Balanced Decision-Making and the Virtues of Ambivalence

Morela Hernandez and Cristiano L. Guarana and Katherine Bowers ,

Though it often gets a bad rap, ambivalence can be a powerful tool for leaders.

In casual conversation, ambivalence is often mistakenly used to express indifference — “Where do you want to have dinner?” “I’m ambivalent” — but it means the exact opposite. When you are ambivalent, you care deeply about a situation, see its positive and negative aspects, and are torn.

Ambivalence is a powerful, often uncomfortable feeling, say Darden colleagues Cristiano L. Guarana and Morela Hernandez, who co-authored “Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps,” recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Studies have shown that when people feel ambivalent and don’t know why, they’re prone to poor decisions. In a rush to end the discomfort of ambivalence, they fall back on biased assumptions, misinterpret facts or get sidetracked by irrelevant issues.

“Most of the literature on ambivalence focuses on how it leads to dysfunctional behaviors: poor decision-making, procrastinating and so forth,” says Guarana. “We often want to do anything simply to get out of that confused state.”

But what about when someone pauses and identifies the source of his or her conflicted evaluations? Could ambivalence then become useful? Guarana and Hernandez term this “identified ambivalence” and argue it actually leads to better, more ethical and less biased decisions.

“It takes you out of autopilot,” Guarana says. “It triggers deliberation.”

As such, it’s a powerful tool for leaders who need to make tough decisions in complex contexts.

When You “Own” Ambivalence

Because positive and negative thoughts are processed in different areas of our cerebral cortex, someone who is feeling ambivalent has a “larger portion of the brain activated,” Guarana notes. It’s taxing. At any given moment, we have only so much cognitive “processing” capacity, which is why when we feel overloaded, the brain looks for shortcuts.

But when someone consciously identifies the source of his or her ambivalence, it seems to shift the brain into investigation mode, according to a series of studies done by Guarana and Hernandez. The person who has identified the pressing issue triggering ambivalent evaluations shunts aside less critical matters and begins paying close attention to the “relevant, contrasting situational cues that enable effective decision-making,” Guarana and Hernandez write.

In this state of heightened awareness, people become better able to weed out irrelevant information, gather facts and consider more options.

“You broaden your radar, basically,” Guarana says. “It leads to a better understanding of the situation and more balanced decisions.”

Identified Ambivalence in Action

Imagine, for example, a leader feeling ambivalent when her team presents a prototype for the company’s new snack product. On the one hand, the executive believes the snack provides great nutrients and thinks the convenient packaging would appeal to the company’s core customer, working parents. On the other hand, she doesn’t like the single-serve packaging, which generates more trash and seems to contradict the brand’s “sustainability” promise.

By identifying the source of her ambivalence — she feels torn about the value of the new product — the leader devotes energy to a careful evaluation of the prototype. She comes up with several questions and directions for her team to explore further: the possibility of biodegradable packaging, or a way for single servings to be presented without individual wrapping. Without identifying her ambivalence, she might have reacted in a knee-jerk way: either blindly approving or rejecting the new product based on personal bias.

Identifying the source of ambivalence, Guarana and Hernandez write, “expands and deepens the cognitive evaluations of the option set.”

Reacting to a Complex World

Too often organizations equate effective leadership with quick, confident decisions. But Guarana and Hernandez argue that identified ambivalence has a critical role to play in today’s organizations, which increasingly require individuals to make tough decisions and weigh complex consequences.

“Very often, organizational norms pressure leaders to ignore their ambivalence and quickly come up with a solution,” Guarana says. “I don’t think people appreciate enough the positive aspects of working through the problem.”

Darden Professor Morela Hernandez and postdoctoral Research Associate Cristiano L. Guarana co-authored “Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps,” which appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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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