By Tony Samson

IT MUST be our digital culture that compels us to think of life as binary. Most things, including organizational charts, relationships, diplomatic courtesies, invasions, fishing accidents, and working arrangements in families cannot be neatly categorized as either on or off, zero or one, win or lose, black or white. There are many shades of gray, and not just 50.

Still, gray areas make people uncomfortable. They are deemed to be unpredictable, drifting along aimlessly, spilling over unmarked boundaries, inconsistent, and difficult to characterize as a headline story — it is what it is.

Informally accepted situations can keep going without formal contracts or specified obligations and expectations. When difficulties arise, as when third parties get into the picture, there is the urge to put arrangements into a more defined footing. This may entail forcing a commitment or simply ending a bumpy relationship once and for all, after negotiating some acceptable settlement. This type of situation can cover blended families as well as supplier contracts for restaurants.

A definite “closure” to end an ambiguous relationship is unnecessary, serving only the function of having one last opportunity for bitter words to be exchanged and then a messy exit with slammed doors.

Ambiguity is an uncomfortable state for a relationship, even one that is no longer working well and for which an informal “modus vivendi” is taking shape or disintegrating. With missed promises and failed financial commitments, a lingering ending is not far behind.

Celebrity couples linked only by some acronyms combining their first names, whose joint accounts have been raided by one or the other, may still feel obliged to issue a public statement on their ambiguous status. They are undergoing difficulties and trying to work through a process of determining the best way forward. And when asked when the last time the two had a conversation, some vague period is referred to — not since her last movie flopped.

Even corporate relationships, which seem grounded on employment contracts and fixed by hierarchical boxes, have an ambiguous side. An informal structure of friendships, envy, and credit-grabbing permeates the organization. They also include undisclosed business interests that drive policies on outsourcing and procurement.

Even though the old paradigm of connected boxes in the formal chart seems no longer applicable in a more flexible, project-based, task-forced, and flatter organization, the dynamics of delegation and influence can shift without any formal announcement. (Sir, you have to step out. The excom has been shrunk to fewer members while you were sleeping.)

Someone previously considered very influential with the boss on hiring decisions, promotions, and appointments may abruptly fall from grace. While she may retain her formal title, her influence may wane even when there is no formal notice that she has been transformed from the boss’s constant companion to a mere employee getting instructions by e-mail.

Why are gray areas so unsettling?

After all, ambiguity offers flexibility. Couples or business colleagues that can live with uncertainty without closure can probably function more effectively in a disruptive world. Accepting the reality of unfinished business allows, if not the return of old passions, the possibility of warm friendship which perhaps started the whole relationship. Closure brings too much finality on situations. Nuances are lost and the ability to function can be choked by either-or conditions.

The etymology of “ambiguous” springs from Latin ambi — both ways — plus agere — to drive. To be able to drive to more than one possible direction allows the driver to change course in an instant. Gray areas allow flexibility which a more defined contract of rights and obligations (like a pre-nuptial agreement) can only resolve with litigation. Isn’t company loyalty and going the extra mile for the customer eroded by assigned deliverables and penalties for missed targets?

Does ambiguity apply to politics?

Deals in the political arena thrive on ambiguity. Backroom negotiations and imprecise commitments based on a handshake are the currency of politicians. (Money can work too.) Ambiguous pronouncements, which include silence while “getting more facts,” allow a freer interpretation of events to avoid conflict without hints of caving in or surrender.

Sometimes, facts are slanted and twisted to support an ambiguous relationship of people and nations. And in these arrangements, even in the least murky situation, it’s only too clear which side gets the benefit of the doubt.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.