The Ivory Tower Syndrome stems from leaders being disconnected from employees in the trenches and thus the reality of the business.
In the business world, this means less-competitive products that cost too much to produce and ultimately risking company survival.
In healthcare, it means lower quality of patient care and transferring cost overruns to the patient.
The larger and more complex the organization, and the more isolated leaders are from those below them, the more likely poor quality and cost overruns are magnified.
Powerful and privileged cultures can further intensify the problem.
Undercover Boss is a popular reality TV show where executives secretly do the work of first-line staff.
These executives often learn things about the business they didn’t previously know because of the natural tendency for leaders to become out of touch with people who are further down the chain of command, especially those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.
Executives who have worked in the field often make big changes when they return to their offices.
The communication problem exists because leaders often rely entirely on the chain of command to get information about the business below them.
We’ve all seen the telephone skit where a simple story changes from one side of the line of people to the other as it is passed along.
Added to the mix are biases, skewed or missing information, and changes in meaning.
Because executives are burdened with such responsibilities as strategy, operational oversight, and remaining competitive, they may limit their focus to major issues and not the reality of the day-to-day activities.
They have no choice but to trust and rely on the perspectives and translations of those directly below them.
The same is true of those below them, who also rely on their down-line employees. Since this data is often reported in meetings, the the problems inherent to people in groups can further hinder communication.
When in groups, people tend to show a vulnerability for counterproductive phenomena, such as Groupthink, that hinders creating a safe environment for people to speak up honestly.
One of the reasons is that people tend to transfer accountability and responsibility to the group, bypassing the individual sense of duty.
Also, if they do not feel their voice is truly valued, or if they feel that speaking up may cause retribution, they may never speak up, even when it is critical to do so.
A Safe Environment
In order to overcome the Ivory Tower Syndrome, as a starting point, leaders must establish a safe environment where anyone can provide feedback without fear.
This is not a simple task, like cleaning your desk. Creating a safe environment takes time and can be very difficult, because determining whether it is safe or not rests entirely in the preconscious thoughts of those at the bottom of the organization.
The key phrase is “preconscious thought” – what happens in our
brains before our thoughts are censored, spun or diluted by our conscious mind.
Once a safe environment can be established, which can only be evidenced
by those at the bottom of the organization, leaders can start to become more in touch with the reality of the business.
However, if employees at the bottom of the organization are not providing the evidence that it is safe for them to speak up, or if they fear reporting candidly (which is a typical side-effect of powerful and privileged cultures), leaders will incorrectly believe they have created this safe environment.
It is important for leaders to understand that merely espousing the desire for or the existence of a safe environment doesn’t make the environment safe.
If the environment is not safe for employees everywhere to speak up about problems, any effort to connect with employees down the chain will be futile.
It may not be productive for all top executives to go down and secretly do the grunt work that we do.
However, they could roll up their sleeves and regularly spend time with their employees in a more informal and collegial manner.
As they do so, it is highly likely they will collect useful information and perspectives they didn’t have before – ones which may change future decisions and even improve the organization.
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