Double Binds Are Double Trouble

A double bind is a communication dilemma where someone (a person or group) receives multiple conflicting messages. One message negates the other, and responding to one message could mean failing with the other. This can leave the recipient feeling anxious and perplexed.

The person on the receiving end of the messages is forced to choose in a double bind, and usually, there is no alternative. For example, when asked to delegate an assignment, the employee might expect their leader to hold them accountable for the outcomes or deadlines, but if they delegate instead of doing the task themselves, the task may not get done, and the assignment goes adrift.

In leadership, putting an employee in a double bind – where they receive contradictory messages from you (their senior leader), indicates you’re not communicating effectively. You’ll know this when:

Employees seem to exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors, such as agreeing to do something and not following through to completion. It could simply be that they ran into a double bind, perhaps receiving multiple messages from competing authorities.

Employees feel as if they’re in a “no-win” situation. This can result in stress, anxiety, and, ultimately, poor performance. Ask them what a “win” looks like, and be mindful of behaviors you exhibit that diminish an employee’s attempt at initiative, creativity, or innovation.

You receive feedback that you’re not a great communicator. This can come directly from surveys and or conversations, but other times, leaders who are not the best or even good communicators are identified by their inability to receive feedback or to handle conflict appropriately. Additionally, if you dominate conversations, talk over others, are repeatedly asked to explain what you mean, or are regularly embroiled in misunderstandings, you might not be the best communicator.

Resolving this communication dilemma is much simpler than you think. Evaluate:

Did I communicate clearly? Check with an open-ended question – What did you hear me say? What is the outcome desired? What key points do you need to remember? These are but a few of the ways to check to make sure you communicated clearly. But don’t ask, “Am I clear?” if you don’t want the double bind to continue.

How are they to prioritize the expectations or information communicated? Yes, you have brilliant people working for you and with you, but they have different communication styles and will likely interpret the message differently as a result. Close the loop, make sure they understand the exact call to action.

Where is the supportive documentation? Asking for written outcomes will help employees gain clarity on the front end. Get in the habit of asking for a quick email or, if formality is your thing, a written project plan detailing milestones (but for goodness sake, not for everything). They’ll start asking for clarification on the front end and along the way.


Are there competing messages? Are you and another leader giving differing messages? If so, this will result in competing priorities. Be certain you are the type of leader who asks for and is able to help employees resolve this double bind. Leaving it up to them to resolve could result in further complications.

Ultimately, double binds occur. However, you can correct the effects if you are aware of and intentional in your communication efforts.