The Enduring Value of Emotional Ambivalence

Everyone likes to think they have all the answers. Naomi Rothman's work continues to prove that, in the end, people are all much better off when they can admit they don't have all the answers—and that others actually might.

Rothman, an assistant professor of management, has spent the past few years developing a line of research focused on the importance of emotional ambivalence, as well as the value that ambivalence has in the executive suite, the workplace and even in day-to-day lives. At the core of the work is the idea that people are often better served if they are less certain about the best way forward, less decisive when facing important decisions, and less prone to thinking that they are capable of finding the "right" answers on their own. Because as Rothman's work has shown, the perspectives of others (even those of our adversaries) can help inform not only better decision-making, but more positive outcomes as well.

In one recent study, Rothman and co-authors from the University of Michigan found that when individuals were feeling emotionally ambivalent (rather than purely positive or purely negative) about a problem or situation, they were more likely to be open to others' perspectives on that same issue. And specifically because of that openness—and the resulting decisions made, which were based on multiple perspectives, rather than just one—these individuals made fewer errors; indeed the process of taking in varied views helped improve overall cognitive performance.

More recently, Rothman has looked at the value of ambivalence specifically in the realm of office relationships. In ongoing work conducted with a colleague from the University of North Carolina, Rothman has found that workers can gain real benefits, both for the bottom line and for themselves, from the hot-and-cool sentiments that typify relationships with so-called "frenemies."

Because these relationships are less predictable—comfortable some days, difficult on others—they can force individuals to make a greater effort to see issues from another's point of view. And again, Rothman has found that such behaviors can produce positive results. "These relationships can actually result in enhanced perspective-taking," Rothman explains. "That's important because in a variety of organizational contexts, such as negotiations, there are significant benefits from being able to understand and analyze a problem from multiple perspectives."

"These relationships may not always be comfortable," she said. "But we find they have real value."