Mixed feelings about ambivalent decision-making?

Validity, value, and valence are three terms used in the governance and management of non-profits, and each refers to concepts of ‘strength’ and ‘worth’ in some way.

Etymonline advises that their common Proto-Indo-European root is wal- (“to be strong”, also “be well, be strong, be worthy”). Shades of this underlying meaning can be found in other terms we commonly use in decision-making and discussions, as illustrated in the chart below.

Value perspectives were canvassed at some length in several recent posts (see links below). Validity reflections will be dealt with in a future post, while the present post focuses on valence in some of its many forms.

Valence – in the eye of the beholder

You may have first encountered the term ‘valence’ in a science class (perhaps when learning about the combining capacity of an atom with the standard hydrogen atom). In the governance and management of non-profit organisations, however, other valence concepts, like emotional and social valence, come into play.

Uses of the term ‘valence’ outside chemistry tend to focus on distinctions between positive and negative, good and bad, and right and wrong. As well as absolute polarities such as these, degrees of valence are also accommodated. This allows for more nuanced decisions in which a preferred approach can be identified amongst a set of viable options, or ‘least worst‘ options can be contemplated. Also, what serves the interests of one party may not offer ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. And so we acknowledge that relative truth applies to many decisions required of directors and managers.

Emotional valence

Canadian consulting firm Psychology Compass has an excellent blog post on how to utilise emotional control in the decision-making process. The following extract is only a small part of their advice.

“Every emotional state that you experience falls somewhere on the 2-dimensional plane of valence and arousal. In other words, every emotion is either:

Good or bad (valence) and
Active or passive (arousal)
Interestingly, different classes of emotions affect your decision-making skills differently.

For valence: Positive states will make you seek different solutions than the negative states.

The negative emotions make you prone to go for high-risk / high-reward options, because you unconsciously seek rewards to balance the current negative state.
The positive emotions, on the other hand, make you prone to maintain the current circumstances, by avoiding risky decisions that can change the status quo currently being enjoyed.

For arousal: Similarly, different levels of emotional arousal will differently impact your decision-making skills.

High levels of excitement are linked with sensation-seeking. If you feel active emotions, you’ll be more likely to go for risky solutions.
Low levels of excitement on the other hand, mean that you’re more likely to go for the safe, less risky options.”

Each person’s emotional valence can shift from moment to moment, and so also can the collective emotional valence of a board, committee, or group. The objectivity and quality of a decision can therefore be significantly affected when meeting participants demonstrate poor emotional awareness and control.

Mood and comfort factors are important – as will be attested by anyone who has tried to win an argument with an angry person, or tried to engage a group of hungry directors with substantive issues.

Emotional awareness tools have been developed over the years to help people reflect on their emotional control skills. The Plutchik Emotion Wheel illustrated below is just one of many available.

Source: https://www.6seconds.org/2022/03/13/plutchik-wheel-emotions/

Organisational psychologists talk about high (positive), neutral, or low (negative) emotional (affective) valence when discussing employee motivation. This factor is considered alongside the person’s state of arousal (on a scale from active to passive).

In Expectancy (Motivation) Theory, valence refers to the extent to which the reward expected by the employee upon achieving a performance outcome is considered desirable (along with their confidence that it will be received). This is an aspect of performance management warranting consideration by both directors and managers.

Hedonic valence

When appraising for pleasantness or beauty, hedonic (or sensual) valence is employed. An experience can be more or less pleasant (or unpleasant) for any one person, however, since tastes vary, what is pleasant for one may be unpleasant for another. Also, depending on environmental factors, what is pleasant for a person one day may not be at a later time (a cold drink in summer compared with the same drink in mid-winter).

Goal conduciveness

The functionality or efficiency of a solution to satisfy needs, achieve goals, or affirm values is another type of valence, quite distinct from judgments of pleasantness or otherwise. Indeed, the variance between the two can lead to tension for an individual or a group. Foregoing the pleasure of sweet food in the interest of achieving goals associated with health and wellbeing, is a well-known example of this.

Power valence

Judging the outcome of influence by one’s own actions or by mobilising others, is a power appraisal, which is also valenced. In this context high power is considered positive, and low power is negative.

Self congruence

The extent to which an action is judged to be congruent with one’s actual or ideal self is another dimension in which valence is assessed. The ‘self’ referred to here may include traits, behavioural habits, internalised roles, and social or work-related identities.

Moral valence

When we talk of boards needing to make the right decisions for the right reasons, we acknowledge that those decisions are not simply a matter of objective reasoning. A decision might well stack up using logical thought processes, and yet be unacceptable on moral grounds, especially if it could involve harm to other parties.

Self-disclosure valence

Self-disclosure valence via social media is recognised as one way potential collaborators develop positive, neutral, or negative first impressions. These impressions could influence their willingness to engage, or the tone of their engagement (trust), with an employee, or the organisation.

Social valence

The social valence of options presented for board consideration is another use of the valence concept. When the board seeks to make an optimal decision, they are relying on their assessment of the probability that a given set of outcomes will be achieved, and their judgment of the valence, or expected satisfaction of each outcome.

Social issues management valence

Stakeholder theory brings the perspectives of those who are socially impacted or have a social impact on the organisation into consideration. Where the social issues management valence model is employed, the board does not simply make its decisions on the basis of the views expressed in the room, but consults with stakeholders in the light of their power, urgency, and legitimacy claims, and the salience of their input to the decision/s being made.

Reputation valence

An organisation’s pre-crisis reputation valence (on the positive-negative spectrum) is recognised as having a halo effect should a crisis occur. If the organisation has a positive reputation (similar to a credit balance in their ‘trust’ account) this can cushion them somewhat, hopefully, so that their social license to operate is not withdrawn. An organisation with a negative reputation at the time of a crisis is already in deficit with the community, and so will face more intense scrutiny and blame.

Government valence

Also known as ‘competence voting’, valence politics (or Government valence) is a model of voting behaviour which emphasises that people vote according to their judgments of the overall competence of each rival party.

Valence issue

Within valence politics, a valence issue is defined as one on which voters hold a broad consensus.

Economic valence

Economic valance refers to the degree to which an input (e.g. land, labor, or capital goods) increases the use of one or more other factors. High valence is high complementarity.

‘Everyday’ valences

Prevalence is referenced whenever we consider the extent or amount of something. Incident frequency, demand levels, complaint loads, and system failures are just some examples of areas requiring monitoring and measurement of prevalence.

Equivalence is a concept we use whenever comparing outcomes with goals or objectives. Key examples include assessing the alignment of strategic outcomes with expectations, and comparing actual financial results with budget estimates. There are many types of judgments required of directors and managers in which the concept of equivalence is used. Less frequently, concepts of monovalence, univalence, covalence, bivalence, divalence, trivalence, and/or polyvalence may also need to be considered.

Ambivalence is a risk in governance. While we are all dealing with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) factors, governance decisions need to be as clear as possible if the execution of those decisions is to be effective.

Mixed feelings

Given the multifaceted view of valence outlined above, and the many ways in which varying combinations of valence perspectives influence the choices and behaviours of individuals and groups, it is not surprising that mixed (ambivalent) feelings are experienced in decision-making meetings. Both the header image and the chart below illustrate this mix of filters and factors.

While we may wish to avoid it in decision-making, some degree of ambivalence will occur whenever there are both positive and negative valences. Being sensitive to the range of possible valances that may be influencing deliberation is likely to enhance the quality of the decision ultimately taken – and may also help to promote a positive organisational culture (i.e. cultural valence).

See also:



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