Natural killer (NK) cells are immune cells that lyse virally infected and tumor cells. Initially, their cytolytic capability is induced by cytokines. Subsequently, in their decision whether to kill a potential target cell, NK cells have to distinguish between small differences in the expression of ligands that report on the viral infection or transformation of the target. NK killing requires tight coupling to the target cell and extensive NK cell polarization. Here we discuss, often in contrast to the second cytolytic immune cell type, cytotoxic T cells, how NK cell polarization is shaped by three constraints of their activation. First, NK cell have to respond to cytokines: Different priming cytokines yield dramatically divergent NK cell polarization. Second, NK cells have to distinguish small differences in ligand expression: NK cell polarization is tentative, likely to allow discriminatory recognition close to the NK cell activation threshold. A critical contributor to the tentative nature of NK cell polarization may be poorly developed spatiotemporal organization of NK cell signaling. Third, NK cells have to kill effectively: NK cell polarization is transient, allowing for efficient killing by sequential interactions of a single NK cell with numerous target cells.