Understanding the foundations of the bivalent leadership style

Understanding the foundations of the bivalent leadership style

I’ve recently read a new working paper by Manfred Kets de Vries of INSEAD on „Bivalent Leaders“. Manfred touches upon an interesting challenge that many of us can face in our daily work – dealing with people who have a strong tendency to „splitting“, i.e. seeing the world around them as either very positive or very negative.

Splitting, writes Manfred, is the failure of an individual’s mental apparatus to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self and others. It means the inability to reconcile contradictory attitudes and the failure to accept that we can have simultaneous positive and negative feelings about someone or something. Instead, splitters alternate between extremes.

Splitting is one of the most primitive forms of sense-making. Religion leads the way, with religious leaders more than ready to split the world into two camps made up of believers and non-believers: Christians against Jews, or Sunnis against Shiites.

Splitting can intoxicate a whole organization or team

All of us at some time or another split our perceived reality into right and wrong. This way of thinking can sometimes be helpful for decisions in highly complex situations. But if we split on a regular basis, this can intoxicate a whole organization or team.

In his paper Manfred tells the story of Joan. Joan is a senior executive and acts like a prototype for bivalent leadership.

„For her, people were either good or bad. She would only deal with people she perceived as “good’, expressing disdain for those she saw as “bad” and as a consequence instigated intense strife wherever she went. Co-workers who were once friends, became enemies after the merest hint of criticism or perceived slight as she refused to concede she may have misinterpreted them or had distorted reality.“

Executives like Joan can drive their coaches crazy just as much as their colleagues. But Manfred found a strategy to coach her in a way that lead to a change of behavior. In his paper he shares his findings, and one can learn important things from his experiences:

  • Get executives with a bivalent leadership style to acknowledge that people are not all good or bad, and that good people do make mistakes.
  • Turn the lens of analysis onto the relationship in an attempt to make her more attentive to her own and others’ mental state, encouraging her to have a more non-judgmental attitude, greater curiosity and enhanced compassion.
  • Encourage bivalent leaders to understand how black and white thinking can damage relationship building.
  • Encourage bivalent people to keep a diary in which to reflect on each day’s events. „Recording thoughts in this way explicitly helps people think about them more deeply“ Manfred writes.

How can you use Manfred’s insights? Well, you probably don’t have permission to suggest these four steps to your “difficult” manager or colleague, but being able to identify the bivalent leader puts you into the position to understand why someone acts in a certain way. And that offers you the chance to make sense of what is happening and to better calibrate your response.


Insead Blogs | The Importance of Seeing the World in Shades of Grey »

The Bivalent Leaderhip Style. by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries (INSEAD Working Paper) »

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Stefan Pap

Stefan founded Stefan Pap & Partners in 2008 after a successful career as project manager at two well-known global consulting firms. He is a passionate and dedicated consultant with a unique combination of strategy, business technology, and people management experiences.

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