Why Managers Send Mixed Messages, and How to Stop the Cycle


Having worked with thousands of new managers, I’ve noticed that there’s a hidden trap that people encounter, which is little-discussed but powerful enough to destroy careers. Call it the “double bind syndrome.”

A double bind is when a person receives two (or more) conflicting messages.  Double binds, first discussed by the anthropologist/linguist Gregory Bateson in the 1950s, are so common in the corporate world that I believe them to be the biggest obstacle to innovation.

Here are some common double binds:

  1. Be creative and do things like I would do them.
  2. Think for yourselves, and also use my favorite book as your bible.
  3. Don’t worry about results, but get these six things done on time and under budget.
  4. Do things completely differently from how you’ve done them before, and the same old executives will judge your effectiveness.

The way out of a double bind is easy–once you’ve seen the trap.

How Good Intentions Go Wrong

A new manager (we’ll make it a “he”) comes to the job having made a decision that he won’t be one of “those managers” who micromanages, bullies his way through meetings, and tells subordinates what to think.  Instead, he’ll be empowering and thoughtful, and also bold.  Sort of the Dalai Lama meets Captain Kirk.  He may use words like “new era,” and “it’s about ‘we’ not ‘me.’”

The new manager meets with each of his new reports to announce the grand news of their liberation.  No more will they be told what to do.  Instead, meetings will be good-spirited debates, followed by coordinated actions leading to results, and the credit will be spread around.  People seem to respond well to this message, and so the new manager walks confidently into his first meeting at the helm.  He might even stop in the restroom to make sure his expression conveys his eagerness to be a team member, rather than a boss from hell.

Then, the first moment of heartbreak happens.  In the meeting, no one “steps up.”  They don’t like Spock and Scotty.  Instead, they are passive and don’t make eye contact.  There’s a lot of awkward silence.  “It’s ok,” the new manager thinks.  “They’re just getting used to the new way of doing things.  I’ll prime the pump with some ideas.”  And so the new manager speaks for a while, offering samples of what good ideas sound like.  And, when he’s done, eye contact shifts to the wall or the table, and people don’t say anything.  They are timid.  When they offer ideas, they are simple, not controversial, and nothing that will change the world.  Or even inspire the afternoon.

This cycle repeats for a few days or weeks.  The next step in the “manager screws himself” script is when he decides it’s time for some straight talk.  He expresses his frustration and disappointment, and says he needs people to lead.  They look at him, but when his speech-with echoes of the president in Independence Day-ends, their apathy only increases.

The new manager begins to focus people on what they need to do.  He talks more, and accepts that he’s going to have to muddle through until he can get a better team.  In the meantime, he will bear the burden of leadership and be the one to offer bold new ideas.  In the absence of disagreement, he moves forward and holds people accountable, just like his business books tell him he should do.  He also begins to talk to HR about documenting the low performance of the worst of the group, and moving them out.

And then, as unpredictable as a power outage, he’s fired or demoted, or perhaps a merger results in fewer management jobs, and he’s left without a chair.  Then in the most heartbreaking part of the story, he begins to hear that his team members-and that’s what he calls them instead of “employees”-have been complaining about him since he got the job.  They use words like “controlling,” “micro managing,” and “unrealistic.”  People, it turns out, have been griping about working late to help him look good, and in the end, he rebuffed their ideas and tried to get them fired.  He’s a shark, he hears, and a damn clumsy one.

Demoralized and without any apparent lessons to learn, the star of our story resigns from the company.  He tries a few more times, repeats the cycle, and may eventually drift into a career of mediocrity. Why? Take out the buzz phrases from bad business books, and essentially he’s saying: “I’m a free thinker, and you had better offer great free-thinking ideas that I love, right now.”  People aren’t dumb, and they decode the subtle manipulation, even if the new manager doesn’t.  They decide on a two-prong response.  Placate him, and begin to let people outside the department know he’s not doing a good job.  Then, when he inevitably seeks their dismissal, they will have been proven right.

Avoid Sending Mixed Messages

People respond to double binds by becoming zombies at work.  And, ironically, he’s now in a double bind but doesn’t know it.  If he micromanages them and tries to get some people fired, he’ll be exposed as a bad boss.  If he encourages more participation, he’ll get mediocrity and bad results.  If his team members are zombies, he’s the last one alive holding out against the undead hoard.  If we flash forward five or 10 years, we’ll probably see him as a zombie, as well.

Once you understand this syndrome, explain it to others–and ask them to point it out when and if you fall into it.

My Tribal Leadership co-author Halee Fischer Wright would call me out when we were writing the book.  I would tell her to write brilliantly, as long as she was brilliant as I defined it.  It takes real leadership to say another person is trying to turn you into a double bound zombie.  I’ll always be grateful to Halee for doing just that.

Ever been in a double bind?  Or ever set double binds for others and didn’t see it until later?  And, for extra credit, notice any of our elected officials in double binds (hint: they all are)?  The European market may implode,  thanks to too many double binds to count.  If you can identify any of these, I hope you’ll post a comment below-you’ll be doing yourself and everyone else a favor.

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