Why Women Should Stop the Chameleon Dance at Work

CameleonYou’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”.

exasperated mature woman breaking down So. What’s the way out?

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?

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One Response to Why Women Should Stop the Chameleon Dance at Work

  1. Mar­ion — brava! Well said. Both men and women need to develop con­scious aware­ness of their “other selves” and other skills and under­stand they need not be mutu­ally exclu­sive. We per­haps also need to rede­fine suc­c­cess as well as the lead­er­ship skills required for the future. Dance is a great way to do this! Please post this on the 3Plus LinkedIn group. They will love it!

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