Yes and No: Productive Ambivalence on Teams

Morela Hernandez and Cristiano Guarana and Kate Degen

Ambivalence is a bad thing. And a good thing. Is that confusing?

The state of simultaneously carrying contradictory attitudes toward a situation can naturally lead to head-scratching. And with contradictory demands and goals in the workplace, leaders and followers can find themselves stuck. Prioritize quality or efficiency? Continue with an efficient existing process or embrace untested innovation?

Traditional research shows that ambivalence can distract workers by sparking coping mechanisms that keep them from thoroughly evaluating a situation. After all, feeling conflicted is not a comfortable state; it can lead to procrastination, detachment, confusion and lack of action. However, we find that when a leader and follower who work closely and frequently together both experience and share their ambivalence about a situation, they can deal with it thoughtfully. Shared ambivalence can be an opportunity for collaboration, lead to better decisions for the organization, and build confidence and growth in employees.

What Is Shared Ambivalence?

To understand how we arrive at shared ambivalence and its benefits, we must first understand where ambivalence begins. Evidence suggests that negative and positive opinions are independently processed by different parts of the brain. The fact that they are independent explains why they can occur simultaneously, causing you to experience ambivalence. When ambivalence is present within the relationship between a leader and follower, whether it is one-sided or shared, it impacts the outcome of their working relationship and goals. In the case of shared ambivalence, leaders and followers are more likely to jointly and thoroughly process information, which results in more informed, effective decision-making.

Interpersonal Processes

There are four possible combinations of ambivalence between leaders and followers. Each has a unique process and outcome based on the level of ambivalence experienced by each party.

Automatic Inference

  • When both a leader and follower experience low levels of ambivalence or, in other words, are comfortable with one solution to a problem, they are likely to arrive at this solution with little deliberation. Think of it as a mindless task — something that is familiar becomes routine, therefore your brain functions on autopilot to save energy for when you’re faced with a truly difficult problem. So when two people have little ambivalence, they just jump to agreeable and familiar conclusions. This is considered a “sense-jumping” process that results in automatic inferences.

Issue Selling  

  • When a leader experiences a higher level of ambivalence than the follower, the follower is likely to try and “sell” his or her idea to the leader. Highly ambivalent leaders will look for ways to reduce their uncertainty, which makes them more susceptible to influence. Followers often try to build credibility, so in this situation they are likely to engage in “upward sense-giving” efforts, which results in the leaders accepting their ideas to arrive at common goals.

Subordination

  • Leaders often bear the responsibility of making sense of situations in order to guide their followers. As such, when followers experience a higher level of ambivalence than their leaders, “downward sense-giving,” or influence from leader to follower, is likely to occur, given the natural tendency of followers to be subordinate. So while followers will learn from their leaders’ insight when they are ambivalent or unsure of themselves, they are still likely to passively accept ideas.

Joint Contextual Interpretation

  • When both the leader and follower have high levels of ambivalence, this is what we refer to as “shared ambivalence.” They are likely to work together and share ideas, thus resulting in a well-thought-out solution. We believe that when the leader and follower share ambivalence, it breaks down the traditional hierarchical structure and allows them to work as equals, combining their unique experiences, beliefs and values in order to “sense-build” and arrive at a joint conclusion.

Positive Influences

While shared leader-follower ambivalence can occur on its own, two factors may enhance this process.

Physical Proximity

  • Leaders and followers who work closely are more likely to experience similar environmental influences and share ambivalent states than if they work far away from each other.

Relational Proximity

  • Leaders and followers with high-quality relationships based on loyalty and trust are able to speak openly, make decisions together and experience less of a hierarchical power struggle.

Constraints

While leader-follower ambivalence is born from complex work environments and enhanced by physical proximity and high-quality relationships, it can also be constrained by time, frequency and expertise.

Time Availability

  • On the one hand, when there is no deadline, leaders and followers can procrastinate, which puts off working together toward a goal entirely. On the other hand, when there is a tight deadline, leaders and followers have too little time to collaborate. Whereas this often limits ambivalence due to the lack of time for it to even occur, it can also lead to decisions based on limited prior experiences.

Decision Frequency

  • Leaders and followers who frequently make decisions together can develop routines or processes that help them make these decisions quicker and without much thought, therefore attenuating the need for collaboration.

Expertise

  • An expert leader or follower will have a strong influence over an ambivalent individual because the expert already understands the subject matter and decreases the need for the other person to think deeply about it. Since experts are considered more legitimate sources on the subject matter, others are likely to look to them for the correct answers.

Tapping Into Shared Ambivalence

Organizations can use ambivalence as a catalyst to foster a collaborative environment. This can be done by empowering leaders to focus on idea exchange and to encourage followers to participate in decision-making processes.

In order to achieve collaborative exchanges, organizations should encourage followers to be proactive and leaders to be open to constructive conflicts. This could be achieved through idea incubation initiatives or debates within and across departments. Follower confidence can also be built through reward systems and training. Fostering collaboration and learning enhances employee development, meaning that organizations that adopt these systems will have more talent to choose from for future leadership positions.

You likely wear many hats at work. You might be someone’s boss, but also report to a supervisor — all while maintaining personal relationships with colleagues around you. To effectively navigate these roles, it’s best to strive for a collaborative environment. Our research shows that collaboration, especially when derived from ambivalence in complicated work situations, leads to higher-quality discussion, carefully considered solutions and well-rounded employees.

Darden Professor Morela Hernandez and post-doctoral Research Associate Cristiano Guarana co-authored “Building Sense out of Situational Complexity: The Role of Ambivalence in Creating Functional Leadership Processes,” published in Organizational Psychology Review. Research on ambivalence in organizations and leadership processes is part of their ongoing research agenda.

About the Faculty

Morela Hernandez

Hernandez is an expert on leadership, with research focusing on the ethics of leadership and the influence of diversity on organizational decision-making and processes.

Before coming to Darden, Hernandez worked in finance. She has also served as a leadership development coach at Duke University and the London Business School, as well... Learn More

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