Managing Ambivalent Team Relationships - Primeast

An ambivalent relationship is classed as a relationship in which both positive and negative feelings are present, usually with tension and conflict.

It's the classic love/hate situation and research has shown that this dynamic usually leads to positive outcomes when in the workplace.

Indeed, ambivalent relationships often result in creative problem-solving and accurate decision-making. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Shimul Melwani, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the University of North Carolina, and Naomi Rothman, assistant professor of management at Lehigh University, explained that when ambivalent relationships are present, individuals are more likely to spend time trying to understand what the relationship means, and therefore put themselves in the other's shoes. Furthermore, because ambivalent relationships breed a sense of uncertainty, those involved are more likely to work harder to establish their position.

The impact on teams

What do love/hate relationships within a team mean for those leading them? After all, it's important that all team members know where they stand and are aligned to the same purpose for a team to function and if there is uncertainty there can't be unity, can there?

For leaders it's important to ensure the conflict and tension created by ambivalent relationships doesn't turn into fighting. When negotiations break down and discourse stops being constructive it's a sign for team leaders that ambivalent relationships have become dysfunctional and there is no longer alignment to purpose. However, negative conflict might not manifest itself in obvious brawls and verbal fights. A failure to engage in open, unregulated debate is often the cause of disengagement and real hostility. At this point, ambivalent relationships no longer exist - relations are purely confrontational.

At Primeast we work with leaders and their teams to ensure a culture of openness is created to allow purpose to evolve through constructive dialogue. This ensures all parties remain engaged and feel they can air their opinions in a safe environment.

The importance of trust

To create such a culture, it's important that trust exists, even when there are ambivalent relationships in a group. This poses a challenge, as being unwilling to admit vulnerabilities is one characteristic of an ambivalent relationship. Yet without honesty, there can be no trust. It's the responsibility of leaders to create an environment in which weakness isn't frowned upon in order to counteract the natural dynamic of a love/hate relationship.

It's also important that leaders are clear with team members to help negate some of the uncertainty that comes with ambivalence. Part of doing this is ensuring each employee knows their role, how this relates to the overall purpose and values, and what accountability procedures are in place to protect against digression.

It's a tough balancing act

Balancing all these factors means leaders can better ensure those in their team are working as a collective and are striving towards the same goals, without sacrificing the benefits that come with ambivalent relationships and conflict...it can be a difficult thing to do.

For more insights into the benefits of conflict, read Fighting, not conflict, is a sign of dysfunction.

Primeast have been working with organisations globally for over thirty years as learning and development partners, creating outstanding leaders who are equipped to lead organisations where people can thrive.

To start a conversation about how to 'get the balance right' with us today, you can email Simon directly or call Primeast on +44 (0) 1423 531083.

About the Author


Simon Tarver

Simon Tarver is a Senior Consultant and Director at Primeast. He possesses a broad range of experience in the design, delivery and management of personal and team development and coaching.

Simon's strong set of values are based on helping people develop to a level of higher performance. He has a history of effectively managing and delivering innovative and challenging development initiatives for clients from all industry sectors.

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