Picture the scene…
We were witnessing a scenario where an executive team had decided on a change of strategic direction that would affect every division. For many it meant a change of priorities and a need to reset budgets. What needed to happen, and the key communication messages were summarised before the meeting closed.
A month later, at a follow up session, it became clear that there was some confusion on what had actually been agreed. One director mentioned that her team had complained that not everyone was carrying the same level of urgency. Someone else started talking about “not throwing out babies with the bathwater” and another suggested the need to phase things in over a longer period given some unresolved issues.
The CEO appeared frustrated and expressed understandable concerns that the original decision was unravelling. When they tried to bring the group back to what they thought they had all committed to, it became apparent that some had been giving out mixed messages to the rest of the organisation. This then led to a further discussion about the validity of the original plan and its intent.
As consultants, we looked across to each other somewhat perplexed about what was happening and unsure about how best to intervene.
It’s in our nature
It might not always be the same context, but we are sure many are familiar with this kind of dynamic in meetings. You may even have participated in some form of social interaction in the last week or so when an apparent decision had been made whilst disguising some underlying doubts. One way of understanding this is to see these moments as a classic example of how ‘ambivalence’ plays out in group interactions.
Ambivalence is simply (or not so simply) the presence of coexisting or contradictory emotions and desires about something or someone. Those involved feel drawn in different directions simultaneously – maybe yes, maybe no. Such dissonance feels uncomfortable which is why we find ourselves going along with decisions and not recognising that we feel conflicted. Unfortunately, these doubts have a habit of returning and this can lead to decisions unravelling or commitment waning.
We would suggest that ambivalence is a natural phenomenon and sits waiting in the shadows as we attempt to make decisions or get commitment to a change initiative. In our experience, it can often play out over time as people oscillate between contradictory positions. For example, it’s not uncommon to find leaders being full of enthusiasm at the start of a change project only to find their energy and ambition draining away the closer they get to doing something. In relationships and teams, ambivalent feelings can get split between individuals where the other polarity is given to someone else to worry about. This means we don’t have to acknowledge or deal with our own ambivalence.
In this world of binary thinking, we use expressions like “are you on board or not?”, or “you are either on the bus or off the bus”. Our energies then focus on identifying who are on board versus the others which often leads to unhelpful assumptions and interpersonal conflict.
However, if we look at the situation in a different way, we might even see that people are constantly getting on and off the bus. And not always at the bus stops!
A different way of seeing
We’d like to offer a simple re-frame. Ambivalence is not necessarily a problem or something to be smoothed over. It simply reflects the messy reality of life and the dilemmas we face at every turn. Indeed, it is usually our incapacity and unwillingness to acknowledge and tolerate our contradictory feelings that can prove to be the real issue.
In the heat of an action orientated meeting, it might not always feel safe or wise to express any hint of doubt. These feelings are even more heightened especially if we are accessing our intuition or experience rather than a specific insight or data source. It can mean you end up going along with something because on the surface all seems logical and sensible. But unfortunately, the feelings often don’t go away, and your concerns can start to feel very real as circumstances unfold over time.
By embracing our ambivalences, it allows us to be open to creative possibilities that come from listening to different perspectives and without the need to side with a stance. In other words, rather than trying to rid ourselves of the discomfort of ambivalence, we can choose to take it seriously and face into it. This can help groups and individuals to see the complexity and the unforeseen consequences of a given scenario just from the simple act of hearing yourself articulate your doubts and your ideas. At the same time, you are deepening the sense you are making from hearing what others are expressing. We find, too, that this can build the resolve needed to develop an approach that feels congruent with what you are trying to achieve.
So, what happened next?
It seemed important to us to first acknowledge to the exec that we were feeling conflicted and confused as to how we could help. We shared our observation that some were staying quiet, some were expressing strong advocacy, and others were introducing alternative proposals.
When we introduced the idea that there might be some ambivalence in the group, it led to a new conversation about what was really going on for people and gradually some started to express their concerns about the new strategy. More than anything it became noticeable that there was a palpable relief and a shift in the attention and energy of the group. People were now leaning forward into the conversation. At this point, more team members started to share more openly about their fears and their anxieties about the situation they faced.
Rather than backtracking, we were struck at how much more determined everyone seemed to be to do what was required. But this time, more attention was being given to how they wished to make the changes, the risks they were facing and how they would support each other throughout the process.
If there’s a message in all of this, it’s that ambivalence is ever present in all of us and rather than burying or ignoring it, it can be a source of creativity. It can lead to better, more thought-through decisions and a deeper commitment to action by those involved.