Towards New Standards: A Qualitative Study of Aspirational Talk as a Tool for Organizational Change

Katrine Amalie Møller Pedersen & Carina Abildgaard Frank

Student thesis: Master thesis


The aim of this thesis is to examine the communication phenomenon Aspirational Talk. Aspirational talk refers to communication that announces ideals and intentions rather than reflects actual behaviours, and thereby consists of a gap between talk and actions. Research gap The advocates of aspirational talk argue that strategic inconsistency between words and actions is useful for organizations in order to stimulate positive changes. Communication with inconsistency between talk and action is, however, often exposed to criticism in the general public, where the dominant ideal is to “practise what you preach”. This conviction is also seen in large parts of the strategic communication literature, where an ideal of consistency is dominant thus organizational credibility equals total agreement between talk and action. Since aspirational talk draws on a research tradition that considers communication as performative, it is in opposition to the above-mentioned ideal of consistency. Due to the theoretical foundation of aspirational talk, it is argued that strategic difference between talk and action can be useful for organizations in order to stimulate positive changes. The contrast between aspirational talk and the ideal of consistency, therefore, constitutes a research gap, in which this thesis originates from. Within this research gap the objective was to: Investigate the theoretical and practical opportunities and limitations related to the use of aspirational talk as a tool for organizational change. In order to examine this objective, the Municipality of Copenhagen was included as a case study. The Municipality of Copenhagen has since 2009 communicated a visionary ambition to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital, and we therefore argue that the municipality represents a contemporary example of aspirational talk, since there currently is a gap between talk and action in the municipality. Examination of Aspirational Talk In order to examine the theoretical and practical opportunities and limitations related to the use of aspirational talk as a tool for organizational changes, we conducted three sub-questions after which we structured the thesis. Initially we discussed the societal and theoretical premises related to the phenomenon. Based on this discussion, we deduced theoretical implications for aspirational talk, which we used in order to analyse the practical opportunities and limitations for the phenomenon. Secondly, we conducted a critical discourse analysis based on Norman Faircloughs approach, which connects social discourses with textual analysis. The empirical foundation for this analysis was three climate publications from the Municipality of Copenhagen, which were addressed towards different stakeholder groups. Finally, we studied the practical use of aspirational talk in the Municipality of Copenhagen through interviews with relevant people related to the climate ambitions. The interviews and the following analysis were structured on the basis of the theoretical implications related to aspirational talk, which were deduced from the societal and theoretical discussion. Findings Based on our examinations we obtained a nuanced understanding of aspirational talk related to both the theoretical and practical perspectives. In relation to the first sub-question, we identified equilibrium of opportunities and limitations for aspirational talk. The most notable opportunities consisted of positive internal and external development potential, whereas the most dominant limitation was found in the general public’s intolerance of inconsistency between talk and action. Based on the second sub-question, we identified a use of aspirational talk in the Municipality of Copenhagen’s climate publications, which we argue was used in order to construct a certain reality around the municipality’s climate ambition. This was rhetorical expressed by articulating the ambition as something that with certainty will take place. In relation to the final sub-question, we found more practical opportunities than limitations for aspirational talk. The dominant practical opportunities were found in the employees’ involvement and commitment towards the ambition. Moreover, we identified a general pride among the employees, and a belief that the ambition has the potential to create both internal and external changes. The sole practical limitation for aspirational talk was a potential criticism if the municipality does not achieve their goal of CO2-neutrality. Based on a combination of the three sub-questions, it was therefore possible to answer the overall problem statement, and hereby contribute with an understanding of organizational use of aspirational talk.

EducationsMSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages132
SupervisorsLars Thøger Christensen