Back 11 May 2024 by Damian Sosnowski

Escape the Ivory Tower. How to Avoid Leaders Isolation

#leadership #people

As a senior leader, you have a serious problem. You are out of touch. You are sitting on top of an Ivory Tower, too far from the frontline, isolated by your authority and extended communication lines. You are missing important bits of information, and without those, you are making mistakes. There is a way to escape the Ivory Tower and break the bubble. But it won’t be easy and you will have to get your hands dirty.

So you are a senior leader now? Manager of managers, an important person high in the hierarchy. Surely the view is quite spectacular up there, right? But let me tell you something. You have a serious problem. And it’s not only you. All senior leaders in all organisations.

You are mostly likely out of touch.

You are sitting on top of an Ivory Tower, too far from the frontline, too far from the actual work being done. The information you receive is already predigested, aggregated and filtered by your subordinates and therefore skewed. It’s missing details and some problems are hidden from you. If you don’t have the best and most up-to-date information about your employees and customers, you’re unlikely to make the best decisions. Or worse, you may not know something is brewing below before it’s too late to act.

Fortunately, there is a way to combat leaders’ isolation. To escape the Ivory Tower. The first step is to accept it exists.

The Ivory Tower

Every organisation needs a hierarchy to self-organise and simplify communication. Such simplification is necessary, as otherwise you would be overloaded with data flowing from all directions. You are not able to process every single detail that is happening in your teams and that’s ok. You should trust your teams that they will handle most of the cases on their own. That’s what autonomy and empowerment is about.

But it has drawbacks. The same process that protects you from being overloaded with information, hides some data from you. It’s not intentional, no one is plotting against you (well, maybe someone is, but that’s a topic for a different article), it’s part of how humans think and work. Inherent part of hierarchical organisations and human nature.

Respect your elders

Most societies and cultures have a built-in respect for authority and seniority. Be it people higher in the hierarchy, older, more experienced or all at once. So it’s natural for employees, to occasionally hold back opinions and feelings that they fear might contradict or irritate the boss. Or they feel you are too busy to deal with such “trivial issues”. Or, a very common problem, they are afraid that you will shoot a messenger bringing bad news and speaking about the problems in their teams will put them in a bad light. It’s simply much easier to cover up the issue and hope for the best.

In very hierarchical cultures such behaviours can lead to disastrous consequences, like a plane crash where a junior crew member was hesitant to speak up to avoid offending his superior who was making an obvious mistake.

Extended communication lines

Do you remember the telephone game that you played as a kid? Where one child whispers a message to another one and the next one and so on. Every such step changes something in the message so that the final version is hilariously different from the original one.

And it’s all fun until you are an adult and are managing an important project. The telephone game is a game for kids but it taught us an important lesson about management. Every layer of communication distorts a message. Every layer adds, removes or changes the information a bit. The further you are from the frontline, the more layers are between you and your people, and the more distorted information you receive.

It works both ways

To add even more weight to the topic, not only the communication you receive is affected by your position in the hierarchy. The information you send to your subordinates has to go through the same extended communication lines.

Which means that they receive a distorted message. Your vision, your strategic goals, plans and the reasoning behind them are probably not reaching them the way you would like to. And if they don’t understand your vision, they get frustrated and anxious seeing changes and new goals they don’t fully comprehend.

A very common, complaint about “our leadership does not know what they are doing” is a direct effect of this kind of communication issue. Leadership (usually) knows quite well what they are doing, but they fail to deliver this message to their teams.

Break the bubble

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. There is a way to break the leadership bubble and escape the Ivory Tower. You will just have to get your hands dirty.

You need feedback loops

As my article about hierarchies explains, a good organisation structure needs feedback loops. It needs a process to bring information from the teams to the leadership up the hierarchy. Keep them informed, and allow them to make swift and accurate decisions. Such systems are not created spontaneously, they have to be designed deliberately to avoid the pitfalls described previously.

You need to be able to receive pure, unprocessed information from the frontlines, from your teams, about their well-being, about their work and about challenges they are facing.

Encourage constructive criticism

People will not talk to you if you are not willing to listen. You have to tell, and prove, that you are willing to hear negative feedback and want them to push back and challenge your thinking if they disagree.

Most of the leaders claim they do. But, often subconsciously, they discourage such behaviours by not paying enough attention to their teams’ opinions, dismissing their concerns or acting irritated when receiving such feedback.

Negative feedback hurts and senior leaders often think they have to be perceived as extra-smart, confident and have all the answers. So if they are contradicted or challenged by a subordinate they feel threatened, or worried about looking weak.

You should pay attention to those details. To paraphrase Paul Graham “Keep Your Ego Small”. Listening is an art that is hard to master. But it’s invaluable.

Listening was the most important thing I accomplished each day because it would build the foundation of leadership for years to come. - Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft)

Make sure that you have team members who dare to speak up and can be critics. Only some people are vocal enough to do it regularly, but you should have some of those around you. This is tricky, however. You want to nurture valid, constructive feedback, not negative thinking and loud whiners. Distinguish those two, promote the former and eliminate the latter.

Skip level meetings

Skip-level meetings are, without any doubt, the most powerful tool to overcome leadership isolation. Skip-level meetings are, with a bit of oversimplification, 1:1 meetings with your non-direct reports. You go 2 - 3 levels (or more!) down the hierarchy and meet with the people that your managers are managing.

The idea is simple, execution not so, but it gives you a unique opportunity to directly talk with people in the teams, about their work and their experience. You can build a relationship with them, and ask them smart questions to shed some light on their daily struggles. There is no source of information more valuable than those people, you just have to dig a bit to surface it.

On top of it, skip levels allow you to bring your message to them. Use this opportunity to explain your vision and your reasoning behind it. To address the questions or confusion they might have.

Infect them with your enthusiasm and excitement about what’s coming and show them the big picture that you have in your head. Use their language and translate high-level vision to their daily perspective so they can fully comprehend what it means and how it affects them.

Town halls

Town halls are a good opportunity to present not only the vision and goals for your teams but also to explain how the work they are doing and their achievements contribute to the overall strategic direction.

If the team you manage is big, it will be more efficient to schedule several smaller meetings for a focused group of employees, so the message can be crafted in their language, touching topics that they work with daily.

A crucial part of every town hall should be feedback. Ask your audience about questions they have, opinions or concerns. I encourage you to allow people to share their feedback anonymously. You might get some low-quality baits but this will overall encourage more people to share their concerns openly.

Board of advisors

Create a personal board of advisors. Group of people with perspectives different from yours. From different layers and teams within your organisation. People that you trust and respect and can help you with honest feedback and their unique perspectives on topics you would like to discuss. You might be surprised how many amazing ideas and challenging discussions can occur when experienced people with different perspectives talk openly.

Some of the most impactful and best ideas I’ve introduced in my teams in the past were a result of such discussions.

Get your hands dirty

Some managers find this idea controversial but I think this is one of the best and most powerful things you can do to break your leadership bubble. Get your hands dirty! Engage yourself in the daily work of your teams as an individual contributor.

Use your product as a normal user would do. Talk to your clients as a customer support. Take a bug from your backlog and fix it! Go through the entire development cycle. Setting the local environment, writing a fix, going through the code review, and deploying it on production.

Join the incident management team and help them resolve the production incident.

Feel the goods and bads of the daily work of your teams. Experience all the little pains and annoyances they deal with daily. And draw conclusions.

You can escape

Leadership Isolation affects all leaders. From CEOs to team managers. The higher you are, the more you suffer from the isolation fuelled by position and power. Too many layers between you and the front lines of your business, a natural aversion to sharing bad news with the boss and you will start losing valuable bits of information.

Fortunately, there is a way out of the Ivory Tower isolation. Be proactive, change your habits, focus on your people and your relationship with them and learn to listen.

For those who don’t listen, shall be surrounded by silence.

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