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Understanding and navigating double bind scenarios in organizational settings


"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Key Points

  • The double bind concept, introduced by Gregory Bateson, describes situations where individuals or organizations are stuck between two conflicting demands, leading to stress and potential dysfunction.
  • This theory, originally used to explain schizophrenia, has been extended to organizations, indicating that similar conflicts can lead to dysfunctional behavior and decision-making.
  • Organizations can address double bind situations by finding a higher logical level that transcends the paradox, or using the ‘Method of Levels’ in Perceptual Control Theory to resolve conflicts at a higher level of control.
  • Despite the challenges, double bind situations present opportunities for innovative thinking and problem-solving, enabling organizations to navigate complex situations and emerge stronger.

Understanding the double bind in organizational thinking

Organizations are complex entities that require a great deal of thought and planning to navigate. One of the key challenges that leaders face is the double bind, a situation where two conflicting expectations cannot be met simultaneously. This can create significant stress and confusion for those involved, leading to poor decision-making and even organizational dysfunction. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of the double bind and its impact on organizational thinking.

Origins of the double bind

The concept of the double bind, a term that emerged from the work of anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson, is one that has significant implications for organizational thinking. It’s a situation where individuals or organizations are caught between two conflicting demands, each with its own set of consequences. The double bind scenario presents itself as a Catch-22, a term popularized by Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name (Bateson,2016).

Bateson introduced the double bind theory in the 1950s as a way to explain the development of schizophrenia. He posited that individuals subjected to repeated double bind scenarios could end up developing symptoms of schizophrenia due to the stress and conflict they experienced.

The double bind theory was later extended to organizations, where it was observed that similar conflicts could lead to dysfunctional behavior and decision-making. This occurs when management and regulators demand staff to work in ways that the staff know would cause the organization to fail. The employees are left in a predicament: comply and fail, or fail to comply – either way, they face risk and potential consequences.

Defining the double bind

A double bind is essentially a situation where an individual or organization is trapped between two contradictory imperatives. In order to satisfy one condition, they must fail on the other, creating an impossible situation. These situations often operate at two structural levels or two levels of logic.

An example of this in an organizational context might be a company that is under pressure to increase profits while also being expected to reduce its environmental impact. If the only way to increase profits is through methods that harm the environment, the company finds itself in a double bind situation.

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Impact of the double bind on organizations

Double bind situations can create significant challenges for employees, teams, and management. They can lead to stress, reduced morale, and decreased productivity. In some cases, they can even create conflicts within the organization. The pressure to resolve these conflicting demands can lead to what Bateson referred to as organizational schizophrenia, where the organization becomes divided and dysfunctional.

Addressing double bind situations

While double bind situations are undoubtedly challenging, they are not insurmountable. Organizations can address these situations by finding a position at a higher logical level that transcends the paradox posed by the double bind.

This could involve redefining the problem in a way that allows for a solution that satisfies both demands. For instance, in the earlier example, the company could invest in green technologies that both increase profits and reduce environmental impact.

Another approach is the ‘Method of Levels’ in Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) (Hoverstadt,2022). This involves understanding the different levels at which control is exercised, and resolving the conflict at a higher level of control. For instance, short-term financial goals might conflict with long-term sustainability goals. Using a Method of Levels approach, the organization can identify and address these conflicts, finding solutions that satisfy both the immediate and long-term goals.


In conclusion, while the double bind presents significant challenges, it also offers opportunities for innovative thinking and problem solving. By understanding and acknowledging the existence of these scenarios, organizations can equip themselves better to navigate these complex situations and emerge stronger on the other side. Remember, every challenge is an opportunity in disguise. The double bind is no exception.

References :

  • Bateson, G. (2016). Steps to an ecology of mind. University of Chicago Press.
  • Hoverstadt, P. (2022). The Grammar of Systems – From order to Chaos and Back – (SCiO Publications)

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