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Feeling Mixed, Ambivalent, and in Flux: The Social Functions of Emotional Complexity for Leaders


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We propose that the experience and expression of emotional complexity, including the simultaneous and sequential experience of emotional complexity, can be beneficial for leaders' ability to lead change. Using the social functions of emotions perspective, we suggest that the primary function of emotional complexity is to increase cognitive flexibility. Specifically, we present a model that explains how, when, and why emotional complexity is functional for leaders at the individual and interpersonal levels of analysis. At the individual level, leaders who experience emotional complexity are more cognitively flexible and, thus, make more adaptive decisions. We further propose that not all leaders will experience such benefits from emotional complexity; individual differences of neuroticism and openness to experience will moderate the leader emotional complexity-cognitive flexibility relationship. Extending our analysis to the interpersonal level, we propose that when followers observe leaders expressing emotional complexity, they will make positive inferences of cognitive flexibility and be empowered to act proactively. We explore a relational factor-the followers' shared vantage point with their leader-and a situational factor-competing demands as moderators of this relationship. We draw attention to the broader implications of our theorizing for research on leadership and emotions and its practical implications for management.
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QAcademy of Management Review
2017, Vol. 42, No. 2, 259282.
Lehigh University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
We propose that the experience and expression of emotional complexity, including the
simultaneous and sequential experience of emotional complexity, can be beneficial for
leadersability to lead change. Using the social functions of emotions perspective, we
suggest that the primary function of emotional complexity is to increase cognitive flexi-
bility. Specifically, we present a model that explains how, when, and why emotional
complexity is functional for leaders at the individual and interpersonal levels of analysis.
At the individual level, leaders who experience emotional complexity are more cogni-
tively flexible and, thus, make more adaptive decisions. We further propose that not all
leaders will experience such benefits from emotional complexity; individual differences
of neuroticism and openness to experience will moderate the leader emotional
complexitycognitive flexibility relationship. Extending our analysis to the interpersonal
level, we propose that when followers observe leaders expressing emotional complexity,
they will make positive inferences of cognitive flexibility and be empowered to act pro-
actively. We explore a relational factorthe followersshared vantage point with their
leaderand a situational factorcompeting demands as moderators of this relationship.
We draw attention to the broader implications of our theorizing for research on leadership
and emotions and its practical implications for management.
Traditional research on leadership and emo-
tions supports what might be called a cult of
positivity (Oettingen, 2014), emphasizing that
positive affect is the key to effective leadership
(Gooty, Connelly, Griffith, & Gupta, 2010). Positive
emotions facilitate a host of benefits, including
follower prosocial behavior, cooperation, and per-
ceptions of leader effectiveness (e.g., Bono & Ilies,
2006; George & Bettenhausen, 1990; Newcombe &
Ashkanasy, 2002; Visser, van Knippenberg, Van
Kleef, & Wisse, 2013). However, focusing on positive
affect is also problematic insofar as the conflicting
demands, goals, and requirements of leadership
(e.g., Fong & Tiedens, 2002; Smith & Berg, 1987;
Smith & Lewis, 2011; Wiesenfeld, Brockner, &
Thibault, 2000) may force leaders to experience
complex emotions, even in situations where they
wish to display a positive front. Indeed, leaders
describe their emotional experiences as particularly
complex, with emotional ups and downs, peaks
and valleys, and ebbs and flows (Dotlich, Noel, &
Walker, 2011). Leadership research therefore may
benefit from moving from the study of univalent,
steady-state affect to theories that consider the
effects, both negative and potentially positive, of
leadersexperiencing and expressing complex
emotional reactions.
Although universally experienced, emotional
complexity, which we define as the simultaneous
or sequential experience of at least two different
emotional states during the same emotional epi-
sode, has been considered a shortcoming, both
historically and in modern leaders. Just as Queen
Elizabeth I was disparaged as irresolute when
she exhibited erratic emotions in response to
foreign sovereigns (Loades, 2006), critics today
denounce former President Barack Obama for
feeling plagued by ambivalence about how to
respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria
(Friedman, 2015). This criticism appears merited.
While positive emotions are consistently linked to
positive leadership outcomes, complex emotions
have been shown to promote negative outcomes,
including indecision (Sincoff, 1990), resistance to
change (Piderit, 2000), and paralysis (Pratt &
In addition to our anonymous reviewers, we would like to
thank Anne Anderson, Michael Christian, Noah Eisenkraft,
Edwin Hull, Elizabeth Morrison, Donald Rothman, Kristin
Smith-Crowe, Andrew Ward, and Batia Wiesenfeld. We pre-
sented an earlier version of this article at the Academy of
Management annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Copyright of the Academy of Management, all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyright
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Doucet, 2000). Leaders expressing emotional com-
plexity may also be perceived as less powerful
(Rothman, 2011) and as poor decision makers
(Marsh & Rothman, 2013). Even worse, emotional
complexity is sometimes associated with mental
illnesses, including borderline personality dis-
order (Stein, 1996), bipolar disorder (Knowles et al.,
2007), schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive
disorder (Sincoff, 1992).
In this article we argue that while complex
emotions may pose some of these challenges for
leaders, they do so only among some individuals
and in some contexts and do not actually reflect
the typical trend. Indeed, one of our main arguments
is that complex emotions also bestow substantial
benefits, particularly with regard to peoples ability
to lead change. We argue that emotional complexity
provides leaders with rich and varied information
about their environment, facilitating their ability to
make adaptable decisions. In addition, we suggest
that leadersexpressions of emotional complexity
will signal that they are flexible and open to their
followers, empowering followers to proactively
speak up and advance bottom-up change. Because
these behaviorsleader adaptability and follower
empowermentare both signature components of
the leadership role, these outcomes of emotional
complexity may be even more important than
prescribed performance-focused behaviors in
dynamic environments (Griffin, Neal, & Parker,
2007; Pulakos, Arad, Donovan, & Plamondon,
2000). However, because research has yet to de-
scribe the full complexity of leadersemotional
experiences, our current understanding of how
complex emotions operate in work settings, es-
pecially for leaders, remains incomplete. Indeed,
emotional complexity may be an undervalued
leadership state that has the ability to facilitate
critical change-oriented leader outcomes.
We have three main goals in this article. First, we
provide a new foundation for more coherent liter-
ature on emotional complexity in the workplace.
While scholars agree that multifaceted emotions
are pervasive in organizations (e.g., Amabile,
Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005; Bledow, Rosing, &
Frese, 2013; Pratt & Rosa, 2003; Rafaeli & Sutton,
1991; Rothman & Wiesenfeld, 2007), emotions re-
searchers have characterized this phenomenon
with a variety of constructs. The list includes mixed
emotions (Larsen, McGraw, & Cacioppo, 2001),
emotional ambivalence (Fong, 2006), poignancy
(Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, & Nesselroade,
2000), affective transitions (Filipowicz, Barsade,
&Melwani,2011),emotional inconsistency
(Sinaceur, Adam, Van Kleef, & Galinsky, 2013), af-
fective spin (Beal, Trougakos, Weiss, & Dalal, 2013),
affective variability (Koval & Kuppens, 2012), affec-
tive synchrony (Rafaeli, Rogers, & Revelle, 2007),
and emotional complexity (Lindquist & Barrett,
2008). Integrating across these perspectives, we
define emotional complexity as the experience of at
least two different emotional states during the same
emotional episode. Specifically, we focus on its two
primary manifestations: (1) simultaneous emotional
complexity, the concurrent experience of opposing
emotional states, and (2) sequential emotional
complexity, the consecutive movement between
two or more different emotional states. We also
specify the underlying mechanism that these two
forms of emotional complexity share and that drives
their effects.
Second, we explore the consequences for leaders
of experiencing and expressing emotional complex-
ity. Applying insights from the social functions of
emotions perspective (e.g., Frijda & Mesquita, 1994;
Keltner & Haidt, 1999; Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1992),
we offer a functional theory of emotional complexity
of leadership. Existing research on the negative ef-
fects of emotional complexity suggests that, at
the individual level, experiencing emotional
complexity may inhibit leadersexpedient be-
havior and action. We argue, however, that emo-
tional complexity may also help leaders approach
an issue, problem, or decision from multiple per-
spectives because emotional complexity in-
creases leaderscognitive flexibility, which we
define as the ease with which individuals are
able to broaden the scope of their attentional
span to attend to divergent perspectives but also
engage in a balanced consideration of those
perspectives (Kleiman & Hassin, 2013; Nijstad,
De Dreu, Rietzschel, & Baas, 2010). We maintain
that this cognitive flexibility is integral for ac-
counting for why emotional complexity may
be functional at both the individual and in-
terpersonal levels (Keltner & Haidt, 1999). Spe-
cifically, we offer leader cognitive flexibility as
the mechanism by which leader emotional com-
plexity can increase change-oriented behav-
iors, including leader adaptability and follower
Third, our theory offers a theoretical explana-
tion for not only why emotional complexity should
have these effects but also when they are more
or less likely to occur. Specifically, we integrate
our work with prior scholarship focusing on the
260 AprilAcademy of Management Review
dysfunctional side of emotional complexity by
offering critical contingencies for our proposed
effects. We acknowledge that emotional com-
plexity may lead to cognitive rigidity as well as
perceptions of indecisiveness and vacillation.
Factors at the individual level (leader neuroti-
cism and openness), relational level (followers
shared perspective with the leader), and situa-
tional level (competing organizational demands)
are likely to moderate these relationships. Thus,
it is our belief that not all leaders will experi-
ence cognitive flexibility in response to their
emotionally complex feelings, not all followers
will respond with positive inferences of their
leaderscognitive flexibility, and, further, not all
situations will be conducive to such beneficial
effects. However, this emotional state can be
beneficial, and we underline when this should
be the case.
Figure 1 illustrates our multilevel theory of
why, when, and how emotional complexity may
be functional for leaders at the intrapersonal
and interpersonal levels of analysis. In build-
ing our model, we integrate fragmented and
disparate bodies of literature on emotional com-
plexity, specify the mechanisms underlying both
intrapersonal and interpersonal effects of leader
emotional complexity, offer critical contingencies
that moderate the proposed effects, and derive
propositions that set an agendafor future research.
Conceptualizing Emotional Complexity
Emotional complexity is an affective state in-
volving the simultaneous or sequential elicitation
and experience of at least two different emotions
during the same emotional episode. We focus on
two primary manifestations of emotional com-
plexity: sequential and simultaneous emotional
complexity. A sequential or successive emotion-
ally complex state is the rapid change or move-
ment between two or more different emotional
states such that one emotion appears first and is
then replaced by a second emotion (Filipowicz
et al., 2011; Sinaceur et al., 2013). In contrast, a si-
multaneous emotionally complex state involves
experiencing two or more opposing emotions
concurrently in response to a stimulus (Larsen
et al., 2001).
By introducing these two broad forms of emo-
tional complexity, we aim to classify the wide
Individual and Interpersonal Outcomes of Emotional Complexity for Leaders and Followers
Leader openness to
Contradictory or
Inferences about
leader flexibility
shared vantage
Competing task
Adaptable strategic
decision making
and proactivity
Leader outcomes
(P6) (P2)
(P1) (P3)
2017 261Rothman and Melwani
range of terms associated with such complex af-
fective experiences from both psychology and
organizational behavior. Specifically, some of
these constructs refer to simultaneous states, in-
cluding mixed emotions (e.g., Larsen et al., 2001)
and emotional ambivalence (e.g., Fong, 2006; Rees,
Rothman, Lehavy, & Sanchez-Burks, 2013). Other
constructs refer to sequential states, including
affective transitions (e.g., Filipowicz et al., 2011)
and emotional inconsistencies (e.g., Sinaceur
et al., 2013). Table 1 provides a sample of defini-
tions and differentiates these states from trait
constructs, such as affective spin (e.g., Beal
et al., 2013), affective variability (e.g., Koval &
Kuppens, 2012), affective synchrony (Rafaeli et
al., 2007), and emotional complexity (Kang &
Definitions of Constructs Pertaining to Emotional Complexity
Types of Emotional
or Trait Term Source Definition
State Affective transitions Filipowicz, Barsade, & Melwani
The movement between two or
more different affective or
emotional states
State Emotional
Sinaceur, Adam, Van Kleef, &
Galinsky (2013)
Oscillating or fluctuating
between different
psychological states over the
course of a single encounter
Trait Emotional complexity Kang & Shaver (2004) A tendency to have well-
differentiated, broad
emotional experiences
Trait Affective spin Beal, Trougakos, Weiss, & Dalal
A tendency for variability in core
affective experiences
specifically, experiencing
a variety of different states
reflected in the affect
circumplex over brief periods
of time
Trait Affective variability Koval & Kuppens (2012) The within-person standard
deviation of a feeling over
time reflecting how much
peoples emotional
experiences deviate from their
average feelings
State Mixed emotions Larsen & McGraw (2014) The co-occurrence of positive
and negative affects
State Emotional
Fong (2006); Rees, Rothman,
Lehavy, & Sanchez-Burks
The simultaneous experience of
positive and negative
State Poignancy Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels,
Sullivan, & Carstensen (2008)
A mixture of happiness and
sadness that occurs when one
faces meaningful endings that
signify the passage of time
Trait Emotional complexity Kang & Shaver (2004) A tendency to have well-
differentiated, broad
emotional experiences
Trait Trait ambivalence Sincoff (1990) Overlapping approach-
avoidance tendencies,
manifested behaviorally,
cognitively, or affectively and
directed toward a given
person or experience
Trait Affective synchrony Rafaeli, Rogers, & Revelle (2007) The tendency to experience
mixed emotions regularly
262 AprilAcademy of Management Review
Shaver, 2004). Because we are interested in the
function of emotional complexity, particularly
how this emotion helps align leaderscogni-
tive processes to be in tune with their complex
and changing circumstances, we exclusively
focus on the state experienceand outcomes
of sequential and simultaneous emotional
Evident from the definitions in Table 1, the pri-
mary difference between these constructs is their
time course. Whereas simultaneous emotional
complexity refers to experiencing two opposing
emotions at the same moment in time (Larsen &
McGraw, 2011), sequential emotional complexity
refers to experiencing a rapid change between
two or more different emotional states (Frijda,
Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989). We propose that while
simultaneous and sequential emotional com-
plexity may have different nonverbal expressions
because of their varying time course, these two
forms of state emotional complexity will have
the same function of flexibility and the same
beneficial effects owing to their similar internal
Specifically, these affective states are similar
in that they are both forms of emotional com-
plexity (Carrera & Oceja, 2007), are correlated
with one another (Spencer-Rodgers, Williams, &
Peng, 2010), are triggered by emotionally com-
plex events (Larsen & McGraw, 2011), involve two
or more differentaffective experie nces (Filipo wicz
et al., 2011; Fong, 2006), and are therefore likely
to be associated with a palpable sense of con-
flict within the individual experiencing them
(e.g., Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). It is im-
portant to note that these emotions must be di-
rectly conflicting on at least one dimension
(e.g., valence, action tendency, appraisal, levels
of arousal). Indeed, in studying simultaneous
emotions, researchers have used the term am-
bivalent synonymously with terms like torn and
conflicted across anthropology (e.g., Boehm,
1989), clinical psychology (e.g., Sincoff, 1990),
sociology (e.g., Smelser, 1998), and psychology
(e.g., Priester & Petty, 1996). Furthermore, recent
empirical research shows that because emotional
ambivalence involves simultaneously experienc-
ing positive and negative emotions, it is highly
correlated with reports of how much participants
feel conflicted (Aaker, Drolet, & Griffin, 2008) and
tense, muddled, and divided (Oceja & Carrera,
2009); the correlations between felt conflict and
happy emotions or sad emotions are significantly
lower. In addition, observers interpret expressions
of being conflicted as expressions of ambivalence
and can reliably distinguish these expressions
from expressions of univalent emotions like hap-
piness, sadness, and anger, as well as neutrality
(Rothman, 2011).
Furthermore, research on emotional episodes
informs our understanding of the internal con-
flict associated with sequential emotional com-
plexity. This research suggests that because
emotions activate physiological, cognitive, and
behavioral reactions, they are likely to result in
residual affect that will then linger even after the
initial emotional experience has concluded
(Lerner & Keltner, 2000). When individuals rap-
idly transition from one emotion to the next, they
are unable to experience a refractory period in
which one emotional episode has ended before
the other one begins; this overlap of emotions
will then create feelings of dissonance (Carrera
& Oceja, 2007), especially when the residual
emotion is dissimilar from the earlier emo-
tion (Pe & Kuppens, 2012). Supporting this the-
orizing, a recent investigation of the effects of
complex emotions shows that while sequential
emotions induce less intense felt tension than
simultaneous emotions, the tension they in-
duce is significantly more than that elicited by
happy or sad emotions alone (Carrera & Oceja,
The Dysfunctional Nature of Emotional
Traditionally, research on emotional complexity
has primarily emphasized its dysfunctional out-
comes. This work highlights that emotionally com-
plex feelings are problematic because they make
individuals disconnect from their environments.
This occurs either because these individuals
experience too much emotional complexity, and
are therefore unable to accurately decipher the emo-
tional tenor of their environment, or because they
are so focused on reducing the feelings of tension
associated with emotionally complex states, they
are unable to derive benefits from it. Specifically,
research using an individual-difference approach
to emotional complexity indicates that people
who show high levels of trait affective complex-
ity (Eid & Diener, 1999), as well as those with low
emotional inertia who experience rapidly chang-
ing emotions (Kuppens, Allen, & Sheeber, 2010),
experience inferior outcomes because they have
2017 263Rothman and Melwani
an affective system that is hyperreactive to
valenced stimuli (Beal & Ghandour, 2011) and
therefore respond with dysregulated and envi-
ronmentally discordant emotional responses. Un-
surprisingly, then, research demonstrates that
these individuals are more likely to experience
indicators of poorer psychological well-being
and adjustment (Koval & Kuppens, 2012), such
as reduced self-esteem (Kuppens, Van Mechelen,
Nezlek, Dossche, & Timmermans, 2007), increased
neuroticism (Murray, Allen, & Trinder, 2002), and
negative affect (Kuppens, Oravecz, & Tuerlinckx,
2010). Thus, individual differences in emotional
complexity may be less functional for leaders to
the extent that they experience too much variabil-
ity and are thus overresponsive to environmental
In addition, both research on the state experi-
ence of ambivalence and the attitudinal ambiv-
alence literature have largely focused on the
feelings of conflict that accompany these states
and individualsresulting preoccupation with
trying to resolve this negative feeling (Ashforth,
Rogers, Pratt, & Pradies, 2014; van Harreveld, van
der Pligt, & de Liver, 2009). Because people dis-
like internal inconsistencies (Festinger, 1962)
and feeling conflicted (Goetz, Spencer-Rodgers,
& Peng, 2008), they are likely to strive to sim-
plify their complex states and reduce the unpleas-
ant feelings of conflict, tension, and discomfort
that accompany them (Peng & Nisbett, 1999).
There are many ways individuals reduce their
complex reactions (for a review see Rothman,
Pratt, Rees, & Vogus, 2017). For instance, individ-
uals avoid and deny their feelings of conflict al-
together by engaging in distracting activities.
Individuals may also attempt to resolve and
simplify their ambivalent attitudes by accentu-
ating either their positive or negative attitudes,
an action that then leads to a biased and sim-
plistic view (Pratt & Doucet, 2000). Alternatively,
individuals can put off dealing with their con-
flicting sentiments, vacillating between them
(Sincoff, 1990) and thus becoming paralyzed
and incapable of acting (Weigert & Franks, 1989)
or making decisions (van Harreveld, Nohlen, &
Schneider, 2015).
This research then implies that the state expe-
rience of emotional complexity may be dysfunc-
tional for leaders to the extent that they become
preoccupied with trying to avoid, resolve, or re-
duce this state and the discomfort it elicits. Such
preoccupation may focus leaders on mitigating
their aversive reactions, rather than opening
themselves up to the rich and complex informa-
tion these contradictory emotions provide about
their environment. They will thus be unable to
reap the informational benefits of their complex
emotional states.
To complement these negative perspectives,
we suggest that adopting a functional view of
emotional complexity may prove instrumental for
understanding why and when emotional com-
plexity may be beneficial. We propose that state
emotional complexity is likely to be functional to
the extent that this state is clearly triggered by
environmental changes and therefore provides
rich, complex, and useful information about how
to respond to that environment.
We build on the social functional theory of emo-
tions to uncover the specific evolutionary function
of emotional complexity. To start, the functionalist
view emphasizes that emotions are efficient re-
sponses that aid and motivate individuals to solve
specific problems of physical and social survival;
accordingly, the antecedents of an emotion reflect
the problem that the emotion was designed to
solve (e.g., Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Johnson-Laird
& Oatley, 1992; Keltner & Haidt, 1999; Smith &
Lazarus, 1990). Evidence from psychological research
indicates that emotional complexity commonly oc-
curs in response to situations that involve contra-
diction and change. For instance, people usually
report experiencing complex emotions in response
to changing circumstances (Larsen & McGraw, 2011),
including meaningful life transitions and endings
(Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, & Carstensen,
2008), disappointing wins and reliev ing losses
(Larsen, McGraw, Mellers, & Cacioppo, 2004), con-
flicting goals and roles such as being a high-status
woman (Fong & Tiedens, 2002), bittersweet movies
and advertisements (Larsen et al., 2001; Williams &
Aaker, 2002), evocative pictures (Schimmack, 2001),
stories with shifting perspectives (de Vega, Diaz, &
Le ´
on, 1997) and incompatible relationship goals
(Laurenceau, Troy, & Carver, 2005). In the business
world, leaders experience emotional complexity
in the face of contradictions between stakeholders
and demands (Kantrowitz, 2013). Because changing
and contradictory circumstances are, by definition,
uncertain (Baum & Wally, 2003) and, thus, diffi-
cult to predict, understand,and manage (Lipshitz &
264 AprilAcademy of Management Review
Strauss, 1997), individuals need balanced and
flexible thinking in order to understand both sides
of the contradictions and cope with the changes.
Hence, we suggest that emotional complexity de-
veloped as an affective mechanism to enable in-
dividuals to flexibly respond and adapt to complex
and changing circumstances and should thus im-
prove leadersability to lead change.
Specifically, we reveal how two interrelated
componentsthe experience and expression of
emotional complexityserve a flexibility func-
tion for leaders at both the individual and in-
terpersonal levels of analysis. As we describe, the
pattern of experience, communication, physiol-
ogy, and action that characterizes emotional
complexity appears to be specifically designed
to bring about greater flexibility at these two
levels, which is unlikely to be an accidental con-
sequence of this emotional state (Keltner & Gross,
1999). While we are not the first to suggest that
emotional complexity may have benefits related
to flexible thinking, there have been no prior
attempts to integrate the extant research on the
effects of emotional complexity by providing
a functional evolutionary theory of why emotional
complexity should facilitate leaderscognitive
flexibility and ability to lead change. We expli-
cate this function below.
Individual Level
We draw on the affect as information model
(Schwarz & Clore, 1983) to offer an explanation for
why emotional complexity should be beneficial for
individualscognitive flexibility, or the ease with
which individuals are able to broaden the scope
of their attentional span to attend to divergent
perspectives, but also to engage in a balanced
consideration of those perspectives (Kleiman &
Hassin, 2013; Nijstad et al., 2010). Specifically,
we offer two mechanisms: (1) a cognitive mech-
anism that explains why emotional complexity
enables individuals to attend to diverse per-
spectives and (2) a motivational mechanism that
explicates why it enables individuals to engage
in balanced processing of information.
To develop the cognitive mechanism, we draw
from cognitive appraisal theory, according to which
each discrete, unblended emotional experience
corresponds to a unique cognitive structure con-
sisting of a particular pattern of preconscious ap-
praisals (Frijda, 1989; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). By
this logic, when individuals experience emotional
complexityeither simultaneous or sequential
multiple emotionsthey experience a combination
of contradictory appraisals associated with those
divergent emotions. For instance, a leader who is
experiencing feara negative emotion character-
ized by appraisals of uncertainty and situational
controland happinessa positive emotion char-
acterizedby appraisals of certainty and personal
control (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985)is likely to
appraise the situation as both certain and un-
certain, under situational and personal control,
and to interpret the environment as both safe and
problematic. In turn, because emotional com-
plexity provides these contradictory and con-
flicting signals to leaders, it should alert them to
the complex and contradictory elements in their
environment and the effectiveness of their cur-
rent thinking and behavior with regard to those
elements. For instance, whereas negative emo-
tions are associated with a narrow focus of at-
tention (Schwarz, 2002) and positive emotions
broaden individualsfocus (Fredrickson, 2001),
emotional complexity signals that the environ-
ment is atypical (Fong, 2006), thus drawing in-
dividualsattention to divergent perspectives.
Exposure to these different perspectives will
enable individuals to expand the categories they
use, embrace atypical information, and draw
associations between seemingly unrelated in-
formation and, by doing so, address the multiple
and diverse demands of different stakeholders.
Thus, whereas such contradictory appraisals
may provide the leader with indeterminate be-
havioral guidance about how to react to change
(Cacioppo & Berntson, 1994), we argue that emo-
tional complexity helps align the leaderscog-
Compelling empirical evidence is consistent
with the proposition that both simultaneous and
sequential emotional complexity broaden an in-
dividuals attentional span. This research has
demonstrated that experiencing emotional am-
bivalence (relative to singular emotions like hap-
piness or sadness) expands attentional focus and
increases the likelihood of making more distant
associations, as indicated by enhanced perfor-
mance on the Remote Associates Test, a concep-
tual insight task that asks participants to identify
associations among words that are not normally
connected (Fong, 2006). Similarly, researchers
have also linked emotional shiftsa change in
emotional states from negative to positivewith
2017 265Rothman and Melwani
increased originality and the ability to generate
a broad set of ideas across multiple, isolated cat-
egories (Bledow et al., 2013).
While this cognitive mechanism provides
a compelling account of why emotional complex-
ity broadens the scope of attention, it does not
explain why emotional complexity also motivates
abalanced consideration of multiple different
perspectives. According to the affect as informa-
tion model (Schwarz & Clore, 1983), emotional
complexity should not only direct leadersatten-
tion to divergent perspectives but also motivate
leaders to think in ways that help them adapt to
the complex environment. Thus, we offer a second
motivational mechanism and propose that con-
flict inherent in the state of emotional complexity
is an integral link that helps to explain why emo-
tional complexity enhances cognitive flexibility.
Specifically, experiencing conflict that results from
emotional complexity indicates to an individual
that the situation is contradictory and changing
(instead of problematicor benign; Schwarz,
2002), and this signal will motivate a balanced
consideration of information to meet situational
We draw from disparate bodies of literature on
contradictory states to support this view of the
integral role of conflict. Research on mind-body
dissonance (when bodily expressions contra-
dict mental states; Huang & Galinsky, 2011), non-
conscious goal conflicts (Kleiman & Hassin,
2013), biculturalism (where people equally iden-
tify with two cultures and, thus, feel sharper dis-
sonance and internal conflict between the values
of the two cultures; Tadmor, Tetlock, & Peng, 2009),
and paradoxical frames (Miron-Spektor, Gino, &
Argote, 2011) alludes to the fact that the inherent
conflict in these statesis the engine that motivates
cognitive flexibility. For instance, nonconscious
goal conflicts increase a broader and more bal-
anced consideration of relevant information before
making choices; specifically, in two separate but
related papers utilizing experimental procedures,
participants who experienced nonconscious goal
conflict not only searched for more information by
electing to see a larger number of boxes on an in-
formation display board (Savary, Kleiman, Hassin,
& Dhar, 2015) but also sought and considered both
confirmatory and disconfirmatory information in
a trait hypothesistesting task (Kleiman & Hassin,
2013). Internal conflict has also been suggested as
a mechanism explaining why bicultural individ-
uals who are equally identified with both cultures
and who experience greater conflict between their
cultures are more integratively complex than in-
dividuals who show a clear preference for one
culture over another and, thus, experience less
conflict (Tadmor et al., 2009).
More pertinent to our article, nascent research
has linked simultaneous emotional complexity to
a balanced consideration of information. Specifi-
cally, in one experiment, emotionally ambivalent
participants were more motivated to consider
both positive and negative feedback about a po-
tential job candidate, compared to happy partici-
pants, who were more motivated to seek positive
than negative feedback (Rees et al., 2013). In a
second experiment, emotionally ambivalent par-
ticipants were more likely to seek, weigh, and
incorporate alternative perspectives (othersad-
vice) while they were making numerical estima-
tions, relative to both happy and sad participants
(Rees et al., 2013).
In summary, we suggest that cognitive flexibility
is the common substrate that weaves together
a dispersed body of research findings implying
that emotional complexity broadens the scope of
attentional span and motivates a balanced con-
sideration of relevant information. Building on this
extant research, we offer the following.
Proposition 1: Leader emotional com-
plexity is positively related to cognitive
Interpersonal Level
We draw from research on the communicative
function of emotions (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 1999)
to make predictions concerning the influence
of leadersnonverbal and verbal expressions of
emotional complexity at the interpersonal level
specifically, on followersinferences of leader cog-
nitive flexibility. Social functional theorists work-
ing at this dyadic level of analysis have argued that
emotional expressions help individuals know
othersintrapsychic feeling states (e.g., Morris &
Keltner, 2000). Furthermore, they argue that be-
cause emotions are responses to situational events,
perceivers use expressions of these emotions to
infer how an expresser evaluates or appraises
a situation (Hareli & Hess, 2010), and those in-
ferences, in turn, are then used to infer aspects
of the expressers personality, character, compe-
tence, and behavioral intentions (Fridlund, 1994;
Lewis, 2000; Tiedens, 2001).
266 AprilAcademy of Management Review
When a leader experiences and then expresses
emotional complexity in response to a changing
and contradictory environment, followers will use
the leaders nonverbal and verbal expressions to
infer that the leader is experiencing emotional
complexity. For instance, research has demon-
strated that people who are experiencing ambiva-
lence move from side to side more than people who
are not experiencing ambivalence (Schneider et al.,
2013), and other research has shown that people are
able to identify nonverbal conflict on the face and in
body movement as ambivalence (Rothman, 2011).
Emotions are also communicated verbally: research
on emotional sharing (Rim ´
e, 1995) suggests that
people who experience an emotional event are
likely to tell other people about the event and
their emotional reactions to it.
Once followers perceive and discern a leaders
emotions, they will aim to understand the situa-
tion that elicited these emotions by reverse
engineering”—that is, reconstructing the relation-
ship between the leader and the emotion-eliciting
event based on the emotion expressed (Hareli &
Hess, 2010). Complex emotional expressions, es-
pecially those that change, are especially in-
formative (Mayer & Salovey, 1993). Specifically,
we have suggested that emotional complexity
is characterized by the experience of contradic-
tory cognitive appraisals (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985)
and action tendencies (Frijda et al., 1989; Lerner &
Keltner, 2000). For instance, a leader experiencing
happiness and fear will appraise the situation as
certain and uncertain and will want to approach
and avoid, and the leader will then be torn be-
tween these action tendencies and appraisals. In
consequence, the leaders expression of emo-
tional complexity will likely signal that the leader
is irresolute about future action (Rothman, 2011)
but also appraising and thinking about the envi-
ronment in a nuanced way. Thus, on observing
the leader display emotional complexity, fol-
lowers will perceive the individual as someone
who seeks divergent perspectives, such as both
confirming and disconfirming information, before
making strategic decisions, as well as someone
who is receptive to a full range of evidence, both
positive and negative, about problems at hand.
Indirect supportive evidence for this claim comes
from research demonstrating that the expression
of emotional ambivalence in negotiations con-
veys greater deliberation, relative to expres-
sions of single emotions like happiness or
anger (Rothman, 2011). Thus, we suggest that
leadersexpressions of emotional complexity
will increase followersinferences of leaders
Proposition 2: Leadersexpressions of
emotional complexity are positively
related to followersperceptions of
leader cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility from leadersemotional
complexity carries benefits that are inherently
tied to its evolutionary function, particularly for
the leadersability to lead change by making
more adaptable decisions and empowering fol-
lower proactivity.
Leader Strategic Decision Making
Leader adaptability, a signature component of
the leadership role (Griffin et al., 2007), is the degree
to which leaders are able to modify their cognitions
and actions to respond appropriately to changing,
dynamic, and complex environmental situations
and nonroutine tasks (Pulakos et al., 2000). While
the leadership literature has long emphasized the
importance of leader adaptability, highlighting
that leaders are more effective if they are sensi-
tive to social situations (Stogdill, 1948) and able
to adapt or match their leadership style to fit the
situation (Vroom & Yetton, 1973), this research
has thus far focused on the influence of leader
traits on adaptability. Leadership traits such as
self-monitoring (Snyder, 1974), emotional and
social intelligence (Ashkanasy & Tse, 2000),
leader self-complexity (Hannah, Balthazard,
Waldman, Jennings, & Thatcher, 2013), and hav-
ing an ambivert personalityfalling in the middle of
the extraversion spectrum (Grant, 2013)have been
found to increase adaptability. This work suggests
that effective leaders possess a requisite level of self-
complexity that allows them to accurately perceive
and assess situational dynamics, thus enabling
adaptive decisions and responses (Lord, Hannah,
Jennings, 2011). We help advance that point by in-
troducing emotional states as critical, dynamic, and
event-level(Dinh et al., 2014) antecedents of leader
adaptability and by suggesting cognitive flexibility
as a mechanism for this relationship.
While leaders engage in many diverse behav-
iors, decision making is one of their most essential
2017 267Rothman and Melwani
duties (Mintzberg, 1973), and strategic decisions
made by leaders directly impact group and organi-
zational health and survival (Eisenhardt & Zbaracki,
1992). Strategic decisions are also especially influ-
enced by leadersaffective states (Ashton-James &
Ashkanasy, 2008). We suggest that through its ef-
fects on cognitive flexibility, a leaders experience of
emotional complexity may positively influence
strategic decisions by deescalating commitment
to an initial but unsuccessful decision in an at-
tempt to turn the situation around (Staw, 1981). This
is critical because owing to their intense job de-
mands and social role expectations, leaders may be
reluctant to admit they have made a mistake (Zhang
& Baumeister, 2006) and to recognize other alterna-
tives (Northcraft & Neale, 1987), and, thus, they are
especially likely to fall victim to the escalation fal-
lacy (Hambrick, Finkelstein, & Mooney, 2005).
Because emotional complexity not only inhibits
leadersrush to action but also increases their
cognitive flexibility, they will be more likely to
consider a broader and more balanced set of rel-
evant alternatives and, in turn, will be less likely
to escalate commitment to failed courses of ac-
tion. For instance, they will seek information that
both confirms and disconfirms their initial posi-
tion, and they will be less likely to anchor on their
initial commitments (Kleiman & Hassin, 2013;
Rees et al., 2013). They may also be able to gen-
erate multiple alternative means or strategies to
achieve their goals (Kruglanski et al., 2002) and to
evaluate those alternative means or strategies in
a balanced way, thus allowing them to decide
whether persistence toward their original course
of action is still warranted (e.g., Carver & Scheier,
1990; Fishbach & Shah, 2006). Therefore, with more
alternative options in mind, they will be able to
disengage from or reduce the strength of their
initial decision commitment to any one course of
action. Emotional complexity should thus reduce
the likelihood that leaders will become over-
committed to a course of action because it in-
creases their cognitive flexibility.
Proposition 3: Cognitive flexibility
mediates the positive effect of leader
emotional complexity on leader adap-
tive strategic decision making.
Empowerment of Followers
As organizational life has become more dy-
namic, uncertain, and unpredictable, it has
become increasingly difficult for leaders to suc-
ceed and lead change merely by developing and
presenting their visions top-down to employees
(Griffin et al., 2007). In this context leaders de-
pend on their followers to adapt to changes in the
workplace and to proactively advance bottom-up
change by voicing constructive ideas (Van Dyne
& LePine, 1998) and taking charge to improve
work methods (Morrison & Phelps, 1999). Emerg-
ing scholarship has established that the leader
matters, highlighting that greater follower pro-
activity is associated with leader-member ex-
change (Lam, Huang, & Snape, 2007), fit between
the leaders and followers personalities (Grant,
Gino, & Hofmann, 2011), and leader emotional
regulation strategies (Fisk & Friesen, 2012).
Leader emotional complexity may be an alter-
native, previously unexplored social factor that
influences follower proactivity, which is the an-
ticipatory actions taken to create change in how
jobs, roles, and tasks are executed (Frese & Fay,
2001; Grant & Ashford, 2008).
We suggest that leadersperceived flexibility
provides an opportunity for, and even implicitly
invites, followers to be empowered and engaged
(McArthur & Baron, 1983; Mignon & Mollaret, 2002).
Specifically, because the expression of emotional
complexity is likely to signal leaderscognitive
flexibility and, thus, their openness to multiple
perspectives, as we have suggested before, it
stands to reason that this expression may actually
empower followers to proactively speak up
(Detert & Burris, 2007) and take charge (Morrison &
Phelps, 1999). Detert and Burris (2007) demon-
strated that leader behaviors indicating open-
ness to change and willingness to act on input
from below are highly effective in stimulating
voice from followers, even more so than trans-
formational leadership behaviors. They showed in
two studies that followers are more likely to hon-
estly speak up when managers are openthat is,
routinely demonstrate personal interest and listen
carefully to their followers. Similarly, Edmondson
(2003) reported that leaders who show managerial
openness have followers who are more willing to
contribute to team learning, despite the inherent
risks of speaking up. And Morrison and Phelps
(1999) demonstrated that when employees per-
ceive top management as open, they are more
motivated to take charge.
Thus, considering the importance of leader
openness for stimulating follower voice and
taking charge behavior, and considering our
268 AprilAcademy of Management Review
previous arguments that leader emotional com-
plexity should increase leader perceived cognitive
flexibility and openness to divergent perspectives,
it seems reasonable to expect that leader emo-
tional complexity will increase followersvoice and
taking charge behavior. Some suggestive evidence
for this prediction comes from research on the ex-
pression of emotional ambivalence in negotiations,
which has demonstrated that when negotiators
observe their partner expressing emotional am-
bivalence, it can motivate them not only to step up
and take charge of the discussion (Rothman, 2011)
but also to proactively problem solve and generate
integrative solutions that are good for all parties
(Rothman & Northcraft, 2015).
Another explanation for why followers are more
likely to act proactively is because they may use
their leaderscognitively flexible behavior as
a point of reference that helps them define what
kinds of behaviors and orientations are good to
develop and emulate (Shamir, House, & Arthur,
1993). Thus, leadersinferred flexibility will high-
light the importance and appropriateness of
thinking flexibly, increasing the likelihood that
followerswill take a cognitively flexible ap-
proach to problems by seeking and considering
divergent perspectives and therefore becoming
more engaged and empowered.
Proposition 4: The positive relationship
between leader expressions of emotional
complexity and follower proactivity will
be mediated by followersinferences of
leader cognitive flexibility.
Moderators of the Experienced Emotional
ComplexityCognitive Flexibility Relationship
While state emotional complexity can increase
cognitive flexibility, not all leaders will necessarily
become more cognitively flexible when they expe-
rience these complex emotions. Whereas one body
of research suggests that state emotional com-
plexity can lead to more cognitive flexibility (Fong,
2006), another suggests that emotional complexity
can lead to more rigidity (Pratt & Doucet, 2000).
What appears to differentiate these two paths is
whether individuals become preoccupied with
trying to cope with and reduce their feelings of
conflict and contradiction or whether they stay
open to their contradictory feelings. This critical
difference determines whether and the extent to
which emotional complexity is able to provide
rich, complex, and useful information to the
leader about how to respond to that environment,
thus boosting the leaders cognitive flexibility, or
whether the informational value of emotional
complexity is reduced, thus reducing the leaders
cognitive flexibility (Schwarz, 2002).
To reconcile these divergent perspectives, we
turn to an exploration of two individual personality
factors that predispose leaders to be either partic-
ularly uncomfortable or particularly comfortable
with their feelings of conflict and contradiction and,
thus, less or more open and receptive to the rich and
contradictory information these complex emotions
provide them about the environment. Specifically,
we highlight that the relationship between emo-
tional complexity and cognitive flexibility may vary
with two of the five-factor model personality
differencesin particular, neuroticism and open-
ness, respectively. These factors certainly do not
represent an exhaustive set of factors worth
consideringa point we revisit in the discussion
section; however, they are noteworthy in that
they share a common mechanism, which is in-
dividualslikely tolerance for being torn and
Leader neuroticism. We propose that the re-
lationship between emotional complexity and
cognitive flexibility may be contingent on leaders
levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism represents the
tendency toexhibit poor emotional adjustment and
to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety,
insecurity, and hostility more frequently, more in-
tensely, and for more enduring periods of time
(Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002). Individuals
who are high in neuroticism respond poorly to
stressors and are more likely to interpret ordinary
situations as threatening and minor frustrations
as hopelessly difficult (Bolger & Schilling, 1991;
Suls & Martin, 2005). Furthermore, when neurotic
individuals try to cope with stressors, their coping
efforts often seem to backfire(Robinson, Moeller,
& Fetterman, 2010: 1490).
The reason neurotic individuals may be less
successful in their coping attempts is because
they are stuck in a mode of processing that seeks
to minimize emotional distress rather than maxi-
mize adaptation to the environment (Robinson
et al., 2010). So when problematic outcomes
occur, individuals higher in neuroticism invest
their resources in processing the selfs aversive
2017 269Rothman and Melwani
reactions rather than investing them in mitigating
similar outcomes in the future (DeLongis &
Holtzman, 2005). Excessive negative emotions,
inability to detach from negative thoughts and
feelings, and difficulty tolerating them deplete
the coping resources of those high in neuroticism,
taxing executive functioning that otherwise al-
lows for the modification of thoughts and action
(Gunthert, Cohen, & Armeli, 1999). Thus, be-
cause emotional complexity is a disharmonious
state accompanied by unpleasant feelings of being
torn and conflicted, as well as by a sense of con-
tradiction (Larsen et al., 2001), we propose that it will
deplete the coping resources of those high in neu-
roticism. When experiencing the state of emotional
complexity, leaders high in neuroticism will be
compelled to invest their coping resources in pro-
cessing their feelings of being torn and conflicted,
rather than investing them in understanding the
rich information these complex emotions provide.
As a result, highly neurotic leaders will engage
in less flexible thinking about their environment
than will leaders low in neuroticism. By contrast,
we suggest that leaders who are low in neuroti-
cism are likely to invest their resources in pro-
cessing the rich and complex information their
contradictory emotions provide about their envi-
ronment, thus engaging in greater flexible think-
ing and reaping the informational benefits of their
emotional complexity.
Proposition 5a: Neuroticism moderates
the relationship between leader emo-
tional complexity and cognitive flexibil-
ity. Leaders who are low in neuroticism
will experience a positive relationship
between emotional complexity and
cognitive flexibility, and leaders high in
neuroticism will experience a negative
relationship between emotional com-
plexity and cognitive flexibility.
Leader openness to experience. We also pro-
pose that leaderslevels of openness to experience
can boost the cognitive flexibility benefits of emo-
tional complexity. Openness to experience captures
the extent to which individuals are broad-minded
and curious (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Individuals
who are high in openness to experience are more
willing to explore and consider novel, varied, and
intense experiences than are those on the low end of
the openness spectrum, who instead seek to main-
tain familiar, traditional routines (McCrae & Costa,
1997). Research on this personality trait shows that
into two separate factors, reflecting the degree to
which the person is open to external versus internal
experience (Griffin & Hesketh, 2004). Three of these
facetsideas (e.g., being intellectually curious
and broad-minded), actions (e.g., being adaptable
and preferring novelty), and values (e.g., having
flexible social, political, and religious beliefs)
describe areas external to the person, whereas
two othersfantasy (e.g., having a vivid imagi-
nation) and feelings (e.g., being receptive to inner
experiences)are internal to the person.
Research on openness has focused mainly on
the external facets of this trait, suggesting that
because open individuals seek externally un-
familiar situations and, thus, gain access to
a wide array of ideas and viewpoints, they are
then able to make use of these disparate per-
spectives to enhance creativity (George & Zhou,
2007) and operate more successfully in diverse
teams (Flynn, 2005). While less work has explored
the role of openness to internal experience, we
suggest that it has similar effects. That is, leaders
who are open to experience will be more receptive
to their conflicting emotional states, thus in-
creasing the informational value of emotional
complexity. These emotional states will attune
them to the complex and contradictory elements
in their environment that are in need of focused
attention and will motivate them to engage in
a balanced consideration of relevant information,
thus boosting their cognitive flexibility.
In contrast, leaders who are low in openness
may be less receptive to their multiple conflicting
emotional states and less tolerant of feeling torn
and conflicted. Because leaders low in openness
may find their emotional complexity to be over-
whelming (Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, & Chiu,
2008), they may be inclined to reduce their feelings
of emotional contradiction (Goetz et al., 2008) and,
thus, selectively focus on one side of the emo-
tional state to the exclusion of the other (Aaker &
Sengupta, 2000) in order to reduce their discom-
fort. This avoidance and suppression of complex
emotional experiences and the resolution of the
concomitant feelings of being torn and conflicted
will prevent leaders who are less open from
benefiting from the rich and contradictory in-
formation these complex emotions could have
provided them about the environment; they will
neither attend to complex and contradictory ele-
ments in the environment nor engage in balanced
270 AprilAcademy of Management Review
consideration of relevant information. Thus, the in-
formational value of emotional complexity will be
reduced. Accordingly, we propose the following.
Proposition 5b: Openness to experience
moderates the relationship between
leader emotional complexity and cog-
nitive flexibility. Leaders who are high
in openness to experience will experi-
ence a positive relationship between
emotional complexity and cognitive
flexibility, and leaders low in openness
to experience will experience a nega-
tive relationship between emotional
complexity and cognitive flexibility.
Moderators of the Expressed Emotional
ComplexityPerceived Flexibility Relationship
Despite the purported benefits of emotional
complexity for leaders, we recognize that leaders
expressions of emotional complexity are not al-
ways received well by others and may even
threaten their ability to lead. Research suggests
that individuals expect high-status others to be
highly agentic and judge high-status individuals
based on the extent to which they conform to this
expectation (Fragale, 2006). Research on leadership
prototypes corroborates this perspective, high-
lighting that a prototypical leader is dominant
and decisive in his or her followerseyes (Lord, de
Vader, & Alliger, 1986), and prototypical leader
emotions convey this information as well
(Melwani, Mueller, & Overbeck, 2012). Thus, be-
cause leadersemotional complexity conveys
low agencyspecifically, submissiveness and
indecision (Marsh & Rothman, 2013; Rothman,
2011)this expression may result in negative
judgments by followers.
We argue that the degree to which followers
make positive versus negative inferences about
their leaders varies based on the context, since
contextual information about the circumstances
the leader and organization are facing may dis-
ambiguate leadersemotional expression by
shaping their meaning (Johns, 2006). To reconcile
whether leadersexpressions of emotional com-
plexity will be viewed as dysfunctional or func-
tional by followers, we propose two factors: (1)
a relational factor, shared vantage point be-
tween leader and follower, and (2) a situational
factor, the degree to which leaders are managing
asymmetric goals and contradictory demands.
Both factors shape followersperceptions of the
relevance and appropriateness of leader emo-
tional complexity for the particular context, thus
reinforcing the perceived informational value of
these emotions (Schwarz, 2002).
Shared vantage point between the leader and
the follower. We suggest that followers may be
especially likely to perceive emotionally complex
leaders as more cognitively flexible when they
both have a shared vantage point. A shared van-
tage pointthat is, a shared perspective that
arises because both individuals experience the
same event or situation (Elfenbein, 2014)could
exist in a number of circumstances (e.g., when
leaders are transparent about organizational is-
sues and when followers have access to the same
information about the environment as their
leaders). We suggest that sharing the same
vantage point with their leaders should cause
followers to make positive judgments of the
emotionally complex leaders, and this positive
relationship occurs for two reasons. First, leaders
and followers with a shared vantage point are
more likely to appraise the environment similarly
(Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). Because people tend
to believe that their own perspective is right
and appropriate (Moore & Healy, 2008), followers
sharing their leadersperspective will perceive
their leadersemotional complexity as an appro-
priate response to the shared context. Second,
leaders and followers with a shared vantage
point are also more likely to share emotional ex-
periences, either through appraising the envi-
ronment similarly (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985) or
through unconscious emotional contagion pro-
cesses (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994).
Because people tend to like others who share
emotions with them (DeSteno, Petty, Rucker,
Wegener, & Braverman, 2004), emotionally com-
plex followers are more likely to make positive
inferences of their emotionally complex leaders.
Consequently, the leaders may appear to be in
tune with the organization, their constituents, and
their environment and will thus gain credibility
with followers; they will be perceived as leaders
who are feeling, appraising, and thinking in a flex-
ible, balanced, and nuanced way and so able to
provide meaning to followers about their situation.
By contrast, when leaders and followers do not
share a vantage point, followers are more likely to
judge emotionally complex leaders negatively.
For instance, Carly Fiorina was an emotionally
complex leader at Hewlett-Packard who avoided
2017 271Rothman and Melwani
employees and ultimately lost their support
(Barbaro, 1995). Divergent vantage points between
leaders and followers are relatively common since
leaders, by virtue of their positions on the higher
rungs of organizational hierarchy, often have ac-
cess to more information about the internal and
external organizational environment than do their
followers. Followers, in contrast, are not always
privy to the many issues leaders encounter, espe-
cially with low task interdependence between
leaders and followers (Wageman, 1995), cultural
and organizational norms of low openness (Jehn,
1997; West & Anderson, 1996), and little involvement
of followers in decision making (Vroom & Jago, 2007).
In situations where followers are unaware of
leadersdemands, they are more likely to expect
their leaders to think and make decisions in-
dependently, have confidence in their views, and be
dominant (Fragale, 2006). Any indication that the
leaders do not have these qualitiesfor instance,
via expressions of emotional complexityshould
make leaders appear less leader-like and more
indecisive than flexible.
Proposition 6: The positive relationship
between leader expressions of emotional
complexity and follower inferences of
leader flexibility will be moderated by
the degree to which leaders and fol-
lowers experience a shared vantage
point. Followers who share a vantage
point with their leader will judge the
leader as more cognitively flexible rela-
tage point with their leader.
Competing demands at the task and organi-
zational level. We further suggest that followers
may be especially likely to respond positively to
emotionally complex leaders and to perceive them
as more cognitively flexible when the leaders are
grappling with competing demands at the task or
organizational level. For instance, leaders are often
faced with asymmetric goals (Edmondson, Roberto,
& Watkins, 2003) when their followers have diver-
gent and conflicting interests in a given situation,
despite still having a shared objective (Pearsall &
Venkataramani, 2015). In addition, the demands on
leaders are also often contradictory and conflicting
(Smith & Lewis, 2011); they have goals to explore and
exploit (March 1991), they have to integrate globally
and adapt locally (Marquis & Battilana, 2009), they
have to maximize profit and improve social welfare
(Margolis & Walsh, 2003), and they have to manage
the tensions that come from spanning boundaries of
national culture (Molinsky, 2013). At other times the
demands on leaders are more consistent and less
contradictory and the goals more symmetric.
We argue that information about leaderscom-
peting demands is useful for followers trying to
interpret leadersexpressions of emotional com-
plexity and to clarify the extent to which the leaders
emotions are appropriate for the given context. In
contexts where competing demands are low and
leadersexpected decisions appear relatively clear-
cut to followers, there is relatively less need for
cognitive flexibility and relatively greater need for
decisive action. As such, leader emotional com-
plexity is likely to be deemed inappropriate and
interpreted as a sign of indecision. Consequently,
the emotionally complex leader may appear out of
touch and, thus, lose credibility with followers. In
turn, followers may perceive the emotionally com-
plex leader as less capable of effectively acting on
input from below, reducing followerslikelihood of
feeling empowered and voicing ideas to improve
organizational functioning.
By contrast, in contexts where competing de-
mands are high and leadersconstituents appear
full of contradiction, such as situations of change
(Smith & Lewis, 2011), there is relatively greater
need for cognitive flexibility and relatively less
need for decisive action. As such, a leaders dis-
plays of emotional complexity are likely to be
deemed correct and appropriate for the situation
(Huy, 2002) and in tune with the organization and
the complex environment, thus indicating cogni-
tive flexibility. Hence, when followers perceive
competing demands to be high, leader emotional
complexity is likely to be deemed appropriate and
interpreted as a sign of more flexibility and less
indecision. Consequently, the emotionally com-
plex leader may appear in touch and, thus, gain
credibility with followers. In turn, followers may
perceive the emotionally complex leader as more
capable of acting on input from below, increasing
followerslikelihood of feeling empowered and
voicing ideas for improvement. Following from
this, we suggest that the level of competing de-
mands that a leader is grappling with will mod-
erate the effect of leader emotional complexity on
perceptions of leader cognitive flexibility.
Proposition 7: Competing demands will
moderate the positive effect of leader
expressions of emotional complexity on
272 AprilAcademy of Management Review
follower inferences of leader cognitive
flexibility. When competing demands
are perceived to be high, followers will
judge the leader as more cognitively
flexible. When competing demands are
perceived to be low, followers will judge
the leader as less cognitively flexible
and more indecisive.
For centuries, emotional complexity was con-
sidered a shortcoming in leaders. In recent years,
however, researchers have identified specific
benefits of this emotional state. In this article we
argue that while complex emotions pose chal-
lenges for leaders, they may, surprisingly, also
bestow substantial benefits, particularly regard-
ing leadersability to lead change. Our functional
theory of emotional complexity of leadership ex-
plains when, why, and how emotional complexity
may be beneficial for leaders. We reveal how two
interrelated componentsthe experience and ex-
pression of emotional complexityserve a flexi-
bility function for leaders at both the individual
and interpersonal levels of analysis. Although we
are not the first to suggest that emotional com-
plexity may have benefits related to flexible
thinking, no prior attempts have been made to in-
tegrate the extant research on negative and posi-
tive effects of emotional complexity by providing
a functional evolutionary theory of why emotional
complexity should facilitate cognitive flexibility,
leader adaptability, and follower proactivity. Our
theory offers a theoretical explanation for not only
why emotional complexity should have these ef-
fects but also when they are more or less likely to
occur. As argued, leaders who are low in neuroti-
cism and high in openness will be more likely to
become cognitively flexible when experiencing
emotional complexity. Followers having a shared
vantage point with their leaders and who perceive
their leaders as grappling with competing de-
mands will be more likely to judge their leaders as
cognitively flexible. These arguments carry novel
implications for theory and research on emotions
as well as leadership.
Contributions to Emotions and
Leadership Theory
Emotions. By offering a framework that provides
new insights into when, why, and how emotional
complexity may facilitate flexibility, adaptability,
and proactivity in the workplace, our article spe-
cifically contributes to research on emotional com-
plexity and more broadly to the social functions
of emotions perspective. First, we synthesize
the fragmented research on dynamic affective
processes and provide a foundation for a more
coherent body of literature on emotional com-
plexity in the workplace. In this article we propose
that even though simultaneous and sequential
emotional complexity have been treated differ-
ently in prior work, they are also yoked together in
terms of their similar internal experience and
function. Highlighting these similarities serves the
purpose of reversing construct proliferation, an
issue of some concern given the multitude of
emotions terms that describe simultaneous and
sequential emotional complexity. This also serves
as a launch pad for future empirical work that
could explore additional similarities and differ-
ences across these two emotional states.
Second, our approach also fills critical gaps in
existing knowledge about the mechanisms that
explain the positive effects of emotional complex-
ity and calls attention to key contingencies for
these effects. Emotions scholars in management
and psychology have yet to articulate a unifying
theory of the positive consequences of these emo-
tional states. By integrating prior findings on the
outcomes of emotional complexity, we offer cog-
nitive flexibility as the primary function of emo-
tional complexity. In addition, even though we
propose that emotional complexity evolved with
the function of flexibility, we recognize that it will
not always act in line with this function (Morris &
Keltner, 2000). Therefore, we offer critical contin-
gencies: not all leaders will become more flexible
and adaptable when they experience emotional
complexity, and not all followers will perceive
emotionally complex leaders as flexible. In prior
research on emotional complexity, scholarsdid not
extensively examine moderators, and in only some
work did they examine mediators. Our model thus
takes a step toward enriching our comprehension
of when, why, and how emotional complexity is
functional, thus providing a new starting point for
future scholarship on emotional complexity in
organizations, particularly for leaders.
Leadership. Our work also contributes to lead-
ership scholarship, particularly contingency the-
ories, including research on leader flexibility and
leader adaptability, as well as research on para-
doxical leadership and implicit leadership theo-
ries. First, our model introduces emotional states
2017 273Rothman and Melwani
as dynamic and event-level (Dinh et al., 2014) an-
tecedents of leader flexibility and adaptability.
The leadership literature has long emphasized
the importance of leader flexibility and adapt-
ability such that leaders are more effective if they
are sensitive to social situations (Stogdill, 1948)
and then able to adapt or match their leadership
style to fit the situation (House, 1971; Vroom &
Yetton, 1973). While the extant leadership litera-
ture has linked leader traits with leader flexibility
and adaptability, our model diverges from this
trait approach by emphasizing that a leaders
emotional states facilitate change-oriented out-
comes. Consistent with recent suggestions that
the factors that enable leadership flexibility are
likely to change from one situation to the next
(Dinh et al., 2014), we offer state emotional com-
plexity as a dynamic enabler of flexibility and
present an emotion-based explanation, one that
has thus far been ignored by leadership research,
to account for this effect. Putting emotional com-
plexity firmly on the agenda is an important ad-
vancement for contingency theories.
Second, even beyond contingency scholarship,
our model offers potentially exciting new di-
rections for research on organizational paradox
(e.g., Smith & Lewis, 2011). Paradoxical leader-
ship behaviors refer to seemingly competing yet
interrelated behaviors used to meet structural
and follower demands simultaneously and over
time (Zhang, Waldman, Han, & Li, 2015). Whereas
prior research has thus far offered cognitive an-
tecedents of paradoxical behavior, including
holistic thinking and integrative complexity, our
model intriguingly suggests that state emotional
complexity may be another route. Furthermore,
considering our proposition that emotional com-
plexity should increase cognitive flexibility, and
considering the importance of flexible and creative
thinking skills for creative leadership (Mumford,
Connelly, & Gaddis, 2003), an exciting and im-
portant opportunity for advancing the creative
leadership literature may be to examine the role
of leader emotional complexity in the creative
leadership process of leading others toward the
attainment of a creative outcome (Mainemelis,
Kark, & Epitropaki, 2015). Our model suggests
that not only may emotionally complex leaders
become more creative themselves, allowing
them to deal more effectively with the problems
among their multiple constituencies (Mumford,
Zaccaro, Harding, Jacobs, & Fleishman, 2000), but
their expressions of emotional complexity may
also stimulate creative thinking in followers be-
cause it signals the leadersopenness and flex-
ibility and, thus, leader support (Amabile, 1988;
Amabile, Schatzel, Moneta, & Kramer, 2004).
Third, our framework further suggests the im-
portance of examining variables that may hinder
leader emergence but could simultaneously fa-
cilitate leader effectiveness. In making decisions
about who appears leader-like, people use im-
plicit assumptions about the traits, abilities, and
even emotions characterizing their ideal business
leaders (for a review see Epitropaki, Sy, Martin,
Tram-Quon, & Topakas, 2013); these implicit as-
sumptions shape who emerges as leaders of
groups. In contrast, leader effectiveness refers to
a leaders performance in influencing and guid-
ing the activities of a unit toward goal achieve-
ment (Judge et al., 2002). Unfortunately, although
leader emergence and leader effectiveness are
distinct concepts, they are often blurred because
leadership effectiveness is often measured per-
ceptually rather than objectively and, thus, ap-
pears similar to leader emergence (Lord et al.,
1986). We maintain that the blurring of these cri-
teria is a dilemma in the leadership literature since
it may cause scholars to dismiss certain charac-
teristics because they do not fit leadership pro-
totypes. Indeed, it has been argued that some
leaders are probably selected for the very charac-
teristics that ultimately lead them to fail, while
other leaders are probably not hired for the very
characteristics that ultimately would lead them to
succeed (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). Emotional com-
plexity should increase leader effectiveness in
the ways we have proposed, but it is unlikely to
elicit leader emergence in certain contexts, par-
ticularly where it is not perceived to be appropri-
ate. In these contexts, expressions of emotional
complexity convey submissiveness and indeci-
siveness (Rothman, 2011), which go against lead-
ership prototypes of dominance and competence
(Melwani et al., 2012). Thus, our modelserves as an
example for leadership scholarship to examine
variables like emotional complexity that will
prompt leader effectiveness, even though they
may hinder leader emergence in some contexts.
Future Research Directions
This article opens up a number of exciting di-
rections for future research about additional me-
diators and moderators, research on groups and
teams, and research on conflict.
274 AprilAcademy of Management Review
Mediators and moderators. First, we have asser-
ted that cognitive flexibility is the primary function
of emotional complexity at both the individual
and interpersonal levels of analysis. But it is also
reasonable to think that other forms of flexibility
may matter as well. For instance, leaderscom-
plex emotional reactions may signal their com-
plex cognitive appraisal of the situation, which
may, in turn, increase observersperceptions of
the leadersflexible personality and their flexi-
ble future behavior.
In addition, beyond the moderators we have pre-
sented, a number of other contextual factors at the
individual, dyadic, group, and cultural levels may
also shape and constrain how emotional complex-
ity functions in organizations. At the individual
level, it may be important to consider whether the
model we have developed operates similarly for
those with high versus low levels of psychological
power. Research consistently demonstrates that
powerful individuals are both cognitively and mo-
tivationally oriented towardtheself(Fiske&D´
1996), tend to reject othersadvice and opinions
(Briñol, Petty, & Barden, 2007), and are less likely to
take othersperspectives (Galinsky, Magee, Inesi, &
Gruenfeld, 2006). Considering the ample evidence
linking power and self-focus, psychological power
may attenuate the positive effects of emotional
complexity on leaderscognitive flexibility, or the
ease with which they broaden the scope of their
attentional span to attend to divergent perspectives
and engage in a balanced consideration of those
perspectives. Emotional complexity may therefore
be more functional for those individuals who are in
a position to benefit from itthose who have not
been corrupted by power.
At the dyadic level, power may also render
leaders who express emotional complexity less
open to othersperspectives in the eyes of followers,
thus discouraging followers from speaking up and
taking charge and attenuating the positive effect of
leader emotional complexity on follower proac-
tivity. Additional status characteristics like leader
gendermayalsoaffectfollowersreactions to ex-
pressions of emotional complexity: in settings
where social role stereotypes or prejudices are
pervasive and women carry lower status to begin
with, their expressions of emotional complexity
may be strongly perceived as submissive and in-
decisive, thus significantly reducing their credi-
bility with followers.
At the group level, group norms (Perlow & Weeks,
2002) may also play a role in shaping followers
reactions to leadersemotional complexity. For
example, a group that values innovation should
embrace flexibility because it facilitates inno-
vative idea generation (West & Richter, 2008).
Hence, in this group culture, emotional complexity,
as a signal offlexibility, may be deemed correct for
the situation and so beneficial for generating cre-
ative ideas and group participation.
Last, local culture may play a role. Cultures
high in dialecticism, which is tolerance of con-
tradictory beliefs (Peng & Nisbett, 1999), are likely
to encourage and even demand leaders to em-
brace their complex emotions. Leaders in highly
dialectical cultures may be more likely to expe-
rience and express their emotional complexity,
and followers may be particularly receptive to
these expressions.
Groups and teams. Consistent with the thrust
of the psychological study of leadership, we have
focused on how leaders influence individual fol-
lowers. However, leaders also influence collective
phenomena, such as group dynamics and climate
(Hackman & Walton, 1986; Kozlowski & Doherty,
1989), and we believe that our framework can also
be extended to address these group-level out-
comes. Like their behaviors and decisions, leaders
emotions are symbolic expressions of their values,
motives and worldview, and these are what create
climate(Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008: 105).
Whether they intend to or not, leaders serve to
model emotions(Pescosolido, 2002: 593); their
expressed affect influences the affective experi-
ences of followers (e.g., Ashkanasy & Humphrey,
2011) and also provides information to followers
about their values, attitudes, and intentions as
a leader (Van Kleef, De Dreu, & Manstead, 2010). In
this way the values of the leader come to shape
group behavior and interaction patterns, including
the norms, climate, and culture that develop within
the group (Schneider, 1987). Thus, leadersemotional
complexity may also shape a groupsororganiza-
tions climate. Because emotionalcomplexity should
increase perceived cognitive flexibility, expres-
sions of this state may facilitate a number of
salutary group outcomes, such as group norms of
openness (Rothman & Wiesenfeld, 2007), increased
information sharing between groups (Plambeck &
Weber, 2009), support for experimentation and in-
novation (Jung, Chow, & Wu, 2003), and mindful
organizing, which is a collective behavioral ca-
pability to detect and correct errors and adapt to
unexpected events (Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe, &
Weick, 2014; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007).
2017 275Rothman and Melwani
Conflict. In addition, we believe our framework
may be fruitfully extended to research on conflict
in groups, which tends to view conflict as dis-
ruptive (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). While we
explore an alternative form of internal conflict,
the functional effects of emotional complexity
may enable us to understand the conditions under
which other forms of conflict may be constructive
in dyads and groups. For instance, in addition to
high levels of psychological safety (Edmondson,
1999), norms of openness (Jehn, 1997) and high
within-team trust (Simons & Peterson, 2000), per-
haps having a shared vantage point and making
salient the contradictory demands and asym-
metric goals confronting group members may
shift other forms of conflict from a destructive
to a constructive course? Indeed, our model
might offer a fresh perspective on the condi-
tions under which conflict can be functional.
In light of the growing interest in emotions
and leadership as a multilevel phenomenon
(Ashkanasy & Humphrey, 2011; Ashkanasy &
Jordan, 2008), unpacking how leader emotional
complexity ties in with group-level outcomes
might yield valuable theoretical contributions
to this line of research.
Practical Implications
Because the organizational dynamics associ-
ated with emotional complexity are ever pres-
ent, we suggest that management might want to
focus on developing the conditions that facilitate
its constructive course. We believe that the
ability to acknowledge ones complex emotions
and accepting the tension and discomfort they
achievements and critical for establishing a fuller
and more developed response to onesenviron-
ment. Indeed, individuals who cannot acknowl-
edge their complex emotions or accept the
internal conflict they create (for a review see
Ashforth et al., 2014) may be denied a significant
trigger of flexibility. Thus, it may be important for
organizations, especially those situated in tur-
bulent industry environments or those under-
going organizational change, to consider how
developing an organizational culture or climate
that highlights how emotional complexity is nor-
mal and expected rather than destructive and
dysfunctional might help organizational mem-
bers, including leaders, learn to be comfortable
with such complexity.
Our theory of the function of emotional com-
plexity is premised on the understanding that
emotional complexity is a normal reaction to
complex events and an inherent characteristic of
all human beings(Sincoff, 1990: 60). We suggest
that emotional complexity represents a fuller and
more developed response to ones environment
than emotional simplicity (e.g., the lack of emo-
tional reaction or singular emotional reactions
[pure positivity]) and may actually be adaptive
and integral to human functioning. Indeed, we
interpret the converging evidence as suggesting
that the primary function of emotional complexity
is to increase flexibility and that, in turn, emotional
complexity should be functional for leaders
adaptability and followersproactivity. Consider-
ing implicit leadership theories suggesting that the
experience and expression of emotional complexity
might hinder leadership emergence, it is under-
standable that the benefits of emotional complexity
for leadership have been overlooked. Our proposi-
tions offer an alternative perspective and perhaps
a new starting point for future inquiry.
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Naomi B. Rothman ( is an assistant professor of management at
Lehigh Universitys College of Business and Economics. She received her Ph.D. from the
Stern School of Business at New York University. Her research interests include the social
consequences of emotions, power, and justice in the workplace.
Shimul Melwani ( is an assistant professor of organizational
behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill. She received her Ph.D. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her research interests include emotions, interpersonal relationships, and creativity.
282 AprilAcademy of Management Review
... Subjective ambivalence, the "psychological state of conflict associated with holding both positive and negative thoughts and feelings at the same time about the same object, person, or issue" (Priester & Petty, 1996, p. 432) is a common experience at work, particularly for leaders (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). Leaders of contemporary organizations confront contradictions and tensions when managing people (Smith & Lewis, 2011), making strategic decisions (Plambeck & Weber, 2009), and when solving problems (Guarana & Hernandez, 2016). ...
... Although previous research on ambivalence has identified the individual and dyadic effects of ambivalence either in separate studies (e.g., Guarana & Hernandez, 2015;Rees et al., 2013;Rothman, 2011;Rothman & Northcraft, 2015) or as separate paths in the same model (e.g., Rothman & Melwani, 2017), our research links the individual internal experience of ambivalence to team-level behaviors and outcomes. Our results suggest the importance of considering ambivalence-induced behavior and social learning processes as a key to the positive effects of leader subjective ambivalence. ...
... Whereas recent scholarship has started to identify when leader ambivalence is harmful-particularly when the leader is ambivalent about the subordinate (e.g., Lim et al., 2021), we help to advance the leader ambivalence scholarship by identifying an organizational condition explaining when it is helpful-particularly when projects are complex. Rothman and Melwani (2017) implied that the benefits of leader ambivalence would be realized in complex and changing circumstances. Similarly, we test whether project complexity enhances the positive effect of leader subjective ambivalence on information seeking. ...
Full-text available
In this article, we investigate the effects of leader subjective ambivalence on team performance. Integrating the ambivalence literature and social learning theory, we propose a multi‐level model of whether, when, and why team leaders’ subjective ambivalence enhances team performance outcomes. The results of two laboratory experiments (Studies 1 and 2) demonstrate initial support for the relationship between leader subjective ambivalence and information‐seeking behaviors. The results of a longitudinal field study (Study 3) based on 164 projects (164 leaders and 725 subordinates) show that leader subjective ambivalence has a positive indirect effect on team task performance first through leader information‐seeking behaviors and later through team information‐seeking behaviors. Our results further indicate that project complexity is a boundary condition for the proposed conditional indirect effect of leader subjective ambivalence on team performance outcomes. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.
... The constructs this paper focuses on are mixed emotions and emotional ambivalencetwo affective constructs that are part of the overarching research field of emotional complexity (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). As with other affective and emotional constructs, mixed emotions and emotional ambivalence are states and therefore only elicited for a certain time period (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). ...
... The constructs this paper focuses on are mixed emotions and emotional ambivalencetwo affective constructs that are part of the overarching research field of emotional complexity (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). As with other affective and emotional constructs, mixed emotions and emotional ambivalence are states and therefore only elicited for a certain time period (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). Mixed emotions incorporate all phenomena in which individuals feel simultaneous positive and negative affect due to one stimulus . ...
... This range of different coping responses (to emotional ambivalence) can be distinguished by their level of flexibility . Vastly different cognitive and behavioural outcomes are observable, depending on the level of flexibility with which individuals respond to emotional ambivalence Rothman & Melwani, 2017). Inflexible responses are to be anticipated when individuals desire to resolve their emotional ambivalence quickly and approach it with avoidance Rothman & Melwani, 2017). ...
Policy often tries to change individuals' counterproductive behaviours regarding permanent crises-such as the COVID-19 pandemic or climate crisis-through interventions. This study aims to establish a new instrument for these interventions by investigating whether emotional ambivalence-the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions-can be utilised to enhance adaptive behaviours in permanent crises. Drawing on the COMB system (Michie et al., 2011), it shall thereby be explored whether individuals who are primed to experience emotional ambivalence can respond to it by entering a cognitive flexible mindset. The particular capabilities and motivations of this mindset are hypothesized to subsequently foster adaptive behaviours in permanent crises. Additionally, it is examined whether mindfulness-individuals' tendency to be aware and accepting of the present-moment-moderates the link between emotional ambivalence and the cognitive flexible mindset; this completes a moderated mediation model. An online-experiment with 123 participants was conducted to test the predicted relations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results reveal that individuals report a significantly higher motivation to adapt and social distance, when they are treated to experience emotional ambivalence rather than singular emotions. That said, emotional ambivalence fails to robustly increase the motivation to wear a mask and individuals' attitudes about the COVID-19 pandemic practices. Likewise, the data does not robustly support the predicted underlying mechanism of the cognitive flexible mindset and mindfulness. The results are discussed, shedding light on implications for theory and practice, as well as pointing on limitations and directions for future research.
... For example, ambivalent leadership can promote adaptive or proactive behavior, engagement, and performance 23 . These positive consequences seem to result primarily from simultaneous positive and negative emotions expressed by the leader about complex projects or strategic initiatives [24][25][26][27] . However, ambivalence expressed by the leader could also reduce employees' engagement and performance 28,29 . ...