Identifying and Untying Your Gordian Knot

Most business professionals approach me because they need help with a workplace challenge that, on the surface, seem easily identifiable. But often the core issues that create these challenges are much more complex and run deeper than they appear. Think about what you see when you observe a sculpture. The surface is smooth and carefully crafted, providing just a glimpse of the intricacies contained within and the layers that have built it. These intricate and sometimes mysterious layers also exist within the workplace, where the overt and obvious problem is not necessarily a reflection of the root issue.

Bold Solutions to Complex Problems

My method for unraveling complex issues is based on the concept of the Gordian Knot. The legend of the Gordian Knot dates to 333 BC, before Alexander the Great conquered Asia. As a young man, he was confronted with unfastening a seemingly impossibly intricate knot.

After weighing his options, Alexander cut through the knot with his sword. What seemed to be an impossibly complicated task was solved by taking an unconventional action. As a result, the Gordian Knot is now associated with bold solutions to complex problems.

Organizations have many Gordian Knots, but they often take the form of finger pointing at undesired behavior. It feels simpler to make assumptions about a surface-level behavior without taking the time to dig deeper and consider other potential causes and triggers. While we can witness a person’s outward behavior, what we can’t see is the underlying conflict that behavior is tethered to, whether it’s within their own career path, the organization itself, or perhaps in their personal life.

The result is lost time, wasted resources, and often little if any change in the behavior. When the concept of the Gordian Knot is applied to these workplace challenges, individuals can work together to clearly identify the “real” problem the needs to be addressed so that bold solutions and interventions can be tailored to untie and untether. 

The Gordian Knot at Work

I worked with a real estate development firm to reduce significant interpersonal conflict between several members of the finance department. The CFO, the Controller, and the Assistant Controller were tangled in a complex web of relationships, and their conflict spilled over, severely impacting the morale and work performance within the department.

Together we began the assessment process by examining how Human Resources viewed the issue (as a personality conflict) versus the more nuanced reasoning that began to unfold behind the scenes. During the assessment, I discovered that the Assistant Controller was allowed unlimited access to the CFO without the Controller’s knowledge. These unknown permissions factored into poor performance reviews by the Controller, yet the Assistant Controller was continually granted special privileges by the CFO.

In order to repair the damage created over many years, the group and I worked together diligently to institute organizational change in order to alleviate the counter-productive interpersonal dynamics that were derailing performance. We implemented role clarification, reduced confusion within the chain of command, and migrated the Assistant Controller to a special projects role reporting directly to the CFO. This allowed the Controller freedom to hire a new Assistant and exercise the leadership skills to manage the various functions within the team.

Today, the company has survived an industry-wide economic downturn and continues to thrive, expanding both its visibility and footprint in the marketplace. This is in part because they were able to identify, understand, and untie their Gordian Knot. 

What is Your Gordian Knot?

Understanding complexity leads to clarity, and the most deeply rooted, entangled issues require the boldest, sharpest solutions. Once the knot is identified we can begin the work to untie it, allowing everyone to finally see clearly.


With professional assistance, you or your organization can begin to view your Gordian Knot from different perspectives and discover the solutions that have previously eluded you. Dr. Delligatti offers a range of services capable of helping you or your team. Contact Dr. Delligatti to learn more.