The double bind: “An emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other.”
Example: You’re told to say what’s on your mind or it’ll be held against you in some way, but when you do, what you said is held against you.
The concept isn’t new. It’s what’s known in everyday speech as a Catch 22 … stuck “between a rock and a hard place” … “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
You’ve all seen it. Leadership of an organization exhorts members to communicate freely, say what’s on their minds, offer their opinions.
And some really mean it. You can offer your opinions and even challenge conventional wisdom without taking a personal or professional risk.
Some don’t, and then there are the organizations that THINK they mean it, but as soon as someone actually says something that goes against the grain, it becomes clear they really didn’t.
The speaker is not really welcome to offer a new way of thinking or, god forbid, a contrary opinion.
And that does a lot of damage to the organization. People clam up and play it safe.
Now, most people can at least live with and be productive within a system where they don’t have much, if any, input into the decision-making process.
But what people HATE is to be asked for their ideas and opinions, only to be blown off when they offer them.
The worst communication crime a leadership team can commit is to ask for your input and then ignore you or shut you down. And, in extreme cases, I’ve seen people shunned or actually punished for speaking up. Think whistleblowers.
People are invited, even encouraged, to participate. Failure to do so means you’re not a team player. But when you suggest ideas or offer opinions that don’t meet with approval, they hold it against you … for not being a team player.
That’s how you get so many “Yes men”.
Usually, though, the unwillingness to listen to and accommodate team member input is more innocent than that.
Recently, I facilitated a client firm’s retreat. The members prided themselves on being collaborative and inclusive … a true team … so I anticipated a wonderful discussion among everyone in attendance, no matter how senior or junior.
It wasn’t long before I realized I had my work cut out for me. While brainstorming ways to incorporate individual preferences in marketing to multi-generational clients, a young member of the group suggested an idea that was clearly not embraced by senior members of the firm.
Although not said in so many words, the message communicated was, “Not a good idea. Ain’t gonna happen here.” The room fell silent … tension in the air.
Being part of a team can be wonderful, delightful, and energizing, or it can be excruciating, humiliating, and debilitating. In this case, the balloon deflated and the younger members of the “team” became quiet. They felt shut down, their voices silenced.
Now, in this case, there was certainly no negative intention on the part of the senior members and the speaker’s words wouldn’t be held against him, but what was lost?
How about every idea the junior folks might have offered in the future that they now might not.
What’s lost is the strength that comes from diversity on a team when expression is muzzled, no matter how unintentionally …diversity of backgrounds, talents, skills, personalities, perspectives.
As Ken Blanchard said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
You only get that kind of synergy when people are free to express themselves secure in the knowledge that they’ll at least be heard and respected.
So, I say to leadership … Don’t ask for input if you don’t really want it and aren’t prepared to receive it in an open, welcoming, and respectful way.
Doesn’t mean you have to agree. Not by a long shot, but you always have to listen and honor the contribution … or you risk muzzling your best people and missing out on their best thinking.