Catch-22 and the paradoxes of organisational life
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions…” Joseph Heller, Catch-22
The term Catch-22 was coined by Joseph Heller in the eponymous satirical novel written in 1961. As the quote above illustrates, the term refers to a paradoxical situation caused by the application of contradictory rules. Catch-22 situations are common in large organisations of all kinds, not just the military (which was the setting of the novel). So much so that it is a theme that has attracted some scholarly attention over the half century since the novel was first published – see this paper or this one for example.
Although Heller uses Catch-22 situations to highlight the absurdities of bureaucracies in a humorous way, in real-life such situations can be deeply troubling for people who are caught up in them. In a paper published in 1956, the polymath Gregory Bateson and his colleagues suggested that these situations can cause people to behave in ways that are symptomatic of schizophrenia . The paper introduces the notion of a double-bind, which is a dilemma arising from an individual receiving two or more messages that contradict each other . In simple terms, then, a double-bind is a Catch-22.
In this post, I draw on Bateson’s double bind theory to get some insights into Catch-22 situations in organisations.
Double bind theory
The basic elements of a double bind situation are as follows:
- Two or more individuals, one of whom is a victim – i.e. the individual who experiences the dilemma described below.
- A primary rule which keeps the victim fearful of the consequences of doing (or not doing) something. This rule typically takes the form , “If you do x then you will be punished” or “If you do not do x then you will be punished. “
- A secondary rule that is in conflict with the primary rule, but at more abstract level. This rule, which is usually implicit, typically takes the form, “Do not question the rationale behind x.”
- A tertiary rule that prevents the victim from escaping from the situation.
- Repeated experiences of (1) and (2)
A simple example (quoted from this article) serves to illustrate the above in a real- life situation:
One example of double bind communication is a mother giving her child the message: “Be spontaneous” If the child acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother’s direction. It’s a no-win situation for the child. If a child is subjected to this kind of communication over a long period of time, it’s easy to see how he could become confused.
Here the injunction to “Be spontaneous” is contradicted by the more implicit rule that “one cannot be spontaneous on demand.” It is important to note that the primary and secondary (implicit) rules are at different logical levels – the first is about an action, whereas the second is about the nature of all such actions. This is typical of a double bind situation.
The paradoxical aspects of double binds can sometimes be useful as they can lead to creative solutions arising from the victim “stepping outside the situation”. The following example from Bateson’s paper illustrates the point:
The Zen Master attempts to bring about enlightenment in his pupil in various ways. One of the things he does is to hold a stick over the pupil’s head and say fiercely, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will strike you with it.”… The Zen pupil might reach up and take the stick away from the Master–who might accept this response.
This is an important point which we’ll return to towards the end of this piece.
Double binds in organisations
Double bind situations are ubiquitous in organisations. I’ll illustrate this by drawing on a couple of examples I have written about earlier on this blog.
The paradox of learning organisations
This section draws on a post I wrote while ago. In the introduction to that post I stated that:
The term learning organisation refers to an organisation that continually modifies its processes based on observation and experience, thus adapting to changes in its internal and external environment. Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that although a learning organisation is an utopian ideal, it is one worth striving for. The reality, however, is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.
Starkly put, the problem arises from the fact that in a true learning organisation, employees will inevitably start to question things that management would rather they didn’t. Consider the following story, drawn from this paper on which the post is based:
…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.
Of course, a certain kind of learning occurred here: the employee learnt that certain questions were taboo, in stark contrast to the openness that was being preached from the organisational pulpit. The double bind here is evident: feel free to question and challenge everything…except what management deems to be out of bounds. The takeaway for employees is that, despite all the rhetoric of organisational learning, certain things should not be challenged. I think it is safe to say that this was probably not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.
The paradoxes of change
In a post on the paradoxes of organizational change, I wrote that:
An underappreciated facet of organizational change is that it is inherently paradoxical. For example, although it is well known that such changes inevitably have unintended consequences that are harmful, most organisations continue to implement change initiatives in a manner that assumes complete controllability with the certainty of achieving solely beneficial outcomes.
As pointed out in this paper, there are three types of paradoxes that can arise when an organisation is restructured. The first is that during the transition, people are caught between the demands of their old and new roles. This is exacerbated by the fact that transition periods are often much longer expected. This paradox of performing in turn leads to a paradox of belonging – people become uncertain about where their loyalties (ought to) lie.
Finally, there is a paradox of organising, which refers to the gap between the rhetoric and reality of change. The paper mentioned above has a couple of nice examples. One study described how,
“friendly banter in meetings and formal documentation [promoted] front-stage harmony, while more intimate conversations and unit meetings [intensified] backstage conflict.” Another spoke of a situation in which, “…change efforts aimed at increasing employee participation [can highlight] conflicting practices of empowerment and control. In particular, the rhetoric of participation may contradict engrained organizational practices such as limited access to information and hierarchical authority for decision making…
Indeed, the gap between the intent and actuality of change initiatives make double binds inevitable.
I suspect the situations described above will be familiar to people working in a corporate environment. The question is what can one do if one is on the receiving end of such a Catch 22?
The main thing is to realise that a double-bind arises because one perceives the situation to be so. That is, the person experiencing the situation has chosen to interpret it as a double bind. To be sure, there are usually factors that influence the choice – things such as job security, for example – but the fact is that it is a choice that can be changed if one sees things in a different light. Escaping the double bind is then a “simple” matter of reframing the situation.
Here is where the notion of mindfulness is particularly relevant. In brief, mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” As the Zen pupil who takes the stick away from the Master, a calm non-judgemental appraisal of a double-bind situation might reveal possible courses of action that had been obscured because of one’s fears. Indeed, the realization that one has more choices than one thinks is in itself a liberating discovery.
It is important to emphasise that the actual course of action that one selects in the end matters less than the realisation that one’s reactions to such situations is largely under one’s own control.
In closing – reframe it!
Organisational life is rife with Catch 22s. Most of us cannot avoid being caught up in them, but we can choose how we react to them. This is largely a matter of reframing them in ways that open up new avenues for action, a point that brings to mind this paragraph from Catch-22 (the book):
“Why don’t you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to be a hundred and seven, too.”
“Because it’s better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. “I guess you’ve heard that saying before.”
“Yes, I certainly have,” mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. “But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”
“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”
“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”
And that, I reckon, is as brilliant an example of reframing as I have ever come across.