In the past, leaders who made fast decisions inspired confidence and often produced excellent results. In today’s more complex, rapidly changing environment, great leaders use and encourage a different skill that I call “flexible thinking.”

Flexible Thinking: How Great Leaders Inspire Better Decisions. Photo courtesy of

New research from University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business confirms the importance of flexible thinking, one of the five types of impact thinking. Most people will be surprised to learn that the starting point is emotional ambivalence.

Emotional Ambivalence Increases Judgement Accuracy

Emotional ambivalence is having two conflicting feelings about a single topic. “Think of your daughter leaving home to attend a prestigious ballet school,” says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, associate professor of management and organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where researchers conducted studies with more than 600 people.

“When people are emotionally ambivalent, simultaneously feeling positive and negative, they make more accurate forecasts,” says Sanchez-Burks. “The underlying magic is that their conflicting emotional state makes them more open to considering conflicting information, which is critical to making good decisions.”

Implications for Business Leaders

Flexible thinking is one of the five patterns of thought of superior 21st century leaders, uncovered by David Burnham and other researchers at Burnham Rosen, through studies involving hundreds of thousands of people. Flexible thinking recognizes that in the 21st century:

  • Situations tend to be complex rather than black-and-white
  • Information is widely available (the leader no longer has a monopoly on information)
  • Both situations and information frequently change.

In the complexities of the 21st century, great leaders don’t simply make a decision and “inspire” people to follow them. They engage their team to make and own a collective decision by combining their individual knowledge, wisdom, and forecasting abilities.

“Great leaders think in complex terms, and they think about the paradox of how even exciting and certain trends can go out the window and be very disappointing if you’ve invested in nothing else,” says David Burnham. “And so they involve people in exploring both the need for change and the uncertain future, and being prepared for multiple scenarios for multiple futures and being excited about being able to change. So they therefore stay on top of the trends and deliver results.”

Leadership Implications in Other Areas of Life

Beyond the business implications, flexible thinking is now a necessity for leaders in every area of life. For example, many of today’s families have nearly unlimited choices for where to live and how to spend any free time and money. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert revealed in Stumbling On Happiness, it’s very difficult for people to forecast which choice(s) will make them most happy. Spouses and parents who apply flexible thinking regarding family decisions will keep their family excited about their future together through life’s ups and downs.

I witnessed the truth of this on my family’s recent vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana. Some of our vacation activities went foul (like the long hike when we ran out of water), and others were a home run (like a shorter hike that included jumping off a bridge into the deep stream below). As we returned home, everyone was excited and grateful about the memories we had planned and created together.

Here’s a more complex family example: one of our children is currently on track to graduate high school two years early. Erin and I are super-proud of her, and yet we’re a bit worried that her self-drive may cause her to miss some of high school’s joys and soon push her into the adult world before she’s mature enough. Talking about our ambivalent emotions helps us work through these choices with her, while so far avoiding the common situation where the teenager believes her parents are controlling her.

Inspiring Your Team to Think Flexibly

“Resist the temptation to manipulate the moods or emotions of people, and teams specifically, when you need them to make an important forecast or decision,” says Sanchez-Burks. “The natural variability in life will increase the chance that people will not be solidly positive or negative.”

Uncertainty is the new normal. That’s a key reason snap judgements and black-and-white thinking are so last-century. Tonya’s idea is great. Our competitors are expanding in that direction, so we must do it too. We can’t afford that equipment. Our employees will never go for that. The problem is Bill’s fault. We have to make this strategy work.

Instead, the starting point for inspiring better decisions is for the leader to recognize and give voice to her ambivalent feelings about the topic … and to allow and encourage team members to express their conflicted emotions too.

Specifically, here are five ways to inspire flexible thinking in your team:

  • Recognize your own ambivalent feelings. For those of us trained to emphasize logic and downplay emotion, it can be helpful to see a list of feelings. Sorry guys: in this context, neither “hungry” nor “horny” qualify as feelings.
  • Give voice to your ambivalence. Specifically name two emotions you feel that seem to be conflicting. “I’m worried that we’ll lose money on this deal, but I’m excited about being the first in this market.”
  • Encourage team members to share their feelings (not just their rational thoughts). You don’t have to get touchy-feely about this (“Gee, Bob, tell me how you’re really feeling”). Usually, leading by example is all that’s necessary (recognizing and giving voice to your ambivalence).
  • Take care not to squash their feelings. The worst thing you can do is slip into “Lord of Logic” mode, and discount the emotions expressed by your team. Bite your tongue if you feel tempted to say “No, that won’t happen,” “That’s silly,” or “Yeah, but….”
  • Demonstrate a healthy attitude toward mistakes. Acknowledge up front that the group may not always get the answer right. Occasional mistakes are a part of doing business, and many mistakes end up not negatively affecting the outcome.

If you engage your team this way, you will demonstrate flexible thinking … and inspire this critical skill from your team. In doing so, you’ll unleash wiser judgement, aggressive creativity, and powerful results.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast, host of the Game Changer podcast series, and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

“The Ambivalent Mind Can Be a Wise Mind: Emotional Ambivalence Increases Judgement Accuracy,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2013.

“Emotions at Work: When Can They Help?” by Dori Meinert. HR Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), August 2013.