Have ever been faced with a complex, strategic business challenge? If so, you know how difficult it is to wrap your arms around the situation so you can arrive at the very best solution. Consider that most situations are complex for any number of reasons. Dr. Marcia Ruben coined the terms “TangleologyTM, Organizational TanglesTM, and Leadership TanglesTM" to describe and illuminate the hidden yet pervasive forces that lurk in every organization. Our job is to facilitate processes that help you redirect misguided energy so that you can achieve optimal results with an inspired, motivated, and productive workforce.

Any and all of the above can lead to Leadership and Organizational Tangles. For assistance in diagnosing and addressing any of these, contact Marcia Ruben, PhD.

Tangleology Knot
Marcia Ruben has over 25 years of experience as an organization development and executive leadership consultant.  Clients call Ruben Consulting Group when they have tough, messy challenges that involve unproductive human dynamics. In 2001, she noticed that the challenges were getting more complex and messier. The leadership theories and practices she continuously studied and updated - through extensive reading, attending conferences, and taking courses for certification in a number of business consulting methodologies - were not enough. The perspectives and solutions they offered seemed less and less effective for the complex challenges she was encountering. So she decided to go back to school and do her own original research.
Marcia's research focused on unspoken and hidden challenges that lurk in the belly of every organization. The results of her study provided new insights for deconstructing complex, messy business challenges and identifying distinct phases and patterns. She began referring to the recurring patterns she identified as “tangles” and identified leadership capabilities needed to lead in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) times. Her results help researchers and leaders understand ways leaders, middle managers, and employees interpret complex, volatile situations. They suggest that members of groups interpret complex situations based on their own and each other’s sense of personal power and competence. These interpretations are deeply intertwined with emotional reactions and quickly contribute to “us” versus “them” thinking and behavior.

Recent research in neuroscience underscores these findings and adds further insight. As humans, we evolved as social beings and our brains are finely attuned to social cues. We detect both threats and rewards as we interact with others. Yet, we have five times as many circuits that pick up threats. So we react much more strongly to threats than to rewards.

We are also wired to connect—and feel most comfortable—with those who are similar to us. We crave certainty, autonomy, and equity. All of these social domains are threatened when things become chaotic and uncertain. We become afraid. We experience negative emotions which in turn lead to unproductive behavior. Alliances form—with those deemed similar to us and against those perceived as different. The similarities and differences may be based on status, power, corporate functions, ethnicity, gender, age, etc. These alliances can easily turn in to unproductive subgroups that malign and even sabotage others.

Armed with knowledge and awareness, we can learn to manage these unproductive tendencies when facing uncertainty. The new insights gained from Marcia’s research, and made stronger with neuroscientific evidence provide leaders with strong guidance for moving from “us versus them” to “we” thinking and behavior in unpredictable business situations.
Tangle DR Untangling

What Is A Tangle?

As organizations grow, they become complex webs of interconnected relationships subject to internal and external stresses. These stresses often result in the formation of organizational knots, or tangles. From her research, Marcia created the terms organizational tangles™ and leadership tangles™ to describe hidden human and organizational forces that undermine successful achievement of an organization's explicit goals.

There are different kinds of tangles, such as:

  • Individual leadership tangles (which she calls “Brain knots”) 
  • Team tangles
  • Cross-functional tangles 
  • System-wide tangles

Tangles are caused by misalignments of key elements of all organizations. These key elements include:

  • Leadership styles
  • Communication styles
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Organizational culture
  • Organizational structure
  • Ways individuals make sense of situations—their stories of what happened
  • Perceptions of power and competence
  • Emotions experienced

The tangles that develop fall into a variety of distinct patterns, based on the particular combination of misalignments that occur:

Some tangles include all of these key elements. Others contain a smaller subset. Dr. Ruben has identified more than a dozen distinct organizational tangles. More importantly, she has developed effective strategies for untangling each.

Symptoms of Tangles

Tangles manifest as unproductive working relationships, snarled lines of communication, and fuzzy lines of authority. As they tighten their grip on individual leaders, teams, and the organization itself, their presence is signaled by heightened emotions, conflict, blame, fear, and “us versus them” thinking and behavior.


Ignored, tangles fester and grow, and may ultimately destroy the organization. They are particularly dangerous because, unique among organizational challenges, they have a quality of not being recognizable to those caught in their grip.


Unchecked tangles have the potential to trigger, unleash, and strengthen feelings of resentment, discontent, confusion, and frustration. This disturbance can be felt from both the top down, and the bottom up. The best, most effective option is to untangle issues in their initial stages, before productivity and morale begins to decline.


The trick is to identify the signs of a tangle before it has grown out of control. Noticing the beginnings of a tangle and intervening in time is not always easy. Luckily this is the specialty of the Tangle Doctor™.

How Can The Tangle Doctor Help?

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  • Enjoy a high sense of trust and collaboration
  • Decisions get made and stick
  • Accountabilities are clear
  • Leaders seek out and address tough issues
  • Productivity and profits soar

A Tangle Doctor can quickly diagnose the intertwined threads of thinking, emotions, interpretations, team and organizational structure, culture, and power dynamics and that are causing a particular tangle. With that knowledge, the Tangle Doctor can then recommend and facilitate pragmatic solutions that result in an accountable, high performing organization.
Brain Knot