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Double bind – the destructive power of moral ambiguity

Gregory Bateson’s double-bind theory

In Zen Buddhism, the spiritual master often confronts the meditating student with a koan, a seemingly meaningless question, for which no reasonable answer exists. A koan is supposed to help the students to advance in their practice. A master might for instance show a stick to the student and tell them: “If you say this stick is real, I will beat you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will beat you with it.” What might help to advance in meditation by breaking the rational thinking of the Zen student can create highly destructive situations in other social contexts, as the anthropologist and early system thinker Gregory Bateson already argued in the late 1950s. The Zen student might just take away the stick from the master and that would be a meaningful response. However, what happens outside such spiritual contexts when people are confronted with contradictory and unsolvable expectations where each option they can chose would be problematic not just metaphorically as for the Zen student but threatening to them in a much more material sense? What if taking away the stick is not possible, and the beating is unavoidable? According to Bateson, such a situation that can occur in any social system, from families to organizations, would trigger fear and despair and over time might lead to mental problems. He called this phenomenon a double-bind.

Double-binds in companies

Double-binds are one of the major drivers of unethical and illegal behavior in organizations. In the year 2000 my wife and I were invited to do an ethics training for a company. For me, this was the first time that I would teach ethics to managers. This globally operating company had developed a new code of ethics and we were invited to train a group of what they called their “young high potentials” – a group of young managers coming from around the world who were on a fast-track career. At that time, we both had just finished our PhDs and for the workshop we naively compiled some ideas about how to use ethical theories of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill or Aristotle to make good decisions. During the workshop, in one of the breaks, three of these young managers approached us and told us bluntly that they had to pay bribes. Their managers would push them to do so by expecting results they would not be able to deliver without bribing. They also told us that from their perspective, this training was only meant to protect their own managers against them. If one day their illegal business practices would come out, the managers would argue that they knew nothing about it and that they had done everything to sensitize their teams for doing business with integrity. The situation felt very awkward, and we both did not really know what to say in this moment. Over the years, I forgot the episode. The conversation with these young managers came back to my mind many years later, when the same company was all over the news with a big corruption scandal. The three young managers who had approached my wife and me when we were naively lecturing them about how to be more Kantian in their daily decisions a few years earlier, had been suffering in a double-bind situation. They had desperately tried to avoid the stick of the master. And as they had predicted, their top management claimed total innocence.

The three dimensions of a double-bind

This is how Gregory Bateson explained the basic structure of a double-bind: Two people or groups of people communicate with each other. One of the two has power over the other, for instance a parent over a child or a manager in an organization over their team members. In a first step, the powerful actor formulates a negative injunction. It normally takes the form of “do not do x or I will punish you”. Then, in a second step, the powerful actors send a second message with a contradictory injunction: “Do x”. Both these injunctions if obeyed will potentially threaten the survival of the person or group in their respective social system.

While the first injunction is communicated directly, the second one is normally transmitted on a different level of communication. The power holders might even be different actors in the same social system, one demanding x and one demanding non-x from a person or a group of persons. There is a third element that concludes the double-bind situation: The person(s) exposed to the contradictory injunctions cannot escape the system or at least firmly believe that they cannot escape the system. There is no way out. Unlike the Zen student, they cannot take away the stick from their manager and the paradox is not just a thought experiment for their meditation.

What sounds abstract becomes clear if we go back to the story of the young managers who were sent to our ethics training. The powerful message communicated to them by the company was: “Do not pay bribes, do not violate our code of ethics, behave with integrity.” This is the first, negative injunction. Before and after the training, however, they were confronted with a second positive injunction. Their superior might tell them: “Bring me this contract until tomorrow and I do not want to know how you do it.” Very often, the second positive injunction is not even communicated directly but will be conveyed by the organizational context: Someone who is known for doubtful sales practices will be promoted or get the bonus. Someone who violated the code will not be punished, because they are too successful. The rule-breaking is tolerated. The manager will not say “great that x achieved her goals by bribing the client”. Rather they will say: “I don’t micromanage” or “I find the talent and then let them do their job”. This is, what Bateson means by communicating the second injunction on a different communicative level. In a double-bind, nobody will bluntly say “pay this bribe”. In fact, if one of these young managers from my example had directly asked their superior whether they were supposed to pay a bribe, the latter would have rejected this idea with indignation. “Of course not!” This represents the third element of the double-bind situation: It is impossible to meta-communicate about the perceived tensions with the power holder. Sometimes, the tension that creates the double-bind is already built into one simple statement that companies communicate to their employees. The company might for instance communicate: “We achieve our goals, no matter how unrealistic they are.” The negative and the positive injunction are fused into one statement. Or they might use one of the following two statements that are well known from numerous companies: “We follow rules, but not always.” and “We make mistakes, but not too often”.

What are the “real rules” to follow?

In all those cases, decision makers will start to wonder: Which rule am I supposed to violate? How many mistakes can I make before I get punished? How do I achieve this unrealistic goal? As Bateson has argued, in any normal and healthy relationship, everybody can switch to a metacommunicative level at any point in a conversation and ask for instance, “What do you mean?” or “Why did you do that?” or ”Are you kidding me?”. Such statements will help to signal a contradiction and helps to clarify what the power holder really means or really wants their teams to do. However, in a double bind, it is not possible to ask “what do you mean?” It is not possible to communicate about the contradictory injunctions.

Why not? First of all, in organizations with double-bind dynamics, the actor caught in contradictory orders will not be used to challenge the power holder. Speaking up is not considered a meaningful option. Actors cannot simply put the problem on the agenda of a meeting. Furthermore, they are repeatedly exposed to the double-bind, it is never just a single interaction. In a unique situation that differs from the norm, it would be comparably easier to point at the contradiction: “We don’t do these things here!”. In a double-bind the tensions are normalized.

In a double-bind, people will look left and right to figure out what others do, what the real rules and the real expectations are. Actors are under the pressure to make a decision and thus will have to make a choice. To be clear: Finding the (seemingly) appropriate interpretation does not mean that the double-bind is solved. It only means that the actor who is caught between two injunctions will pick one that seems more appropriate in their particular organizational context. They will imitate their peers. They will probably still feel miserable, because they will either lose the business or their moral innocence.

Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an ecology of the mind: A revolutionary approach to man’s understanding of himself. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 215-16;
Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioral Science, Vol. 1, 251–264.


  1. Even since I was student ar the eMBA program I like your comments!

    • Thank you!

  2. spot on. i was forced to witness illegal practices from my company towards the clients i was following as sales director. I told management infinite times about the illegally of such practices and the dangers for a listed company. I was told i was a troublemaker and a difficult employee. I suffered a massive burnout that shattered my health and ruined my professional and my personal life. then i was fired. lawyers back then suggested to avoid lawsuits as i had zero chances of success. a devastating experience.

    • Thank you for sharing! There are so many stories like your’s. Time for change!

  3. how would you teach those young men today?

  4. Somehow, I lived a fairly charmed life. Only once in a lengthy career did I have a really obvious moral challenge. My group had to support a project for Franco’s secret police during the era when fascists still ran Spain. It was a very international group. Some apparently very left-leaning people actually went along with it. But some of us had decided come hell or high water, we wouldn’t do it. When my turn came, I said no, but I only had a week left, so for me there was no great sacrifice.

    • thanks for sharing!

  5. You law students are advised to, it they ever come into such a situation, to backup those orders and take a copy home. Go figure…

    • yes: Document, document, document


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