators' espoused ethics."
They also noted that employees might find themselves engaged in unethical behavior because a superior demanded it; a company executive might find himself of herself in such a predicament because of the needs of the corporation.
Paul and Strbiak concluded that whether strategic ambiguity minimized the importance of ethics was a moot point. "Intrapersonal ethical analysis does not differentiate between strategic ambiguity and other communicative strategies," and they agreed with a prior researcher, Clampitt (1991).
An instance of such a strategy might be the one they described in which a manager might respond to a proposal from a supplier with the strategically ambiguous phrase, "We'll study it." This, they said, would leave open the options, which was good for the organization, its employees and its customers.
To arrive at the conclusion that strategic ambiguity was not really an ethical issue, the authors used an intrapersonal approach; in other words, if the communication was not inconsistent with the individual's ethical intentions, then it was ethical. They called for further research in the realm of interpersonal assessment of strategic ambiguity; in short, does it violate the espoused ethics of either the person (group) issuing the communication or the person (group) receiving it?
While strategic ambiguity can easily create problems of understanding in verbal communications, there are other reasons as well that frustration may occur in business communications. Lamar Reinsch and Annette N. Shelby investigated those experienced by a group of MBA students and reported the findings in their article, "Communication challenges and needs: perceptions of MBA students." Their intention was to better define needs of students when designing communications courses for MBA students, but the findings can apply equally well in the workplace, at least shedding light on some of the frustrations and challenges experienced there.
Reinsch and Shelby did an exhaustive literature review of studies regarding communications behaviors of people in various industries, or through various channels (writing, listening, interviewing), and job descriptions.
But they seemed particularly interested in the work of DiSalvo and Larsen, who found that the importance of specific communications skills depends on occupation (engineering or sales, for instance) and on direction, whether to one's superior or subordinates. They investigated the link between communications and business performance through a body of literature that suggested that communications practices affect both he success of individual managers and teams or even the organization itself.
Obviously, the success of all these entities is involved in any assessment of and cure for the Abbie Logan case.
By profiling and quantifying reports of enter students challenging work-related communications episodes, the researchers intended to find the locus of the problems. The questions asked were:
1. What types of communication events at work have most challenged MBA students?
2. What personal communication needs (skill deficiencies or general areas of weakness) do MBA students perceive?
The challenging communications episodes occurred in appraisal interviews, formal speeches, committee meetings, task assignments, telephone calls, interorganizational correspondence, customer service, and conversations with coworkers. Of these, of most cogency to the Abbie Logan case would be the committee meetings, task assignments, and conversations with coworkers aspects.
Predictably, the authors note:
The data identify task-related work-place interaction as the most frequently reported arena for a challenging episode. The second most commonly identified difficult communication setting, the formal speech or presentation, was listed by 20% of the respondents. Problems in formal meetings were noted by 10% of the respondents, while communication in social interaction was a reported difficulty for only 6% of the individuals. Most striking from these data is the fact that, of the incidents that challenged the respondents, most were either exclusively or partially oral ones.
Further, they noted that the most challenging of the incidents required respondents to transmit a message, rather than simply receiving messages created by others. And, they noted, the situation often required the respondent to communicate across an organizational boundary (for example, representing the employing firm to a client firm) or to communicate with individuals higher up in their firm (for example, senior managers).
The respondents themselves were asked what they thought would be the answer to their problems, and they indicated that increased self-confidence, more persuasiveness, better explanatory skills, less nervousness and better analytical skills would help.
Listening skills: part of the problem?
Lynn O. Cooper investigated the possibility that listening training programs are often based upon faulty assumptions about effective listening rather than appropriate research data, and she set out to correct that. Cooper's literature review discovered research by Lewis and Reinsch (1988) that argued that the question for corporate consultants to answer is not the same as that which educators are concerned about. It is not about the value of listening competency in the workplace; Cooper takes that as a given. It is, however, about how to effectively train workers to be more effective listeners and therefore more productive employees. Cooper intended to answer that question through the results of a ten-year Managerial Listening Survey.
Cooper concluded that listening competency is defined by behavior that is "appropriate" and "effective" as a result. This means that workers must understand the content of the interaction and not violate conversational norms or rules to excess. Effectiveness denotes the satisfaction of needs, completion of tasks or achievement of goals.
Cooper cites Lewis and Reinsch's 1988 study in which they identified three factors of effective organizational listening: following directions and suggestions, giving eye contact, and portraying general attentiveness Cooper noted that other researchers added the ability to paraphrase and to understand another's point-of-view.
Ineffective listening, on the other hand, was seen as failing to follow directions, not responding to a message verbally or nonverbally, talking to another, and forgetting previous messages.
The Managerial Listening Survey confirms other research on training and development, including that which recommends breaking down complex communication behavior into component skills. Lewis and Reinsch, Cooper noted, insisted that it is impossible to improve listening competency without looking at…