How do you deal with unreasonable demands at work — when there’s no way out?

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readApr 20, 2022


I had a conversation with a client yesterday that I think will stick with me.

He said (roughly) ‘in organisations I’ve worked in before, we used to go for those kinds of things like ‘top 100 organisations to work for’, and so we did ‘#culture audits’ where there was a lot of pressure to agree — ‘say this is a good place to work, and the results will be good for all of us’’.

It’s like asking people what their working life is like while there’s a big sign on the wall that says ‘our values: honesty, commitment, delivery’.


It destroys #innovation, motivation, #careers — and people.

The messages that people receive — over and over again, from those with power and authority — are:
1) ‘tell the truth’
2) ‘we want to hear that everyone tells the truth around here’
3) ‘as an organisation, we’re deeply proud that our words can be trusted’

Can you see the trap?


Let’s try one more:
1) ‘we’d like to hear what it’s like to work here’
2) ‘if we all say it’s a great place to work, this will be a slightly better place to work’
3) ‘finding out what it’s like to work around here will deal with the complaints we keep getting once and for all’

We see it all the time in requirements for inspection, compliance, governance, procurement.

You get:

  • Rules you must follow to play the game (which are completely inappropriate for actually doing the right thing).
  • Punishments if you follow the rules and therefore do the wrong thing.
  • And punishments if you break the rules in order to do the right thing.

(hat tip Patrick Hoverstadt for recently formulating this in a similar way recently)

It’s maddening!

In fact, in a famous paper from Bateson et al (1956), this pattern — the double bind — was held up as a cause of schizophrenia.

I know for sure it can trigger chronic stress and breakdowns.

Can you think of examples?


I have experience so much of this in the systems I have to engage with (it is partly why I maintain such an independent position), and my core tactics are:

1 find the least soul-destroying bad-faith compromise

2 break the injunction to keep quiet about it — risk escalating the pain and being pushed out of the system by talking very loudly about it in public and with people who in theory might be able to influence
BUT without going ‘rebel’ and making that the centre of my engagement with the system

3 complain a lot with fellow sufferers
BUT without making that the centre of my identity, draining everyone around me

4 try not to replicate this in anything actually in my control


What examples have you seen? What are your tactics?