Naomi Rothman grew up in a house filled with conversations about ambivalence.
And yes, she says, that was a good thing. Rothman's father was fascinated by Shakespeare's plays, and he made it a point to bring his daughter along to as many of The Bard's plays as possible. Along the way, Rothman, assistant professor of management, says she came to appreciate one of the recurring themes of Shakespeare's work: The simple but undeniable idea that because much of life is a great deal more complex than we'd like it to be, emotional ambivalence—the state of having mixed feelings or strong but contradictory feelings about something or someone—is not only completely natural, but absolutely inevitable.
"Shakespeare's plays are infused with ambivalence," Rothman says. "The relationships in his plays are complicated and nuanced. The reality is, most things in life aren't as simple as we'd like to think they are, and people often have very complex feelings about situations in their lives and about the people that they live with or work with."
Today, Rothman is using her long-standing interest in the complexity of life—and the ambivalence it often elicits—to try to understand not only how ambivalence helps leaders make better decisions, but also when and why it negatively impacts the way those leaders are perceived. Rothman has explored these dynamics in any number of settings—from politics to business to healthcare. But one recurring theme ties all of the work together: Though emotional ambivalence often serves leaders well when it comes to decision-making, many observers have a hard time accepting that fact.
"I completely understand the need for leaders to be at times decisive, which can help them appear strong and powerful in the face of competitors or in times of conflict," she says. "But we have to understand that there is also a time and place for experiencing and even expressing contradictory states such as ambivalent emotions."
Rothman helped uncover the surprising importance of ambivalence in a 2013 paper, co-authored with colleagues from the University of Michigan. She found that when individuals felt emotional ambivalence (both happy and sad) about a certain problem or situation, they were more likely to be open to alternative perspectives relative to when they felt happy or sad alone. This was important, because as the study revealed, forming a judgment based on multiple, diverse perspectives helped the ambivalent individuals reduce errors in subsequent forecasting decisions. The authors went so far as to say that emotional ambivalence can help people to see the world in new ways and could even expand their overall cognitive abilities.
"We have learned that when individuals feel mixed emotions about a decision, this leads them to seek diverse perspectives and to even gather pieces of information that may conflict with each other," she says. "This openness to divergent perspectives actually allows individuals to make better decisions presumably because, when combined, the errors within those different pieces of information can be canceled out."
The value of mixed emotions, then, is clear. The problem, Rothman says, is that those benefits must be weighed against the fact that, according to her other research, there are a number of situations in which many people simply don't believe leaders should be ambivalent about anything, and so leaders are penalized for showing their ambivalence in those contexts. In a series of studies conducted over the past three years, Rothman has found that when individuals outwardly express ambivalence, they are more likely to be viewed as submissive, indecisive or even incompetent. In a competitive context, this could open up ambivalent leaders to more aggressive tactics from rivals, while in other contexts—politics, for instance—it can create the perception that they are not fit to lead. To put it simply, ambivalence hinders their influence—even though it really shouldn't.
Rothman hopes her work can help drive people to overcome this inherent bias and reconsider what it is they really want in their leaders, as well as inspire managers to use ambivalence as an influence tactic effectively, such as after establishing cooperative norms for engagement.
Naomi Rothman received her Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. Her research focuses on the social consequences of emotions in the workplace, power, justice and negotiations.
Story by Tim Hyland