Caught in a double bind situation

C. Villefrance Moeller, TalesOfLeading

”Having been here for twenty-five years is absolutely not a qualification. Those four girls have always been in that front office. I then talk to their manager and tell him, that I don’t understand why they can laugh and have that many brakes. There is SO much waste of time. But the manager just sits there and does nothing about it. I find that very annoying. I called him in and told him my observations. He agreed and now there is only three. However, the manager should have done this long ago. It’s probably what I demand from my manager. Other directors might work more with their managers – having meetings all the time. I’m used to have managers approaching me with these matters. It can simply not be right that one should coach a leader week in and week out. Telling him what I think he should do. Of course it could be good, but I think one should perhaps consider whether the right people have in the right positions and the work is organized properly.”

The newly appointed director was frustrated about the manager’s behavior at the company. Their behavior was different from what he was accustomed to in his previous positions. He wanted them to discuss problems more openly and take initiatives opposed to earlier where the former director took all necessary decisions. Even though he described for them how he envisioned working in the company should be they didn’t do it. I’m not sure the director was aware that this change in context required managers to learn how to learn and what his role could be in facilitating this learning process. On one hand he wanted them to think for themselves but on the other hand he told them what to do just like the former director. This caught the director and his managers in a double bind situation.

What is learning to learn?

Learning in an organization implies a change in individual and group behavior. Learning to learn means refer to the reflecting on the transfer of learning made in one context to another context (i); as solving problems for example. If you have learned to learn, you consciously use learning’s from solving one type of problems in a specific situation to other types of problems in other situation. Doing this over and over again, you get better and better at solving problems (ii). This capability to solve problems at increased speed expresses learning. You amend conscious habits of acquiring and adapting learning (apperception habits). These habits act as “economizers” for the learner. Learning how to learn in a new context leads to the use of this habit and assumes that a new habit is formed.

Double bind situations hamper learning

In the process of learning to learn a “double bind” situation occur where practices are found to be incompatible with imposed requirements (ii). In such a situation, contradiction and ambiguity that seems incomprehensible for those who need to learn. In the above example the manager does as he is told by the director. He reduces the team from four to three people. The feedback he gets is not praise as he might expect. This situation causes frustration and paralysis. If the manager shouldn’t do as he was told, what should he then do? His director avoids taking part of the managers learning process by declining coaching and instead considers substitution. This ambiguity cause confusion and paralyze the managers learning process.

Learning’s for you

There is an embedded ambiguity in setting a direction when you can’t predict the future. You might reflect on these questions:

  • How do you handle this ambiguity?
  • Who do you involve in finding possible countermeasures for present challenges?
  • And how do you involve them?
  • What do you see as necessary conditions for a learning process in your management team?

i Bateson, Gregory (1971): ”De logiske kategorier for læring og kommunikation”. In: Hermansen, Mads (1998): ”Fra læringens horisont – en antologi”. Århus: Forlaget Klim. Side 63 – 91

ii Bateson, Gregory (1969): ”Double Bind”. In: Hermansen, Mads (1998): ”Fra læringens horisont – en antologi”. Århus: Forlaget Klim. Side 55 – 61

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