This blog reports on research which illustrates the importance of delivering clear and consistent messages to employees.  It argues that all organizations should endeavour to create a genuine culture of collegiality and support, especially during these uncertain economic times.

To be truly productive all employees, regardless of sector, need to have clear role clarity and explicitly understand the requirements of their jobs. However, for those working in demanding personal service roles in the social care sector understanding the issue of contradictory messages regarding their everyday duties is perhaps even more vital because confusion can seriously impact on personal care provision to vulnerable service users.

Based upon original research with Venter et al, (2019) the concept of the ‘double bind’ (Bateson et al, 1956) is used to help understand such workplace contradictions amongst workers in the Non-Profit Voluntary (NPV) sector.  The original double bind theory was developed as a way of clarifying how dysfunctional communication in family settings could lead to problems for individual family members because of the contradictory messages they received. According to Bateson a double bind occurs when there is no opportunity for metacommunication (processes of communication about the communications) that would help reframe those contradictions.

In the three case study organizations that formed the backdrop for this study we found evidence of the damage that can be done in terms of employee motivation and morale when unclear communication and poor engagement is present in organizations.  It should also be noted that the care workers work in intense and pressurized jobs, where they are required to adhere to strict care plans and other performance measures, whilst also being instructed to ensure that they provide a very personalized care service to their many clients. What struck us amongst these care workers was the ways in which competing contradictory messages caused anxiety and frustration and when describing their experiences, they related how they frequently faced challenges in terms of the decisions they had to make in administering care for the most vulnerable members of society.

The double-bind appeared to be especially prevalent in one of the organizations in particular and care workers clearly articulated where on one hand they received messages about the importance of strictly following highly structured care plans for each individual client, but on the other hand, were reminded about the importance of using their common sense to deliver personalised care. Focus group participants described how their motivation and morale was negatively impacted due to a perceived lack of authentic communication and engagement from their managerial colleagues and how they were left confused about whether they would face negative repercussions if they did indeed choose the wrong course of action (as perceived by their managers and other allied health professionals).

Whilst frustrations with role clarity and job expectations were also present in the other two case organizations in this study, it was felt that the worst excesses of the double bind were mitigated because better engagement and communication were in evidence. Leaders within these organisations enabled care workers to make sense of or reframe the contradictions because they worked hard to engage and develop a strong culture and underpinning message of ‘we are all in this together’.

Ultimately our research illustrates the importance of delivering clear and consistent messages to employees in this sector.  However, there is significance here for all organizations, regardless of sector, that they should endeavour to create a genuine culture of collegiality and support, especially during these uncertain economic times.


Bateson G, Jackson DD, Haley J and Weakland JH (1956) Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioural Science, 1: 251-264.

Venter, K., Currie, D. and McCracken, M., (2019) ‘You can’t win’: The Non-Profit Double-Bind and Experiences of Organisational Contradictions in the Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector, Work Employment and Society, 33 (2): 244-261

Dr Denise Currie, Senior Lecturer, Queens University Belfast

Dr Katharine Venter, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Leicester