Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 24;   June 22, 2022:

Double Binds at Work


At work, a double bind arises when someone in authority makes contradictory demands of a subordinate, who has no alternative but to choose among options that all lead to unwelcome results. Double binds are far more common than most of us realize.
A figure-eight loop, also known as a Flemish Loop

A figure-eight loop, also known as a Flemish Loop. It is used in climbing and caving, but not much used at sea, because it is difficult to untie after loading, when wet. In that respect, it has much in common with the double bind, which is by design difficult to escape. Image by SilberFuchs courtesy Pixabay.com.

In "lessons learned" sessions — also known as retrospectives — the need for psychological safety is widely understood. [Kerth 2001] Most of us recognize that the value of the session is greatly enhanced if people feel confident that there will be no retaliation for raising issues that illustrate the need for improvement in the group's process. No retaliation during the session, and no retaliation after it, especially in the context of employee performance evaluation.

But as it turns out, the need for psychological safety relative to lessons learned has a much broader scope. A fictitious case might clarify the issue.

Eileen is an IT director for Pan-Arctic Cruise Lines. Last year at about this time, Eileen led the effort to upgrade the MegaSoft operating system on all of PACL's shipboard desktop and mobile devices. It was an especially tricky operation because of the difficulties associated with interactions between crossing the International Date Line multiple times in a day, and deciding which time zone was applicable at various spots in the Arctic Ocean. Eileen has just heard that Antonio, the upgrade lead this year's upgrade, is about to replicate some of Eileen's more frustrating blunders. But she's concerned about contacting Antonio to offer advice, for fear that he might take offense.

Eileen's problem is actually even more complex. If she offers advice unbidden, she might offend Antonio. But if she says nothing, and Antonio replicates her mistakes, she might be faulted for not warning him. And there's no way out for Eileen, because the upgrade effort won't be cancelled. Eileen's situation is what psychologists call a double bind.

Characteristics of double binds

The double bind was first identified by Gregory Bateson, et al., as a model for causes of schizophrenia. [Bateson 1956] They define a double bind as much more than a no-win situation. A no-win situation is one in which all choices have unwelcome consequences. By contrast, a double bind is more complex:

  • It involves two or more people. One is the Subject of the double bind. Bateson et al. use the term victim. The second person, the Authority, is someone in authority whom the Subject respects. The Authority might be a composite of several people.
  • The double bind is a repeated pattern. It can't be resolved as a single experience.
  • It has a primary demand of the form "Do X or else Y". This demand can also appear as a prohibition: "Don't do X or else Y." And it can be paradoxical, consisting of a choice between two unwelcome outcomes.
  • There is a conflicting secondary demand, not necessarily expressed explicitly. This secondary demand often constrains the subject's perceptions: "Don't see this as punishment."
  • There is no escape. The subject is required to choose among the options.

Eileen is in One of the problems of dealing with
double binds as a Subject is the
difficulty of recognizing them
a double bind. The Authority is her supervisor, who she expects will hear about whatever she does or doesn't do relative to warning or advising Antonio. Her choices both lead to unwelcome results, in that they could reflect on assessments of her ability to work with colleagues. Since that assessment could be part of a performance evaluation, this situation is part of a pattern.

Dealing with double binds at work

One of the problems of dealing with double binds as a Subject is the difficulty of recognizing them. For example, the threat in the form "Do X or else Y" is rarely explicit at work. The performance management system, with its coarse-grained rating scale, hangs over everything. At the executive level, the performance management system takes a different form (largely financial) but it is just as powerful.

The effectiveness of performance management as the "or else Y" component of the double bind is determined by the person or persons who apply it — usually the "supervisor." It is therefore, usually, the supervisor who sets up the double bind. As a supervisor yourself, you're more likely to notice double binds affecting the behavior of your subordinates than you are to recognize their affects on yourself.

Last words

One of the less visible elements of the double bind structure at work relates to depriving the Subject of the ability to escape. That element is often implemented using employee stock option plans. By holding out the possibility of a large financial windfall, the ESOP suppresses the willingness of employees to escape any double binds that affect them. Ironically, the organization itself doesn't provide the financial resources this scheme requires. Those resources come from the shareholders in the form of dilution. Go to top Top  Next issue: Formulaic Utterances: III  Next Issue

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[Kerth 2001]
Norman L. Kerth. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. New York: Dorset House, 2001. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Bateson 1956]
Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. "Toward a theory of schizophrenia." Behavioral Science 1:4 (1956), 251-264. Available here. Retrieved 5 June 2022. Back

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