Why Ambivalence Matters

If you were to ask someone to create a list of emotions, they would likely write down happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, gladness, etc. and even indifference.  Yet, when experiencing any type change in our lives, whether it’s personal or professional, individual or organizational, we often harbor a range of thoughts and emotions simultaneously – more succinctly described as ambivalence.   Interestingly enough, it’s not likely that would make the list.  According to Case Western University’s Sandy Piderit, ambivalence can manifest as cognitive ambivalence or what we think about a situation.  For example, if a company plans to move its headquarters 20 miles up the road, an employee may be excited to move into new office space, but not relish the idea of a longer commute.  It can also play out as emotional ambivalence or what we feel about the change.  If a company announces a layoff, the employee may feel grateful for keeping his/her job, upset that some fellow co-workers are losing theirs, and possibly angry at senior management if they are all staying.  So what should change agents do when it comes to understanding and managing the complex beliefs and emotions that comprise ambivalence when leading through change?  One thought would be to foster that ambivalence.

Last year, I wrote  Peers and the Power of Persuasion and cited an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review (Winter 2008) by Griskevicius, Cialdini, and Goldstein titled: Applying (and Resisting) Peer Influence.  The authors stated that since the likelihood of being influenced by peers increases during times of uncertainty, leaders would be wise to heed this advice: 1) When communicating a change initiative, focus more on horizontal communication than vertical.  One positive exposure of the message from a peer can have more impact than multiple exposures of the same message from a supervisor.  2) “When working to ensure that the voices of supportive employees will be heard, managers often select those who are the most articulate when they should instead favor those who are the most similar in circumstances to the individuals who are still unconvinced.  So if the resistance to an initiative is strongest among employees with the longest tenures, then a fellow old-timer who has genuinely embraced the change could be a better advocate than someone who might be more eloquent but has only recently come on board.”

Think about the last time senior management delivered an announcement to the employees in your company.  What happened? You absorbed the information and then expressed your thoughts and feelings to your co-workers.  You helped one another make sense of what you were thinking and experiencing after just hearing the news, and then you continued those conversations over time as everyone worked their way through what the change would mean.  Organizations would be wise to foster this ambivalence by holding inside cross-functional peer group meetings. By giving employees forums to work through their thoughts and feelings, hear other perspectives, and make decisions about how, together, they can move the organization forward, leaders would being doing themselves and their employees a great service.

Leaders spend so much time trying to determine whether employees are for or against change, they often miss the fact that it’s both.   If you want your employees to embrace change, you may want to start by fostering their ambivalence.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Leo Bottary

Leo J. Bottary is an adjunct professor for two of Seton Hall University's graduate level programs in strategic communication and leadership.  Leo has enjoyed a 25-year career counseling leaders in the areas of strategic comm…

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  1. Prime Outsourcing

    March 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Sometimes management missed this point. They are close minded and afraid of confrontation. Thus, making the employees rebel against them. If they are just willing to address all employees’ concerns and start fostering employees’ ambivalence then they will both enjoy the harmonious relationship in work.

  2. Elisa Spain

    March 20, 2013 at 5:38 am

    Thoughtful insights and an excellent reminder of the power of peer groups.

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