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INSEAD Professor: the bivalent leadership style

Bivalent leadership style Bivalent leadership style
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Thomas Hawk

For those with a bivalent leadership style everything is either “good” or “bad.” This management style will harm relationships and limit a person’s understanding of the world.

[T]he thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion. —Søren Kierkegaard

The choice in politics isn’t usually between black and white. It’s between two horrible shades of gray. —Lord Thorneycroft

Most things in the world aren’t black, aren’t white, aren’t wrong, aren’t right, but most of everything is just different. And now I know that there’s nothing wrong with different, and that we can let things be different, we don’t have to try and make them black or white, we can just let them be grey. ― C. JoyBell C.

Most of those who knew her agreed that Joan wasn’t the easiest person to deal with.

She rapidly got on people’s nerves. Of course, her behavior wasn’t all bad. As one of the senior executives in the company, she had a number of excellent qualities.

She was creative, she had a great capacity for work, and she was extremely knowledgeable about the industry.

So why, with all that talent, did she need to engage in so much drama? Why was she so rigid in her outlook? Why the angry outbursts, the constant criticism of everything and everyone, the half-truths, rumor-spreading, manipulativeness, and attention-seeking?

Many of Joan’s colleagues wondered what was wrong with her. Why did she always force everybody to choose sides? Why did she always seem to be involved in some kind of vendetta? Why did they always have to be either for her or against her? Why was her world so polarized? Didn’t she realize that—in most situations—there is such a thing as the middle ground? But “compromise” didn’t feature in Joan’s vocabulary.

Her thinking was exclusively black-or-white.

Joan had what is called a bivalent leadership style. In her world, people were either “good” or “bad.” Hers was a world of stark contrasts, where everything was similarly “split”. (Gerson, 1984; Vaillant, 1994; Leichenring, 1999; Cramer, 2006; Siegel, 2006; Bokanowski & Lewkowicz, 2006).

Joan would only deal with the people she perceived as “good,” and lost no time in expressing her disdain for those she perceived as “bad.”

The consequence of this behavior was intense strife wherever she went. Co-workers who once were seen as friends quickly morphed into enemies following the merest hint of criticism or a perceived slight.

They would flip from virtuous to vilified, depending on whether they fulfilled Joan’s needs or frustrated them.

She completely ignored any evidence to the contrary and refused to consider that her interpretation might be incorrect, or that she was distorting reality.

Joan’s toxicity permeated the organization and might have continued unchecked had it not been for the shock impact of a 360-degree feedback report, administered as part of an assessment exercise for the company’s executive body.

The report revealed the extent to which Joan’s colleagues were fed up with her dysfunctional behavior. According to their feedback, the disturbance she was creating in the organization was driving everyone crazy.

People were tired of her insistence that they choose sides and of her attempts to draw them into her quarrels.

Also, her behavior was highly contagious, and causing problems throughout the organization. She had her emotional hooks in many of her co-workers, causing them to split into various camps that worked against each other. There were comments about her negative influence on the work processes in the organization and her habitual bad-mouthing of others.

Some reproduced the nasty and abusive emails for which she was notorious. Many of Joan’s co-workers and direct reports acknowledged that they tended to back off, fearful that they would be next in line for her vindictiveness.

They wanted to be able to get on with their work, and not be dragged onto her emotional roller coaster.

With Joan on board, there was no chance the organization was going to achieve the high performance targets it had identified. Joan’s boss laid it on the line. As far as he was concerned, it was five before midnight on Joan’s employment clock.

She needed to change her behavior or he’d be telling her to pack her bags. There was no question of her getting the promotion she was expecting. But at the same time, he acknowledged that Joan was a highly valued employee who had contributed to the success of the company.

He was willing to get her support for her change effort and arrange for her to work with an executive coach. That’s where I came in, as I had previously worked for the CEO of the company. I knew from past experience that working with executives with a bivalent leadership style like Joan’s could be a challenge.

It is not easy dealing with people who veer between euphoria and anger from one moment to the next, not least because they are not willing collaborators in your efforts to help them. Executives like Joan can drive their coaches crazy just as much as their colleagues (Kraft Goin, 1998; Yeomans, Clarkin & Kernberg, 2002). I certainly hesitated about taking on the assignment.

I knew that working with Joan would be like walking on eggshells and that she would be slotting me into one of her categories, either all good or all bad.

If coaching is going to be successful, it’s vital to build a stable, positive relationship with the client—and Joan’s three failed marriages didn’t inspire confidence in her relationship building.

I learned that the legacy of her last divorce was an ugly custody battle. It was clear that Joan’s way of splitting the world into good and bad had also led to a great deal of misery in the lives of those closest to her. It was my awareness of this that persuaded me to take on her case.


The tactic of splitting people into friend or foe is as old as human nature (Fenichel, 1946).

This sort of categorization made perfect sense to our Paleolithic forebears, who needed to put as much space as possible between them and their predators.

There is a disarming simplicity about binary thinking, the choice between reaching the safety of your cave or being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.

Pondering intermediate solutions wouldn’t have been an option for our early ancestors.

Homo sapiens has always been tempted to define the cosmos as a struggle between the good world of light, and the evil world of darkness.

This sort of “splitting” extends into the everyday world. Everywhere we go, we can see splitting at work: good versus bad, negative versus positive, hero versus villain, friend versus enemy, love versus hate, life versus death, pain versus pleasure, perfect versus imperfect, fantasy versus reality, and so on.

We thrive on black-and-white narratives. But this kind of thinking does not serve us well. The cognitive distortion brought on by viewing a complex world through a simplistic black-or-white lens can harm relationships, diminish our well-being, and limit our understanding of the world.

When we look at a multi-faceted situation through a binary lens we are bound to miss essential details.

Splitting, or all-or-nothing thinking, is the failure of an individual’s mental apparatus to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self and others (Suttie, 1988).

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. The tendency to split can be compared to having a very short-term memory. Frequently, splitters’ prevalent perception of another person is based on their last encounter.

If the encounter was a negative one, the person must be bad. If it was positive, the person must be good. There is no in-between setting. People with this kind of mindset seem to be incapable of reconciling the inconsistencies and ambiguities of human nature.

Although splitting is a fairly common defense mechanism, for some people, particularly those with developmental issues, it becomes the defense mechanism (Bond, 1990; Kernberg, 1990; Sammallahti & Aalberg, 1995). People who are unable to grasp the nuances and complexities of human exchanges diffuse the anxiety that results through splitting. This position gives them clarity, of a sort. They are able to make clear distinctions, taking a confusing mass of experience or information and dividing it into categories that become meaningful.

This mental orientation reinforces their sense of themselves as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing those who do not share their opinions and values.

A divided world

Splitting is very much present in our world. Indeed it 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, Muslims against Christians, Buddhists against Muslims, Hindus against Muslims, Sunnis against Shiites, Protestants against Catholics—I could go on.

Politicians are a close second. Splitting produces simplistic sound bites and creates stark, contrasting camps: Republicans versus Democrats, Tories versus Labor, etc. Our propensity to split features dramatically in fairy tales and children’s stories, which are populated with heroes and villains, fairies and monsters. Literature is also full of examples of splitting.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatizes the concept that good and evil exist within one person; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment explores the dualism of the human mind by examining the bipolarization of conscience and reason through the actions of its protagonist.

In popular literature, the archetypical comic-book hero, Superman, lives under the identity of the “mild-mannered” newspaper reporter Clark Kent.

Splitting usually takes place unconsciously, although this may not always be the case.

Business, military, religious and political leaders deliberately resort to splitting to divide and conquer. They try to manipulate people’s minds so that members of the in-group are seen as having positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups have mostly negative attributes.

The dangerous consequence of this is distorted groupthink and xenophobia.

All of us, at one time or another, split our perceived reality into right and wrong, good and evil, or black and white.

Typically, we resort to this way of thinking when we are unable to handle the stress that accompanies highly complex situations and our customary coping mechanisms fail us.

But if splitting occurs on a regular basis, it can be seen as an indication of psychological rigidity and developmental arrest, resulting (as Joan’s story demonstrates) in painful consequences for oneself and for others.

The compartmentalization of opposites can produce a distorted picture of reality and restricts the range of our thoughts and emotions. It can also affect our ability to establish and maintain relationships.

Developmental arrest

So where does our predilection for splitting come from? Where does it originate?

There is no demonstrable link between this behavior pattern and any genetic or physiological condition, although temperament may play a role in its development.

Like most behavioral patterns, splitting originates in childhood and the way parents deal with their children.

The tendency to split is related to insecure or disrupted attachment behaviour patterns—bearing in mind that attachment behavior is the template of all human relationships (Klein, Heimann & Money-Kyrle, 1955; Hughes, 1989; Van der Kolk, Perry & Herman, 1991; Fonagy, 2001).

Learning how to be effective in interpersonal relationships is a journey that starts early in life and depends very much on the quality of the original child-caregiver relationship—how the caregiver responds to the child.

Children learn to be empathic when their caregivers are empathic. If they are not, children may have developmental setbacks. Ineffective parenting can leave children unable to modulate and interpret their own feelings and the feelings of others.

Splitting comes to the fore due to the infant’s inability to integrate its positive and negative interactions with its parents.

When this happens, the strategy the child takes is to keep the positive and negative aspects of an individual separate, fearful that the “bad” will destroy the “good.”

On the one hand there is the loving mother, an image derived from the developing child’s experience of love and satisfaction in its relationship with her.

On the other there is the unloving mother, an image derived from the child’s frustrating and upsetting experiences of their relationship.

Splitting is an ingenious way of resolving uncomfortable feelings of ambivalence.

These contradictory feelings can be split so that one person is only loved, while the other is only hated.

This preserves some semblance of happiness when the child is faced with very negative experiences and stops the “bad” overruling the “good.”

Only when emotional development progresses smoothly will the child develop a tolerance for ambivalence and learn that people can be good and bad at the same time.

If the child is exposed to too much strife and discord early in life, fuzzy, unstable boundaries can be created, making it more likely that the developing child will categorize people as either all good or all bad.

Too many negative early experiences (for example, neglect or abuse) mean that the weaker positive experiences will not be strong enough to allow this essential process of integration.

When the child reaches the developmental milestone of tolerating ambiguity, the foundation for emotional and social intelligence is established.

Of course, this journey towards emotional maturation is never totally completed.

The temptation to split will always be present in human nature as a defense mechanism, particularly in stressful situations, like divorce, separation, or other relationship difficulties.

Getting to grey

How can executives who have a bivalent leadership style, like Joan, be helped to become more effective?

Coaching people like Joan is a challenge, in that bivalent people are not particularly insightful about what is going on in their inner world.

They are notoriously resistant to coaching interventions, as they quickly interpret any attempt at behavioural change as an attack.

My immediate challenge was how to help Joan move forward and have a more nuanced view of life.

I needed to find ways to help Joan recognize that living in a dichotomous world was making her life, and the lives of those around her, difficult.

Above all, I needed to make her realize that continuing in this way was self-defeating.

She needed to acknowledge that nobody is all bad and equally that nobody is all good.

She needed to understand that “good” people are not perfect and make mistakes.

My challenge was to get Joan to acknowledge that she inhabited a world in which she was blind to her own and other’s mental states—and get her out of it.

Joan had very little understanding of her own inner thoughts, beliefs, desires, and intentions.

This in turn made it extremely difficult for her to interpret other people’s desires and motives.

She needed to become more skilled in reading her own and other people’s minds.

She also needed to learn how to think and feel clearly at the same time and see others from the inside and herself from the outside. Joan could be quite difficult and I did not always find it easy to remain empathic and connect with her emotionally.

At times, I found it hard to reframe her “bad” behavior and look at it as a defensive strategy. I needed constantly to remind myself that she behaved as she did as a form of self-protection and that I should consider her behavior as a reaction to a sense of danger.

My task was to help her readjust this assessment and make the situations she encountered more reality based.

I needed to be very careful about how I gave Joan feedback, knowing that she reacted very badly to criticism.

Not only would that reduce the likelihood of a successful intervention but there was a chance it would result in more toxic behavior, Joan’s standard defensive response.

I needed to help her see the consequences of her behavior without sounding moralistic.

It was also important that the two of us should explore together alternative ways of dealing with her interpersonal encounters.

As I expected, working with Joan was like walking on thin ice. One moment, she would agree with an observation, the next she would turn on me viciously.

I found out the hard way that her distorted perceptions had become such an ingrained pattern, and that any attempt to reason with her was futile.

For a long time Joan kept on splitting: I was good or bad, depending on whether I met her emotional needs or made her feel frustrated.

She was completely unaware of her self-deception, selectively collecting evidence to support her oversimplified black-or-white perception of others.

I kept on reminding myself that this was Joan’s way of preventing herself being overwhelmed by anxiety. It was her way of protecting her self-esteem.

Instead of focusing on her tenuous relationships at work, I changed strategy and got Joan to apply the lens of analysis on was happening between the two of us, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of our subjective mental states.

Joan needed to be more attentive to her own and others’ mental states, to have a more non-judgmental attitude, greater curiosity, and more compassion.

To make these psychological explorations, she needed to learn how to put into words what she and I were experiencing in our meetings.

The transference-counter-transference dance

To make the most of this process, I encouraged Joan to think about the way she perceived our relationship and how it evolved during the coaching process.

By concentrating on what was happening to both of us, and developing explanatory stories when something happened, she could contrast her perception of herself and her perception of me.

The challenge was to increase her psychological sensitivity by exploring alternative interpretations and intentions from both her and my points of view.

This provided her with the insight that black-and-white thinking could damage relationship building.

She began to realize that when we view the world in over-simplistic terms, we are less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests.

All this required a lot of patience.

During our coaching sessions, I asked Joan many questions—“what” rather than “why” questions—to help her unravel her experiences.

By doing this, I helped her understand the interpersonal reactions that made sense and those that didn’t. However, I always needed to be careful to balance my active and passive stance.

The process had to be truly collaborative. It was all about mutual understanding and intimacy.

Joan continued to find it difficult to put herself in other people’s shoes (Perry, 1993;Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist & Target, 2002).

She had little or no curiosity about what was happening within herself when she felt “emotional,” or felt things were unclear in her dealings with others.

In fact, Joan needed to learn or relearn a number of things: how to make other people feel more comfortable; what secure attachment was all about; to communicate her thoughts and feelings clearly; and to control her feelings of fear, shame, and anger.

It was particularly important for her to realize that her level of anxiety narrowed her focus so that she concentrated only on potential threats.

Working together on these themes, we created a collaborative coaching relationship, in which both of us had a joint responsibility to understand the mental processes taking place in the here-and now, and reflect on what had happened in similar situations before.

Gradually, Joan began to learn how to react to situations more appropriately.

She started to pay attention to her mood swings and make an effort to stop and think about what was happening to her before reacting.

Her impulse control improved. She came to realize that her bivalent leadership style meant that she was projecting her own fears and insecurities onto others.

Slowly but surely, she became ready to accept that we all have flaws, that none of us is either black or white, and to let in the grey.

Over time, Joan stopped thinking in absolute terms and increasingly considered “grey” options.

Her language became less categorical and more nuanced and she became increasingly astute at finding and accepting the middle ground when dealing with the challenges of daily life.

Outside our coaching sessions, two things were important additional supports for her change effort.

First, Joan kept a diary in which she reflected on each day’s events.

This became an important aid in helping her see things from other people’s perspectives.

Recording her thoughts helped her become more effective in replacing negative self-defeating thoughts with more realistic ones.

Her diary keeping helped Joan develop greater self-awareness and a more stable sense of self.

Keeping a record helped her adjust her view that that “things just happened to her” and acquire greater control over her life.

Second, Joan met someone and began a new relationship that had a stabilizing influence on her behavior. I was very encouraged by her ability to maintain this relationship and simultaneously make the effort to re-establish a number of old friendships.

The involvement of her new partner, family members and old friends helped her to modify her bivalent self.

These relationships were the testing grounds to help her understand the reasons for her previous disruptive behavior patterns and to adopt new, more productive ways of dealing with others.

Although the change was very gradual, Joan ultimately found a more effective way of living.

After a year of coaching, I could confidently say that she was doing quite well and her progress was marked when she got the promotion her boss had ruled out 12 months earlier.