A double bind is an interpersonal situation in which conflicting messages are communicated or competing demands are imposed, creating a trap that can be a powerful source of distress and frustration. The concept was developed by the innovative social scientist Gregory Bateson and a team of colleagues in the 1950s to explain how dysfunctional family systems and patterns of communication might give rise to schizophrenia in individual family members. The idea that a double bind causes schizophrenia has fallen out of favor as the mental health field has learned more about the condition's neurological origins, but as therapist Paul Gibney has noted, we still observe double binds "in any public or private health setting any day of the week," and it may be that double binds are a sort of systemic coping mechanism in response to dysfunction, not a cause of it.
An illustration may be helpful. Paul Watzlawick was an Austrian psychotherapist who practiced at Palo Alto's Mental Research Institute and taught at Stanford for many years. Much of Watzlawick's work discusses the ways we trap ourselves, particularly in situations where efforts to work our way out only deepen the entrapment, and in 1974 he described an experiment that portrays a vivid double bind:
One early experiment performed at [the Mental Research Institute] was supposed to explore how people get into this kind of “no exit” situation. It involved Dr. [Don] Jackson, an internationally known expert on the psychotherapy of schizophrenia, and we asked him if he was willing to have himself filmed in a first interview with a paranoid patient whose main delusion was [that he was] a clinical psychologist, and Dr. Jackson agreed to this. We then went to the [Veterans Administration hospital] in Menlo Park, where we knew a clinical psychologist who also did therapy with schizophrenics, and we asked him if he was willing to have himself filmed in a first interview with a paranoid patient whose main delusion was that he was a psychiatrist. Then we brought the two learned doctors together in a kind of super-therapy session, in which both promptly began to treat each other. And the more mental health and reason and therapeutic endeavors they injected into the situation, the crazier they appeared to the other, of course.
I'm an executive coach, not a therapist or a psychologist, and my clients are senior leaders facing ordinary dilemmas in their professional lives, not patients wrestling with unusual mental health challenges--so why is this topic of interest to me? Because I believe leaders face double binds constantly, and I see the concept as a common feature of most human systems, not something restricted to dysfunctional families dealing with mental illness. So what do double binds look like in organizational life, and what can leaders do about them?
I recently wrote about two types of organizational double bind in Leadership As a Performing Art:
Contemporary leaders are constantly at risk of being caught in a trap. They must operate within two co-existing yet conflicting frames of reference: our outwardly professed preference for equality and effort, and, alternatively, our often unstated--at times subconscious--preference for hierarchy and innate ability. We say we want egalitarianism, flat organizations, and post-heroic leadership. We also claim to value people whose achievements are the result of striving and hard work over those with inborn talents... And yet research suggests that preferences for hierarchy and innate ability are deeply rooted in our evolutionary psychology.
When leaders respond to our desire for egalitarian management, they violate our preference for clear hierarchical structure. And when leaders strive to improve their effectiveness, they confound our expectation that they possess an innate talent for leadership. Classic double binds. Another such situation faced by leaders in contemporary business culture is posed by the tension between strength and sensitivity: We want resolute leaders who are capable of protecting the organization (and us) from external threats, and we want emotionally intelligent leaders who are comfortable with vulnerability and sensitive to our inner needs. These aren't mutually exclusive qualities, of course, but leaders' formative experiences in their families, education and professional lives tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. We train leaders to suppress their fear and anxiety and then resent their lack of sensitivity. Or we encourage leaders to be in touch with their emotions and then wish they were more even-tempered.
Another double bind that I see consistently in my practice: We want leaders to identify high performance standards and help hold us (and our colleagues) accountable, and we simultaneously expect leaders to insure that we feel a sense of safety and trust within the organization. Again, these management principles aren't mutually exclusive by any means, but putting them into practice inevitably requires a leader to make difficult tradeoffs. Holding someone accountable may entail the threat of termination, and firing an employee almost always undermines the sense of safety among their colleagues (even if they also believe that the move was justified.) An environment of safety and trust is essential if we are to learn and grow while making mistakes and encountering setbacks, and such cultures also run the risk of avoiding accountability and ignoring underperformance. There are no simple solutions to these competing demands, and we are often reluctant to take responsibility for the difficult decisions they require--and so they become the province of leadership. So what can leaders do? How can they liberate themselves from these double binds? Three suggestions:
Acceptance and Letting Go
A first step is simply accepting that double binds exist and that we must live with the paradoxes they pose. Leaders will constantly hear conflicting messages and face competing demands. Responding to one message or demand will inevitably entail violating another, and this is an unavoidable fact of organizational life. As I wrote recently in discussing the challenges faced by leaders in elite organizations, "They may feel frustrated or upset by the dynamics described above, and they may yearn for things to be different—and yet this state of affairs is both rational and predictable. You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way--and it’s essential to accept this reality." To be clear, I'm not suggesting that leaders ignore or suppress the distress and frustration triggered by a double bind. Instead, I'm proposing that leaders seek to let go of these feelings, which are often the result of an unwillingness to accept reality and a fervent desire to change circumstances that we cannot control. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote in 2005,
[W]henever there is pain of any kind--the pain of aggression, grieving, loss, irritation, resentment, jealousy, indigestion, physical pain--if you really look into that, you can find out for yourself that behind the pain there is always something we are attached to. There is always something we're holding on to.
A corollary to accepting that double binds are unavoidable aspects of leadership is avoiding blame. Being trapped in a double bind is stressful and frustrating, and when we feel those emotions we often look for someone else to take responsibility for our experience. We want someone to take the blame, because that will allow us to feel better. Given the nature of organizational double binds, leaders may find it particularly tempting to blame employees, investors, board members, and even customers or clients for sending conflicting messages and imposing competing demands upon them. But as I noted last year, while we don't control our emotional response (which allows them to serve essential functions), we do have agency in the process, and it's important not to shirk responsibility for our feelings and foist it onto others. A useful tool here is the Trium Group's definitions of a "responsible mindset" and a "victim mindset":
I view myself as an integral factor in all situations. Every situation occurs and unfolds as it does in some measure as a direct outcome of my actions, non-actions and interpretations. I believe there is always something I can do to affect the situation.
I view myself as separate and disconnected from situations as they occur. Circumstances and events happen to me. I believe there is nothing I can do to affect the situation.
While double binds are unavoidable in organizational life, and leaders can't control whether or not they will find themselves ensnared in one, it's essential for leaders to acknowledge their own responsibility and agency--starting with the choice to be a leader in the first place.
Finally, highlighting the importance of acceptance and avoiding blame is not to suggest that leaders should wait passively and hope that the distress and frustration caused by a double bind go away. I encourage leaders in my practice to take a number of steps to manage difficult emotions more effectively:
- Commit to a meditation practice or other forms of mindfulness.
- Get regular exercise and sufficient sleep.
- Write about these feelings in a journal or daily note-to-self.
- Talk about them with regularly with empathetic listeners (who can be hard to find.)
- Fully comprehending our feelings, which entails labeling them accurately.
- Reframing the situation, which involves understanding our cognitive biases and seeing things more clearly.
- Finding healthy ways to soothe ourselves, which can start with simply taking slower, deeper breaths, but also includes being able to disclose our emotions as we experience them with those around us, not merely after the fact with third parties.
Photo by Scott Symonds. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.