In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Naomi Rothman, a leading expert in the study of ambivalence and its value in individual and team performance in various professional and social settings.
Dr. Rothman is an associate professor of management at Lehigh University’s College of Business, where she holds the Scott Hartz ’68 Term Professorship. She also is associate dean and director of the college’s undergraduate programs.
Rothman spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript.
Jack Croft: Let's start by defining what ambivalence is and what it isn't. For example, in common usage, it often has a negative connotation, getting conflated with indecisiveness or being wishy-washy and is viewed largely as a sign of weakness. Has ambivalence gotten a bad rap? And how should we understand ambivalence?
Naomi Rothman: Scientifically, ambivalence is defined quite simply as the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions or thoughts, attitudes, about one thing — a single target. And that target can be a person, a situation, an object, an event, an idea. It can be about your work.
It's best thought of as strongly positive and negative at the same time, that you're pulled in two different directions. And it creates these internal feelings, a lot of the time, of being torn and conflicted. So it really shouldn't be confused with words like indifference or indecisiveness. Indifference is kind of not caring. It's more like a shoulder shrug. But that's the lack of emotional reaction.
Ambivalence is having both positive and negative reactions at the same time. As a social scientist, I'm really interested in understanding these ambivalent thoughts and feelings without providing judgment about them. For instance, removing any normative judgments. But I think you're right. Yes, in Western cultures, like in North America, ambivalence often really gets a bad rap. And there are some interesting reasons that this may be the case.
Ambivalence, I think, may go against our preferences in Western cultures for dominance and agency, for speed, for positivity. So I think you're onto something with this notion that ambivalence may be getting a bad rap and has for a while.
Croft: What was it that first drew you to ambivalence as a focus for your academic research?
Rothman: [My father] taught me to value ambivalence through the way in which he used ambivalence as a tool in his own teaching. He used it in his leadership style. He used it in his communication style at the dinner table … He got us to think more deeply, to reconsider our assumptions, to explore ideas more expansively, to try to be less biased, to try to be more creative, to try to be less defensive when our beliefs were questioned … I was raised to believe that ambivalence was this good thing. It could be a tool for learning. And I had seen it work in the way my dad interacted with us.
Croft: How does experiencing ambivalence shape the way leaders make decisions?
Rothman: This is, I think, a really exciting path in my research because a common concern that people have is that ambivalence in leadership will cause inaction, right? It'll cause hesitation and procrastination and delays. I've even been told by people, "Ambivalence kills people." But I've always had this model in my father of ambivalence actually being a leadership strength. So I was always pretty skeptical when I heard this feedback from people.
We originally wrote a theory, [co-author] Shimul Melwani and I, about how ambivalence could be helpful to leaders, particularly in contexts that involved change in complexity. And we've now tested this theory in numerous empirical studies and here's what we found.
In one paper, we found that when leaders experience ambivalence, maybe they're mixed and conflicted about their consulting work project, those leaders tend to be more likely to seek and utilize the knowledge and ideas of their team members. They don't just rely on their own expertise and knowledge. They're not just the sole hero or heroine.
And what's even better is that through a social learning process, those team members then start to seek more information from each other. So the leader is modeling how to be an effective teammate. And they're fostering an environment where people seek others’ expertise, and that becomes the norm for behavior. And you know what's even better? Those teams perform better on objective performance measures. We've tested this both in the laboratory and with real teams and consulting firms, where the consulting clients report the performance of those teams, so it's completely independent measures of performance.
What we see is that this flow of benefits are, in fact, even more likely to occur when the projects are really complex. Ambivalent leaders are paying attention to the task context. They're saying, "This is a really complex project. So I'm going to ask my team members what they know, what they perceive, what they can tell me about how to solve this problem." And they're more likely to do that, these ambivalent leaders, when the projects are complex. They're not going to do it when the projects are simple.
This tells us that the ambivalent leaders are able to adjust and adapt their behavior according to the situational requirements. They're not simply relying on other people to do their work. They're noticing that the problems are complex and would benefit from a more diverse pool of information in order to solve it.
What's more, we've recently found in a series of studies that we're writing up for another journal article that when leaders show their emotional ambivalence to their team members — they express it and their team members are able to detect it or perceive it — those team members perceive those ambivalent leaders as more open to input and better listeners than the less ambivalent leaders.
This actually inspires the team members to speak up with constructive ideas and to be more innovative. The reason for this, and I think this is absolutely the best part as an educator, is because ambivalence increases their team members’ intellectual curiosity. I just think that's so cool.
Croft: Looking at how expressing ambivalence shapes the outcomes of followers in groups and teams, there seems to be an interesting paradox that when team members or followers show ambivalence, it actually enhances their performance. But because they don't necessarily look like leaders the way other people perceive them, it actually harms their chances of being promoted. What's going on with that?
Rothman: This is our warning signal, right? Because we, as a society, have certain stereotypes in our minds about what leaders look like. And these stereotypes in our minds, at least, tend to be decisive and dominant, agentic and positive. And we don't always gain from showing our ambivalence.
What we found is that even though ambivalence cultivates these ways of thinking that we need in our leaders — We need cognitively flexible leaders. We need open minded leaders. We need leaders who are open to balance both positive and negative feedback, who are less defensive, who are more accurate in forecasting and more aware of bias — ambivalence does not help you get into a leadership position.
It actually won't help you get promoted. It can even lead you to get lower raises, particularly if you have bosses who are low in humility. My dissertation research was in negotiations. When you show your ambivalence in a competitive negotiation, where there's a win or lose dynamic, you end up getting dominated, taken advantage of. People take your air time in a meeting and they take more money from you.
Here, we're showing, "Yeah, and if you show your ambivalence as a subordinate or a team member, you may actually not get the promotion that you're looking for. And you may not get higher raises or raises that are as high as somebody who's less ambivalent."
This suggests to me that ambivalence appears to be "wrong" in status contexts. These are contexts where we really value independence, dominance, agency.