You’ve now all heard of this expression, the double-bind for women. It has become very popular in the business literature. We’ve grown used to the idea that women, in order to survive in the corporate jungle, dominated by an archaic paternalistic value system, need to live with this double-bind and accommodate by any means. A Stanford report proudly claimed to have found the solution, certain women high in “masculine traits” — defined as aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence — were also able to “self-monitor” their behavior. Stanford Graduate School of Business, Olivia O’Neill, 2011.
“These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their environment by assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly”
What we tend to forget, is that the double-bind theory applied to schizophrenia and that putting people under double-bind situations is the best way to make them crazy. So the Chameleon dance may well be a very dangerous one.
What has triggered this post is an article by a BBC news science reporter “Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch”.When I read it, it immediately rang a bell. Where did I hear the exact same expression “switch”? Bingo! In ForbesWoman : “Stanford Finds the Secret Switch for Women’s Success”. Is the secret for more women in the leadership pipeline to morph them into psychopathic corporate criminals? It’s a provocative assertion, but we need to pay attention to the negative consequences of advising women to turn into chameleons.
The double-bind theory, paradoxical communication and schizophrenia.
Let’s come back to the origins of the double-bind theory. I first heard about it when I was studying for my Master in Neuro-Linguistic-Programming in France , back in 1988, with Jane Turner, clinical psychologist. I’ve since become passionate about how it applies, especially for women in the workplace.
“ The theory of the double-bind was initially forwarded by a group of individuals, Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Jay Healy and John Weakland, in the paper Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia (Bateson, Jackson, Haley, & Weakland, 1956). It was based upon their intersecting work at Stanford University between 1952–1954 in the fields of anthropology, psychiatry, biological evolution and genetics and on epistemology emanating from systems theory and ecology. The multidisciplinary approach of Bateson was reflected in the work of other colleagues at the Mental Research Institute at Palo Alto, California. There Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin and Don Jackson worked with the complexities of human communication — one of Bateson’s central concerns — and developed his work on the double-bind and paradoxical communication (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967).”
On how it is still relevant today , read The Double-Bind Theory, Still Crazy-Making After All These years.
How does this double-bind work and apply for women’s communication at work?
If you’d rather listen to a story and watch a video, here’s my TEDx Stuttgart talk about the Goldilocks Syndrome for Women Speakers.
In this post, I wanted to come back to the roots of this pervading syndrome and articulate the mechanism at play.
The essential hypothesis of the double bind theory is that the ‘victim’—the person who becomes psychotically unwell—finds him or herself in a communicational matrix, in which messages contradict each other, the contradiction is not able to be communicated on and the unwell person is not able to leave the field of interaction.
A recipe to make people crazy
Gregory Bateson writes in Steps to an Ecology of Mind — ‘Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia’ — (P.206–208):
“The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation, as we see it, are:
1) The involvement of two or more persons, one of whom may be called a victim
2) An experience which recurs a number of times
3) A primary negative injunction, in which a command is made by an outside authority with the threat of punishment for non-compliance
4) A secondary injunction, which conflicts with an element of the first message but is of a different, usually more abstract, logical type, i.e. some type of meta-communication. Like the first injunction, the command is enforced by punishment or signals that threaten survival
5) A third, negative injunction that means that the victim cannot leave the “field”.
Now, how does this recipe apply to women in leadership roles?
1) You take a classical context of hierarchy with one up, one down and several other players. The woman manager, despite all her attributes of formal power, is depending upon her senior manager, 93% of the times, a man, and several other managers, up or down in the corporate ladder, but all holding conflicting visions about women and power. So the woman manager plays a “pivot” role, in other words, a puppet.
2) You repeat the experience. The double-bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of women at work. It has become a “leitmotiv”.
3) A primary negative injunction. For example “Do not express vulnerability or emotions at work , or you will not be taken seriously, and I will not give you the promotion you think you deserve,” or “If you do not display assertive traits, you won’t have a promotion.”
4) A secondary the secondary injunction which conflicts with an element of the first message but is of a different, usually more abstract, logical type. This is commonly communicated to women by nonverbal means. Posture, gesture, tone of voice, meaningful action, and the implications concealed in verbal comment may all be used to convey this more abstract message. It can be a protective paternalistic tone, comforting and apparently benevolent. Like the wolf dressed up as Grand-Ma in the Red-Riding-Hood Something like “We know you are a very skilled and High-Potential woman, but”, or “Do not see this as a discrimination against women”, or “Do not assume we are not a gender-balanced friendly company, but there’s no way you will get that promotion being so assertive and unmanageable”. The underlying message asks you to be a good girl, wait for the reward and do not make waves.
5) A third, negative injunction that means that the victim cannot leave the “field”. Or that women are trapped in the labyrinth by getting paradoxical injunctions like “learn to fit in” (or, more recently and famously, “to Lean In”), to speak up in meetings, take credit for your accomplishments, ask for what you want, take risks, learn to say no, to interrupt AND, at the same time, act like a Lady, be feminine, intuitive, soft-spoken and cooperative. Fit in but don’t act like a man! “Don’t leave the company, you won’t be able to survive on your own with the financial crisis.” “Don’t leave us or you will fall in the mommy’s track”. “Or again, “Don’t Opt Out, Lean In and everything will be all right”.
Step One: Awareness. First, become aware that if we want to retain talents and have women thrive in leadership roles, we must immediately stop sending them conflicting injunctions and pretend that it’s just up to them to succeed. There is no magical “switch” and being ourselves is already tricky enough not to try to behave differently, according to others expect of us.
Step 2: This is not a women’s issues. Let’s flip the problem and see the impact on men. We’d better have a look at how the workplace has already been making a mess with men’s mental health and emotional balance and shutting them from their emotions, from their intuition and accelerating the home and workplace divide. Read Stew Friedman’s remarkable article in the Harvard Business Review, Men: Win at Work by Leaning In at Home.
“Helping men to be more active at home, if that’s what they want, makes good business sense. It’s wise to encourage employees to engage in dialogues with important people in their lives and to experiment with small changes that can enrich their families, enhance their engagement with their community, and improve their health — all while enhancing your bottom line. By making it easier for men to live more whole lives, employers are indirectly contributing to paving the way for the women in their lives to give more of themselves to their work and careers. And children — the unseen stakeholders at work — win, too. We as a society are all the beneficiaries.”
Step 3: Encourage small changes and foster ripple effects.
We need to see more balanced-leadership styles among our top leaders. Men and women must learn to embrace the so called “feminine” traits and be respected as whole human beings. This is the Now Leadership approach, I’ve developed with Dr Anne Perschel. What is very strange, in the Stanford experiment, is that the study found no benefit to men for being “chameleons” — operating in both masculine and feminine ways at appropriate times. It might be because it only looked at leadership through the masculine lenses. The skills observed here were assertiveness, competitiveness and confidence. But what if we had analyzed and measured skills like “inspiring innovation and creativity” or “fostering trust”, “building and managing networks”, “be comfortable with ambiguity” ? These are one of the core leadership skills identified for the 21st century leaders in Go Where There Be Dragons , Leadership essentials for 2020 and beyond.
Let us reinvent the leadership of the future. Now. Stop the chameleon dance and start designing a new dance-floor. Why not try Tango, for a change?