Topic: Ambiguous Communication

Author(s), Title and Publication

Markham, A. (1996). Designing Discourse: A Critical Analysis of Strategic Ambiguity and Workplace Control. Management Communication Quarterly, 9(4), 389-421.


This case study examined how employees of a small design company experienced a work environment of ambiguous communication. Previous studies have suggested that organizational leaders could use strategic ambiguity to encourage multiple viewpoints and amplify existing source attributions. But organizational members may not be able to overcome unequal power relations (e.g., hierarchy, authority) to express opinions freely. This case study investigated employees’ perceptions of and responses to ambiguous communication applied by the management. Data were collected from transcripts of interviews with employees at Far End Design, Inc. (FED), the company’s official documents, and the author’s field notes.

In the FED case, management encouraged autonomy and self-direction, and provided employees with ambiguous descriptions and explanations of job task, project management, and work process. Management’s goal in doing so was to spark freedom and creativity. However, employees experienced a paradoxical contradiction between the stated organizational culture and the everyday lived culture. On one hand, employees reported that they desired direction for work but were unable to obtain it from management. On the other hand, though management refused to provide constructive direction, they did not hesitate to provide humiliating and sometimes vicious feedback if employees were working autonomously. In this complex environment (encouraging self-direction and tight control), the atmosphere in FED was very tense, and employees felt more confusion, fear, and anxiety than freedom and creativity. Instead of offering multiple interpretations, employees understood the message in the way that their managers told them to. Though the employees were aware of the problems of ambiguous communication, they convinced themselves that was natural.

Implications for Practice

To strategically use ambiguous communication to encourage employees’ creativity, management might want to 1) give their employees some general standards and directions for work, and 2) encourage employees to express their opinions.

Location of Article

The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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