Leaders Managing Ambivalence

All systems generate ambivalence towards leaders

Simply, what this means is that be it a family or an organisation, living or working together will generate experiences and feelings that may be positive (love, trust, respect, admiration, faith, safety etc) and negative (hurts, disappointments, resentment and anger). Leaders become the target of both because people in the organisation look at them both ways - crediting them for their happiness and accusing them for their dissatisfactions. Ambivalence refers to that state of the mind where one feels mixed and seemingly contrary emotions towards a person, towards a behaviour or a norm. For example - people may admire a leader for some qualities and virtues they see in them and maybe contemptuous of their fallibilities. People may love or like a leader for his intelligence but also feel resentful if they feel small and inadequate while engaging with him.

For a system to grow, it is necessary to engage with the ambivalence in the system

Socially and culturally, we are taught not to be critical of our parents, teachers, people in authority.  This reverence and value system carries into our adulthood and into our professional lives, wherein we find it difficult to express our criticism of leadership as a part of our communication. ‘Feedback giving’ in most organisations is often a top-down process, wherein it is easier for a boss to offer critical feedback to his subordinate, but takes a lot more trust, courage and energy for the reverse to happen. The barriers are psychosocial and psychocultural - our feelings and thoughts associated with criticising authority are fed by social and cultural norms of society.

Repression of anger, hurt, negative evaluations and judgements, therefore, lead to passive aggression and other dysfunctional coping behaviours amongst people. Even the most popular of leaders may be surprised by events and experiences from his people which are contrary to s/he had expected of them based on their stated expressions. So, the most loyal of teams can sometimes abdicate responsibility, or the most responsible manager in the team can sometimes display inaction and silence at a time that calls for engagement.

Expression of ambivalence is often seen as a harmful process, damaging relationships, trust and memberships of people to a system, to the leadership. Yet, non-engagement with ambivalence sets the rot in any organisation or even family or relationship. Inauthenticity breeds, what gets stated hides what is felt. However, working with ambivalence requires safety, structure, boundaries and a process to manage the stress that it generates. For example - for the leadership of an organisation to listen to judgements and criticisms require emotional strength or resilience and affirmation to be able to accept what belongs to her/him, what may belong to the system and not to them personally and what may be projections or displaced feelings (for example, people who have had failed dependencies or trauma in the family in their childhood or adolescence may grow up with mistrust and suspicion towards leadership or authority in any organisation).

Yet, engaging with ambivalence builds psychological growth for an organisation, or even in interpersonal relationships. It is the only way to keep relationships alive, be it in a professional or personal space. It strengthens empathy and authenticity in relatedness in an organisation.


Working with ambivalence

This is a case of a B-to-B organisation, with a team of 7 senior managers working with the CEO. This organisation works with other 20 small to mid-level organisations in India as partners and collaborators, wherein it brings in strategy to achieve agreed upon goals for the consortium. Once projects are finalised and laid out, in operations, the 20 partner organisations are accountable to deliver, and the mother organisation offers technical support and competency building training to overcome glitches. The role of the 7 senior managers is therefore to manage the ambivalence of those 20 partner organisations that this company works with. 

The CEO of an organisation observes that while he may enjoy the admiration and loyalty of the rank of 7 senior managers in the organisation, in various situations their behaviours seem contrary to their stated affections, trust and loyalty. In recent past, when a couple of partner organisations have gone rogue on clauses of their contracts, resist agreed processes or actions, the CEO called conversations to identify problems and solutions, it often generated denials and defensiveness, or accusations from the leaders of the one or two partner organisations in question. And in that process, the CEO observed that some of his team members who, he expected to join in that conversation, remained passive.  When asked, they said ‘I didn’t really know what to say, how to intervene’, ‘I thought you were dealing with the issue yourself and I felt I had nothing to contribute or add’, etc.

We were approached by the CEO to understand where the problem lay. In the first session, while reflecting on the nature of ambivalence that may lie in the system, the managers identified reasons why stakeholders could feel ambivalent towards the organisation because the demands were uncomfortable even if legitimate and rational, and triggered feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. It led the group to the second question - in such situations, where stakeholders were feeling resistant towards the demand from the organisation, what psychological role did they take and how does that translate into actions?

In the second session, the group was asked to identify (individually) what attracted them to the CEO, what repelled them and what made them feel ambivalent towards him/her. The group identified some common factors - such as dynamism, knowledge of the industry and business, ability to look at a situation using multiple lenses etc, as qualities that strengthened their faith in the CEO. They identified that their admiration for his leadership and capacities also generated self-doubt, of not being good enough, not being adequate, not being ‘intelligent or create of dynamic enough’ as feelings that made them feel ambivalent towards the CEO. Finally, they also identified how the CEO’s impatience and temper, and sharp, incisive and derisive words were hurtful. However, all of them coped with it in two ways - (a) rationalising that the CEO’s intent may not have been to hurt them personally, and therefore to focus on the issue over which he/she reacted and (b) give themselves time to calm down, set aside their residual feelings and get on with the tasks and business at hand.

The conversation that ensued pivoted around several questions.

1. What could be the reasons for none of the managers, all very different personalities, but all of them displaying the same behaviour of avoiding engagement with their ambivalence or resentment towards the CEO?

2. What are some of the implicit beliefs, values, fears or apprehensions that made them hold their hurts in a closet and only affirm their faith and trust in the CEO for his/her abilities and competencies?

3. What new action choices would they like to adopt as a behavioural experimentation to engage with their ambivalence?

Some of the insights generated by the team of managers explained how subconsciously introjected beliefs about social politeness makes the experience of anger or receiving it difficult. They also identified how aggression, when it comes from a male authority figure feels less threatening or disturbing than when it comes from a female authority figure, a result of socialisation and acculturation. Each member of the manager's team and the CEO chose a range of actions for exploration and experimentation which ranged from being more mindful of communicating resentments and anger, the CEO mentoring the managers on skills and qualities that they admire in him and putting it down as an area of investment in Capability Building and finally not continue with rationalisations to repress one’s hurt and feelings of being insulted.

Engagement with ambivalence in an organisation is equally stimulating and threatening. The process needs safety, flow, structure and faith to engage with evocative as well as provocative questions. One of the participants reported - ‘I enjoyed the process between the questions and the answers the most…. It is when I felt most alive’.


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