Although originally used to reference the isolated life of a poet, the term “ivory tower” has come to be a reference to someone who is not in touch with the real world. In some references, it goes so farther. In those instances, it indicates that the person has a complete disregard for lowly real world issues.
People who speak about something or someone at a distance, are often seen as living in an ivory tower. Those close to the issue often feel that the perspective shared is out of touch with their own personal reality. The more distantly removed one person is from another in terms of geographical distance, cultural distance, economic distance, and educational distance, the more challenging it is to communicate without one person sounding out of touch with the other.
Often the term ivory tower is used to refer to people in academia because they are focused on research and theories. Meanwhile, people actually working in the field are dealing with the realities of the real world.
Along these lines, I recall a researcher at the company where I worked who was advising a PhD candidate at one of the Ivy League schools. The corporate researcher was excited about the PhD student’s thesis and wanted to share information about it with me. I am not sure exactly how I reacted, but it was something along the lines of “And, what else?” They were shocked to know that I already “knew” that the PhD student’s hypothesis was true. I politely informed them that it was common knowledge in business, particularly high tech. It would never have occurred to me to try to get a PhD on something that was so obvious in my world. Yet, here was someone from academia doing just that.
Business has plenty of its own ivory towers that aren’t focused on research. One of the most common ivory towers is retail corporate headquarters. On many occasions I have commented to a store employee about recent changes that made little sense. They almost always answer, “It doesn’t make sense to us either.” Then the employee shares that someone at headquarters made the decision and that they have no choice. It makes me wonder if the people at headquarters actually ever shop in their stores.
Personally, I like to see and select products in person. However, it is often easier online because finding the product in the store can be a hunting expedition. For instance, who would ever think to look for the dish-washing products in the section with animal care and food? If you would, please explain the logic to me. I am sure it is not in that section online.
Other kinds of businesses have ivory towers as well. The executives often believe products can be created much faster than possible. They just have no knowledge of what goes into product creation, but demand it all the same.
Similarly, they will cut costs and staff at any turn while they jet around the world staying in luxury accommodations and eating fine meals. It is challenging for employees to see a connection to these executives.
The ivory tower comes into play in elections as well. In a local election, the candidates are usually from the same area as voters and likely have similar experiences as the voters. Likewise, the candidate is either of the same culture as voters or at least has an understanding of the culture of the voters. Some situations may exist where voters view local candidates as living in an ivory tower. However, it is rarer than in a national election where there is more distance.
The further from home the elected official serves; the more likely they are to be seen as living in an ivory tower. This is somewhat unavoidable as the larger the group that they serve, the harder it is to relate to the group. Thus, members of Congress are challenged to represent all of their constituents. The President has an even bigger challenge to connect to the general population.
Some people in these positions are really good at getting common people to believe that they understand the life of the factory worker, the farmer, the front line employee, or the person living in the inner city. Most of the time, this is a façade. Thus, it is important to look beyond it to see if even at a high level the person understands or if their eloquent speech is simply winning you over.
Breaking Out Of The Tower
Now, it is possible for all people who live in ivory towers to become more attuned to the real world. The first step is for them to realize that they have a lack of understanding. Until they give up the idea that they “know,” they will not make progress. Believing that one knows is not the same as having true understanding. And, when there is a lack of understanding, there is a disconnect.
To be successful at connecting to a broad set of people, executives, researchers, and elected officials need to reach beyond their circle of influence. They need to reach out to people in all types of positions and from all kinds of backgrounds. For instance, a politician can only truly connect with the people when he or she reaches out and, more importantly, listens to people of all political leanings. Likewise, a truly successful executive will listen to employees at every level and in a variety of jobs.
Listening & Understanding
Break out of your world and into the world of someone else by listening and really trying to understand. It is through that understanding that you can truly connect. With true connections, people can come together.