Burst That Bubble: Engaging Out-of-Touch Leaders

It is no secret that corporate leadership sometimes seems to lose touch with their own organization — or at least that is the perception of many employees.

According to an analysis of a March 2014 American Management Association survey of more than 300 senior executives and managers, C-level executives and their teams sometimes appear to operate as though they are stuck in a bubble, seemingly cut off from the real world and content to be so (Editor’s note: The author works for the association).

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Source: American Management Association, March 2014

Remarkably, one-third of the survey’s respondents think their leaders function this way “most of the time,” and another half say they do “on occasion.” As the findings show, out-of-touch leadership may be harmful to an organization in fundamental ways, including employee disengagement, poor customer service, high turnover and, ultimately, loss of revenue.

Moreover, it’s a sobering finding that just 18 percent of respondents in the survey say their leadership team has not lost touch, suggesting the problem needs greater exploration and understanding.

But the scope of the challenge is even broader, the survey suggests. When respondents were asked if they’ve ever been with an organization where the team was in a bubble, the findings showed that 9 out of 10 respondents answered affirmatively.

An out-of-touch team is a widespread phenomenon, according to HR and leadership author John Mattone. “This is clearly a global issue,” he said. “Despite the over 100,000 book titles on leadership, countless leadership events and retreats, and university management development, we continue to see massive gaps in both leadership and culture all over the world.

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Source: American Management Association, March 2014

“Great leaders are truly few and far between. We need leaders who are able to see leadership as being bigger than spreadsheets and big data. It’s about thinking bigger and differently and asking bigger and better questions like, what is my legacy? Am I truly a role model? How do I want to be remembered? These are the questions great leaders ask themselves daily. They force you to a higher standard. Popping the leadership bubble requires leaders to make a decision to start asking bigger and better questions.”

While the survey asked about signs that the team is trapped in a bubble, the responses might also be considered as outcomes because these phenomena are in all likelihood circular in nature.

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Source: American Management Association, March 2014

Ineffective communication tops the list of indicators for the top team being out of touch, according to the survey, but failure of alignment and overly poor performance are also frequent indicators. Respondents also cited high turnover and low productivity.

Avoiding the Bubble

Respondents were emphatic about the prevalence of the leadership bubble, although they were somewhat philosophical about whether it is avoidable. Three-quarters believe the phenomenon may be avoided depending on the leadership, while just 22 percent said they consider it a common problem. Just 2 percent think the issue is an “infrequent” one.

The survey also explored whether out-of-touch leadership is more of an issue for larger or global organizations — a majority (71 percent) said it is. Global organizations face the challenges of scale, distance, differing time zones and cultural difference, so it is no surprise they may often have to cope with leadership being perceived as out of touch.

Smaller organizations also face the problem, according to the survey. Ninety-four percent of respondents agree that it is possible for smaller organizations to suffer from leadership being out of touch.

In these cases, it may be that when the leadership team is smaller, it may be convinced of its own connectedness because the organization is manageable in size and all the major players are known.

Also, personalities may have bigger effect in a small organization, the survey suggests, potentially explaining the conviction of respondents that companies of modest size are also vulnerable to an out-of-touch leadership.

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Source: American Management Association, March 2014

Interestingly, respondents were not certain about the causes of a remote leadership team. Asked to identify the main reason leadership teams lose touch with employees, most respondents pointed to either a failure of internal communications or the corporate culture. Nearly one-quarter said “too many yes men and women.” 

Most respondents in the survey did not seek to blame the CEO. Only 16 percent said the problem was due to the CEO’s personality. Instead, there seemed to be a consensus that the challenge is more systemic. The bubble may not just go away because there is a change of leadership, the survey suggests.

The biggest effect of leaders being out of touch is related to employee engagement. There was also a sense among respondents of disconnectedness that would possibly affect customer service as well as revenue. As many as 40 percent of respondents were concerned that out-of-touch leadership might lead to unethical behavior.

One of the survey’s more alarming findings is the perception that rank-and-file employees may be the best judges of whether a senior team is isolated from the organization. Interestingly, the survey suggests that shareholders may be among the last to be aware of a leadership bubble. 

What talent managers wish to know is what can be done to remedy a situation where the leadership is so obviously out of touch.

Respondents put an emphasis on communication. Topping the list of suggestions were regular efforts to connect to the field as well as more formal initiatives such a training targeting communication and transparency. Employee surveys such as 360-degree assessments are also useful tools to garner input and help leaders to stay connected with employee sentiment, the survey showed.

Take a Walk

Stewart Liff, a fellow at The Performance Institute, said walking around may be helpful.

“Leaders in government can break out of the bubble by taking a series of both regularly scheduled and ad hoc actions that bring them closer to the action,” Liff said. “Such steps may include managing by walking around, one-on-one and small-group discussions, town hall meetings, and even an intranet where employees can express their opinions on a wide variety of issues.”

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Source: American Management Association, March 2014

Communication is actually an umbrella term for such core skills as listening, thinking clearly, interpreting organizational concepts and being alert to nonverbal signals. When understood correctly, communication helps leaders better understand situations, resolve differences and build trust, the survey suggests.

The findings make it clear that a leadership bubble is real and widespread. There seems to be a feeling that many top teams do not know “what’s really going on” in the organization. When leaders appear cut off from the everyday reality of the workplace, their efforts and edicts may not be taken seriously.

What’s more, a team that seems trapped in its own bubble loses credibility and isn’t in a good position to lead the organization.

Talent managers need to examine the corporate culture and how it communicates with employees. But “effective” communication is all too often less than effective. It demands more than clarity and emphasis. It requires asking the right questions. It needs to encourage frankness and mutual respect.

And as the survey’s findings suggest, all too often there is communications failure, and the leadership team carries on unaware of that reality. The bottom line is that leaders who find themselves surrounded with “yes” people will have to take steps to escape the unreality of their situation.