The Sticky Bear Problem




Before reading further, check out this short clip from the show Silicon Valley.

The episode may be satire, but the phenomenon is as common and real as it gets. Leaders and managers are constantly conveying far more than they’re aware of (or intend to) — through their behaviors, through their words, through what they do and don’t put their attention on. Because they lack external self-awareness, a sense of how their words and actions create meaning in others that they are not intended to convey, they create massive confusion.

How often do you experience:

  • Employees, vendors, or people from other departments coming to you with work that’s meaningfully different from what you thought you’d asked them to do

  • Employees “missing the big picture” and spending crazy amounts of time on trivial things you’d mentioned in passing

  • People misinterpreting your curiosities or suggestions as directives

  • Being surprised by your own manager’s reaction to your work when it had seemed clear that that’s what they were asking for

  • Trying to “read the tea leaves” when it comes to your own manager, fixating on certain things they say and ignoring others

All of these are examples of “sticky bear problems.” During coaching, we often hear “I asked them to do something, and it didn’t get done.” And not far behind that is “I found out they are working on the wrong thing!” These utterances almost always come with frustration – “I’ve said this a million times, how do people not get it?” “Am I crazy? Why in the world would someone be spending their time on that?” Alternatively, we hear from executives that “their CEO seems totally unreasonable” or “always changes their mind” or “doesn’t understand how big a lift they just asked for.” More often than not, these kinds of frustrations are a function of confusion, rather than substantive disagreement. In particular, these “sticky bear” dynamics emerge from three key dynamics:

  • We tend to not to recognize our own confusion: Most of us believe we’re self-aware, and almost none of us are, especially in the actual moment of confusion. More often than not, our thinking drops without realizing it; we make flippant remarks, fixate on minor details, or rush to certainty around one course of action without recognizing the assumptions at play. Or perhaps we withdraw, letting things slide “that just aren’t worth the effort right now” (this can have a massive impact on culture). Because we’re not aware of our own confusion, we almost certainly aren’t aware of its impact, which in an executive position can ripple throughout an org in ways we’d never imagine.

  • We underestimate how much hire / fire / promote authority is key to employees’ psychological kingdom: We often find when we dig in on sticky bear problems that the person with hire / fire authority (the “threat maker”) was being casual with something that the people affected by that authority interpreted as important. No matter how friendly the environment, there are almost always power dynamics at play – dynamics that the person with power rarely recognizes because they’re not subject to them. All of us have threat triggers, and often in both perception and reality the people who control employment status control the areas in which those threat triggers manifest. As a leader or manager, it’s important to always remember that a casual conversation to you may be much higher stakes for your counterpart – that you will often be perceived as the one holding the key to their security, their belonging to the group, their perception of fair treatment, their autonomy to focus on what they want, and their influence to get things done. Unrecognized confusion on the part of someone with power is a near-guaranteed recipe for threat in those subject to it – a threat that in turn leads to behavior that often confuses the executive even further.

  • We ignore the power of apophenia: Apophenia is a fancy word that means “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).” We humans are inveterate pattern seekers, and this compulsion to connect the dots can lead to all kinds of silliness (see cargo cults).  Combining the power dynamics and executive confusion behavior described above, most manager / employee relationships are an ideal breeding ground for apophenia. Apophenia is so common because it feels *great* – we love the eureka moment when we can distill a meaningful picture out of chaos and the sense that we’ve decoded what’s really going on when other people couldn’t. This leads people to unproductive certainties that we know “what our boss is really thinking” or “how things really work around here.” From that vantage, offhand “sticky bear” comments become a puzzle to be decoded, rather than a mutual confusion to be understood.

Sticky Bear problems come at a high cost:

When these disconnects happen, they are very expensive. And people rarely, if ever, learn from them. The leader thinks that the others are insane for doing what they are doing, and the followers think that the leader “changes their mind all the time.” This results in waste: no progress, no learning, for the expense of time, money, and attention. Over time, it breaks down the trust required for effectively working together.

The solution to Sticky Bear problems: situational self-awareness and a clarity-focused culture.

From our experience, the optimal “design” fix to this problem is creating a culture that drives towards clarity. This means habituating behaviors such as “starting with you” (and your own potential confusion), being self-skeptical (about the dots you’re connecting), and asking questions to get to clarity. Cultures that lack explicit rewards for these behaviors encourage waste. It is not possible for a leader to be perfectly self-aware, nor that a leader can be perfectly self-aware about other people’s perceptions of their words. So they can either spend all their time guard railing against that (which takes the leader’s attention and applies it to not losing, rather than pointing to the future). Or they can accept personal responsibility that they will not be a perfect communicator because they are often confused without realizing it. They can reiterate that people will often be confused even in the face of clarity and not realize it. Finally, they can create and sustain a culture that deals effectively with this reality, rewarding those who ask good questions above all else.

  • Can you think of recent experiences where the people around you focused on things that didn’t make sense to you?

    • Can you imagine potential signals you may have given them that that was where they should focus?

  • Have you ever jumped into action based on an offhand comment from your own manager or CEO?

    • If so, did you sync with them that that was what you should prioritize relative to other goals?

  • Ask your employees if they’ve ever spent time going down a rabbit hole based on a comment you made.

  • Ask them to always push for clarity if something you said doesn’t immediately make sense to them, and be generous with your praise and time when they do.


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