The Paradox of Ambivalence

Story by Jack Croft
Image by iStock/z_wei

Leaders and teams that embrace ambivalence perform better. So why can it hurt your career?

illustration of leadership

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, after two decades of research, Naomi Rothman has found ambivalence is capable of generating both positive and negative outcomes when it comes to leadership.

“Scientifically, ambivalence is defined as the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions, thoughts, attitudes, about one thing—a single target. That target can be a person, a situation, an object, an event, an idea or your work,” says Rothman, an associate professor of management who holds the Scott Hartz ’68 Term Professorship. Also, she is associate dean and director for undergraduate programs for the College of Business.

Rothman’s more recent research has built on earlier research that examines how expressing ambivalence affects interpersonal social interactions and how experiencing ambivalence affects individual decision making.

Her work has looked at how experiencing ambivalence shapes the way leaders make decisions, as well as the flip side—how expressing ambivalence shapes outcomes for “followers,” or members of workplace groups and teams.

On the positive side, leaders who experience ambivalence—mixed emotions, conflicted feelings—especially involving complex projects or decisions “actually seek more information from their team members,” she says. “They don’t just rely on their own expertise and knowledge. 

“Those team members then start to seek more information from each other. The leader is modeling how to be an effective teammate. They’re fostering an environment where people seek expertise from others, and that becomes the norm for behavior.”

The bottom line, Rothman says, is teams open to the expertise and knowledge of others perform better on objective performance measures. 

Rothman also found that “ambivalent leaders are able to adjust and adapt their behavior according to situational requirements,” asking for more information when a project is complex, but not when it’s simple.

In a recent series of studies that is being prepared for a journal article, Rothman found that, when leaders show their emotional ambivalence, team members perceive them as “more open to input and better listeners than the less ambivalent leaders. 

“An ambivalent leader actually inspires team members to speak up with constructive ideas and be more innovative. The reason for this—and I think the best part, looking at it from an educator perspective—is that ambivalence increases the intellectual curiosity of team members, which is so cool.”

But there’s a twist: The characteristics Rothman’s research suggests would make someone a better decision maker and more effective leader are likely to block that person from being promoted to a leadership position. Why? “Because we, as a society, have certain stereotypes in our minds about what strong leaders look like,” she says. “Those stereotypical characteristics tend to be decisive and dominant, agentic and positive.

“We don’t always gain from showing our ambivalence,” she says. “Yet, to solve today’s complex problems, we need leaders who are cognitively flexible, open-minded and accepting of balanced (positive and negative) feedback. Future leaders will need to be less defensive, better forecasters and more aware of bias. 

“Even though ambivalence cultivates these ways of thinking, it does not necessarily help you get into a leadership position. It probably won’t help you get promoted. It might even lead you to get lower raises, relative to less ambivalent peers.”

Why it Matters

“There are pervasive negative beliefs about ambivalence, yet I have found in numerous studies that the evidence does not line up. Feeling emotionally ambivalent actually helps us see the bigger picture compared to when we feel one [strong positive or negative] emotion, like pure happiness or pure sadness or pure anxiety,” Rothman says.

PODCAST: Naomi Rothman on the Value — and Potential Pitfalls — of Ambivalence