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Double Binds and You at Work

November 11, 2014

I was working on the challenge of blending cultures in a merger recently. Actually if you’ve ever been in that situation, merger and blending don’t really fit that experience accurately do they? Maybe mash-up or some other descriptor would be more accurate. But here’s the thing, any communication that included double binds seemed like it was twice as deflating as compared to their effect when you’re not in the middle of a merger. Before I go further, let me ask, “Do you know what double binds are?” You probably are already operating under several. Let’s see if we can create a little release for you in this short blog.

First of all, over 50 years ago Bateson came up with the “double bind” hypothesis for explaining how people in family situations got to feeling trapped by conflicting expectations or directives. He described the situation as driving someone crazy, as they felt under the power of someone else who could enforce negative consequences, but who also gave out double messages or requests which were incompatible. Sound familiar?

His hypothesis still has value today, but I’d like to pull it out of family systems and place it in front of you as a work condition. You see I am sure you and I experience double binds at work.  Examples could be where you get the mandate to get something “done really quickly and make sure it’s perfect”, or be engaged and “all in”, even though you don’t see the value of what you are working on.  When we work under double binds, I think we inevitably experience work as less satisfying and ultimately stressful. The blog, “Are you trapping employees in a double bind” asks the question and generates a few more examples to consider.

You get the idea, but think about mergers for a moment. In mergers, consolidations and similar “blendings”, it’s even easier for double binds to emerge.  And when they do, they do so with that negative power theme of “you may not have a job” overhead – which is classic double bind theory. And guess what,  double binds contribute to mergers and acquisitions being rated as highly stressful, or as Bateson might say, capable of surfacing all the craziness just under the surface.

So here’s a question. What if you had to rate you work environment, your boss, your organization, or any work culture, based upon the number of “double bind” demands that are part of the work day experience? I’m suggesting it’s one of several great litmus tests for how healthy or dysfunctional a work environment is.  Could you list the ones that are part of your job? Maybe they are rules imposed on you by others… or maybe you impose them on yourself. Could that be?

Ok; take a moment and think about or write out 2 or 3 double-binds that come to mind. So what if it stopped? What if you didn’t put double binds on yourself or on others, or accepted them from others? What would happen then?

Some people would be afraid stuff wouldn’t get done. Is that you as well?  Maybe you’re afraid (rightfully so) you would be fired.  Isn’t that weird, but true? I think some part of all of us have “double binds” tied into what it means to work and get stuff accomplished. Beyond our fear that without imposing double binds we wouldn’t get needed work done, my guess is that three things would surface. See if you notice these as well:

    1. Double binds hide a lack of clarity about priorities, which if the priorities get clarified, the double bind goes away
  • Double binds cover up anxiety about reaching outcomes, anxiety that would be better handled by more direct feedback about performance and results and what’s possible today.
  • Double binds cover up a lack of clarity about what will create the most value right now, for the rest of the day, etc. Again create more clarity about what will provide the most value now, and double binds start receding.

 Bottom Line:

Double binds exist at work as well as in family circles. In both areas, Bateson suggests they seem to surface craziness with their impossible competing directives and veiled threats. Mergers and acquisitions are a particularly fertile bed for double binds to grow and thrive, and make us all a little bit crazy. And just as Bateson pointed out in families, getting rid of double binds helps everyone work together better, e.g. the whole situation gets healthier. The same is true for work. So what would happen if you eradicated all the double binds where you work? I can hear that sigh of relief. Do it.

1 Comment. Leave new

I think as a boss I’m guilty of creating double binds! Thanks for a great post.


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