The Upside of Ambivalence

Nils Plambeck, Professor of Strategy and Business Policy - April 15th, 2009
confusion in a business environment, ambivalence

Key Ideas

• Evaluation of a situation as both positive and negative generates broader organizational involvement in the solution-finding process and more novel and creative solutions.

• CEO interest in divergent perspectives reduces friction between third parties.

• Intensity is crucial. Only strongly positive and negative evaluations increase the likelihood of organizational action; weakly ambivalent evaluations have the opposite effect. 

Nils Plambeck ©HEC Paris

HEC professor of strategy and business policy, Nils Plambeck’s primary research interests cover the determinants and consequences of cognition in an organizational context. (...)

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“Ambivalence” tends to have negative connotations of indecisiveness and therefore weakness. But Nils Plambeck and Klaus Weber’s study on CEO ambivalence and organizational action-taking proves the contrary. They have found that simultaneously positive and negative CEO evaluations of a strategic issue are more likely to provoke organizational action than univalent—positive or negative—assessments.


CEOs typically classify issues as either positive or negative, but routine is occasionally disrupted, and CEOs are faced with situations that are seen as both positive and negative. The issues concerned tend to be complex and multi-faceted, and Plambeck explains that the result is not just more action, but also multi-dimensional initiatives. In effect, CEO ambivalence leads to a more thorough exploration of an issue and consideration of a broader range of perspectives. There is also an emotional reaction that drives CEOs’ more comprehensive responses to ambivalent issues. The non-routine nature of simultaneously positive and negative evaluations causes CEOs to experience “emotional arousal,” which translates into increased energy and motivation. To respond to the negative and the positive aspects of a matter, CEOs consult more people and departments, which is largely beneficial to organizational action. “The more participatory process of search and consensus-building generates a greater sense of ownership of decisions and hence increases commitment to implementation.”


Greater organizational involvement and less friction are thus the major benefits of ambivalence inspiring action. Holding positive and negative evaluations of a strategic issue enables wider organizational involvement; executive doors open to any member of the organization who has insight to contribute. In addition, the CEO brings parties with divergent beliefs to the same side—the CEO’s side. In the case of new EU entrants, the marketing department might see new opportunities while the production division may fear local factory closings. CEOs who explore both of these positions obtain fuller sets of information, avoid the always harmful specter of confrontation between business units, and send a message of mutual respect and tolerance throughout the organization. Once CEOs have collected information, they can integrate different viewpoints and are likely to come up with atypical solutions. Solutions might not be novel in and of themselves, but they are on the organizational level. According to Plambeck, novelty and creativity are direct consequences of the wider search process and broader employee contributions. In comparison, previous research has argued (Ocasio, 1995) that when an issue is clearly positive or negative; management generally draws from a repertoire of familiar strategies.


CEO ambivalence drives organizational actions and innovation when the CEO is strongly undecided. Only highly positive and highly negative evaluations create the “emotional arousal and alertness” that inspires action-taking. Mildly contradictory views are not only insufficient to provoke action but might send signals of CEO indecisiveness and irresolution. On the other hand, Plambeck has found that highly ambivalent CEO evaluations “not only [promote] organizational action-taking per se, but also increase scope of action.”

Based on an interview with Nils Plambeck and on the article, “CEO Ambivalence and Responses to Strategic Issues” ,Organization Scienc e, November-December 2009, vol. 20, n° 6, pp. 993-1010, co-authored with Klaus Weber, from the Northwestern University Kellogg School ofManagement

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Implications for Managers
Implications for Managers

Plambeck’s study establishes the benefits of executive ambivalence and reveals it as a potentially powerful leadership tool.

• By expressing strong feelings for an issue as both positive and negative for their company, CEOs can trigger greater participation from a wider range of organizational members and departments. As a result, more mindful solutions become possible.

• CEO acknowledgement of the soundness of a variety of viewpoints (i.e., that an event will indeed create both opportunities and threats) is reassuring for divergent parties, brings them together as allies, and increases their commitment to problem-solving.


Nils Plambeck and Klaus Weber studied the link between CEO ambivalence and organizational action by integrating findings in social psychology with the behavioral theory of the firm. The researchers tested their theory with data from a two-wave survey of 104 German CEOs (half in manufacturing, half in services). In the first survey, CEOs were questioned about the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, and the researchers measured degrees of positive and negative evaluations of this event. In the second survey (2005), CEOs were asked whether their firms had taken any action specifically in response to the event. Survey instruments included single and multi-item scales with 7-point Likert response formats. The study breaks new ground, as it addresses a gap in research, which has previously focused on action stemming from positive or negative interpretations of strategic issues. This study is probably the first to examine the effect of simultaneously positive and negative CEO evaluations on organizational action.