The ivory tower syndrome isn’t new. It’s been around for a long time to refer to situations when leaders and companies lose touch with employees. And the consequences can be disastrous. The syndrome has gained recognition after the pandemic with the increases in remote work—not because of remote work per se but because of a lack of employer-employee sustained contact.
Science shows that workplace connections pay off in spades. According to Gallup, when that connection is broken, employees feel like they don’t belong, performance suffers and engagement drops. Gallap’s data show that “Employees who feel included—based on strongly agreeing with Gallup’s recommended measures for inclusion—are more engaged at work than those who do not strongly agree with those survey items.” Red Thread Research and Enboarder back up Gallup’s conclusions that strong workplace connections have significant benefits for both employees and employers. They found that when companies prioritize connections, they’re 2.3 times more likely to have engaged employees, 5.4 times more likely to be agile and 3.2 times more likely to have satisfied customers.
How To Avoid Ivory Tower Syndrome
When leaders experience ivory tower syndrome or disconnection from their workforce, workers become isolated, make poor business decisions and resent management. In today’s remote-work environment, this is an especially relevant topic for Mike Davis, CEO of Mathnasium, North America’s leading math-only supplemental education franchise with more than 1,100 learning centers worldwide in 10 countries. The CEO has made it his mission to avoid the ivory tower syndrome by implementing various tactics that allow him to balance vision with day-to-day business operations for optimal results. When I spoke with him by email, he listed four strategies to mitigate the ivory tower syndrome: prioritizing being physically present, creating a culture of engagement and empowerment, seeking feedback from diverse sources and investing in continuous learning and development.
- Prioritize Being Physically Present. Davis says the goal of his organization is to make Super Fans happen in their learning centers through personal connections with the students, families and communities. “It’s virtually impossible to understand the tone, nature and cadence of those important connections via a call or Zoom,” he notes. “That’s only possible in person. When you’re regularly present, you’re able to observe behaviors, body language, facial expressions and more. Listening to what isn’t said can be as important as what is said.” He suggests spending time connecting with both employees and customers, asking them to show you what’s working and what’s not and letting them demonstrate their concerns, challenges and victories.
- Create a Culture of Engagement and Empowerment. Building a culture requires building “Believers,” Davis points out. “If you want everyone on the same page, put the page in front of them,” he suggests, asking, “How do you expect your team to embrace a mission or culture that they don’t see or have any input on? How can leaders know what their people need and want without asking them?” He recommends instead of relying exclusively on employee engagement surveys, ask workers through genuine and direct conversation. “Embrace real-talk moments and tough conversations—these are the most powerful in creating change,” he emphasizes, especially in a multi-location business where it’s hard to grow “believers” if you haven’t “walked the floor.”
- Seek Feedback from Diverse Sources. According to Davis, when managers engage with employees at all levels of the organization, they gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist throughout the company. “The same goes for engaging with customers,” he points out. “Everything you do communicates something. When you show these customers—with eye contact, a firm handshake or a well-timed smile—how much you appreciate them, it communicates.” He suggests that too many leaders get tunnel vision. To broaden your leadership skill set and positively influence your decision-making, he advises seeking feedback from external stakeholders and industry/cross-industry experts to provide valuable insights that can inform decision-making and keep you attuned to the external landscape.
- Invest in Continuous Learning and Development. Davis believes “Collective Intelligence” is a natural platform for continuous learning. “Frequent and transparent communications, especially via short videos and webinars, convey energy and passion around company goals, company performance and ongoing initiatives,” he explains, adding the importance of using network data to identify best practices from various markets to share with the company. “This brings you closer to the granular details of the business to make informed decisions to benefit the collective whole of the company,” he declares. “Stay updated on industry trends, emerging technologies and best practices. Attending conferences, workshops and seminars, reading relevant publications and engaging in professional networks are essential for leaders to broaden their perspectives and maintain relevance. By investing in their own growth, leaders demonstrate a commitment to personal development and inspire their teams to do the same.”
Creating A Culture Of Connection
Ivory tower syndrome is real, and employees—both on-site and remote—recognize the isolation. In some instances, remote employees fear the disconnection means they have limited career growth opportunities. Job seekers are searching for a workplace where they feel connected to their managers and cared about by the company. “A top reason employees stay—or leave—at an organization is tied to their manager relationship,” according to Andrea Couto, vice president of solution engineering at Betterworks. “To build stronger, authentic relationships, people managers will need to become highly relational-forming connections based on similar interests and listening in order to learn new perspectives and new ideas,” she says. “Pivoting from ‘managing’ employees to being coaches and performance enablers will be key.”
Companies can start to create a culture of connection by listening to employees’ needs, notes Andrea Meyer, director of benefits at Worksmart Systems. “Balancing those requests with employer needs is essential but can be tricky,” she cautions. “The HR department can help by liaising between upper management and employees to create guidelines that satisfy both parties. For many organizations, this compromise may lead to a hybrid work environment, allowing employees to spend a few days at home and a few days in the office. Hybrid workplaces permit employees to determine how much time they spend in a traditional office setting. These policies promote a better sense of belonging among fully remote and fully in-person employees by allowing freedom.”