Marriages of Convenience and Other Trade-offs: Exploring the Ambivalent Nature of Organizational Relationships
Michael G. Pratt
Depictions of organizational life have ranged from depictions of extreme alienation (Erikson, 1986) to extreme commitment (Butterfield, 1985; Kunda, 1992). However, the emotional portrait of workers may not be so easily captured by simple shades of positive or negative feelings. Rather, the rapid rate of change, the ever-increasing complexity, and the seeming incompleteness characteristic of social life in the twentieth century suggest that this is an "age of ambivalence" (Weigert & Franks, 1989). In the work place, individuals confront the realities of hyper-competitive market places, technologically mediated relationships, empowerment, and economic insecurity. These and other issues have become embedded in the social structure of organizations and affect the bonds between individuals and between individuals and their organization. The result, we argue, is that individuals often experience ambivalence: "overlapping approach-avoidance tendencies" (Sincoff, 1990) characterized by "mixed feelings" about their work groups and organizations. Despite the fact that ambivalence is inherent in modern life, and is a central concept in many social sciences (cf. Boehm, 1989; Freud, 1950/1920; Bowlby, 1982; Merton, 1976; Smelser, 1998), our understanding of ambivalence in organizations is limited. In this chapter, we examine the topic of emotional ambivalence in the context of work relationships. We have four major goals in this regard: (1) to briefly review the concept of ambivalence, especially emotional ambivalence; (2) to argue for the prevalence of ambivalence in individuals' relationships both with and in organizations; (3) to propose two major sources of ambivalence in these relationships; and (4) to offer a typology of responses that individuals use to cope with emotional ambivalence. To illustrate these goals, we draw upon two different cases, rural doctors whose practices have been recently bought out by a large managed care organization (referred to hereafter as HealthCo), and employees at bank call-centers. These cases reveal two types of ambivalent relationships in organizations. The case of the rural doctors illustrates how individuals can become ambivalent with their employing organization. Thus, it illustrates an individuals' ambivalence with their collective. The call-center, by contrast, primarily illustrates ambivalent relationships between bank call-center employees and co-workers, as well as between employees and customers. Thus, it shows us ambivalent relationships within (rather than with) an organization. We believe that both types of ambivalent relationships (both with and within) are likely to be common in modern organizations.
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