Leaders: Give Up Your Status Symbols And Destroy The Ivory Tower

Written by in Practices
- 6 min read

Today's workplaces are filled with dreadful leftovers from the era of the industrial revolution. To name but a few: the time clocks to control how many hours we spend at work each day, the separation of thinking (by the 'top' of the pyramid) and doing (by the 'bottom' of the pyramid) and the fact that the people with the most decision making power are often the farthest away from the actual work.

But arguably the most painful leftovers are the plenitude of privileges and status symbols that reflect the current inequality in the workplace. Just think about the parking spots especially reserved for directors and the luxurious corner offices. Luckily, one of the easiest and most powerful ways to start boosting engagement within an organization is to get rid of all these privileges and symbols that enforce inequality.

Why you should destroy the ivory tower?

Often the overly expensive top floors for the (vice) presidents (with wooden floors, expensive art, and great views) don’t compare to the boring cubicles of the employees at the bottom of the pyramid. This difference in workplace privileges creates a huge gap between leaders and employees. Leaders get separated from employees that do the actual work, which in turn leads to leaders getting separated from reality.

After visiting many of the 60 workplace pioneers over the last 18 months we started to recognize a certain pattern. Soon it became clear to us that almost all of them, once they were in power, symbolically destroyed all of their status symbols and privileges. They explained us, when we asked, that they did this in order to lower and minimize the barriers between leadership and the rest of the organization. Why exactly, you would ask? Well, there are several different reasons.

1. Increase fairness and righteousness

Most of the leaders we spoke to believe that these artificial barriers are unfair and unjust. The status symbols and privileges get in the way of the feeling of intrinsic equality. They simply believe that everyone is equal within the organization and that therefore everyone should have the same rights. In fact, some of them even believe that the employees themselves are more important to the organization than the leaders. CEO of a Dutch cookie factory Kees Pater: “When I’m gone for a week, the company continues to do just fine. When the production staff is gone for a week, the whole company comes to a standstill.”

2. Improve performance

Other leaders believe status symbols and privileges are frustrating the company’s performance. CEO Darren Childs of the British broadcaster UKTV, for example, destroyed his ivory tower in order to increase the creativity within the firm: “The command-and-control structure belongs to the industrial age. In the digital age we are living in, those structures have become outdated. As the digital age requires creativity, we need to do everything we can to build our organizations around creativity”. Practically they minimized the artificial barriers between leaders and employees through design changes (they got rid of managerial offices) and by letting teams evaluate their own managers. It worked wonders.

3. Support employees

Almost all leaders we've interviewed believe that in order to properly lead an organization towards its goals, it's important to support the employees as good as they can. And in order to support them, employees should be able to reach out to their leadership at any moment without hesitation or fear. One of the most beautiful examples of leadership without status symbols was what we witnessed at Zingerman's (a company with $60 million in annual revenues) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their CEO Ari Weinzweig doesn't own a fancy corner office but spends much of his time on the floor with his employees to show he is one of them. In fact, you can often find him in one of his restaurants pouring water to the guests!

How to do it?

The painful reality is that removing status symbols and privilege from the workplace is highly dependent on the leaders who benefit from them. It is therefore mainly in their hands to actually make a change. Luckily, there are leaders out there who dare to make the change because they know that they will benefit from a number of factors such as increased employee engagement, involvement, transparency, and performance.

If you are a leader in such a position, you should not underestimate how powerful your actions of removing status symbols can be. When we met with Professor Isaac Getz, writer of the book Freedom Inc., he preached about getting rid of status symbols and privileges in a step by step approach. To him there should not be any imbalance in empowerment or special privileges for the leaders or bosses: "Everyone in the organization should be treated with similar rights and privileges. It will lead to more trust, initiative and engagement within the organization." 

Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis, once famously said: "Once you’re in charge, remove everything you didn’t like as a subordinate and implement what you missed." Because don't forget that often workplace privileges are invisible for those who have it. But if you are a leader and if you are ready to remove such symbols, you can start with one or more of the following:

  • luxurious corner offices,
  • reserved parking spots,
  • fancy job titles,
  • director-only restaurants,
  • director-only meeting rooms,
  • reserved top floor.

But even if you're not the top leader in your organization, setting the right example and getting rid of status symbols can create a ripple effect in your organization. If you, for example as a middle manager, are brave enough to let go of your status symbols, others will feel the social pressure to follow your lead. The more colleagues you can convince to join you in your quest to destroy ivory towers, the more peer pressure your will put on those who are not willing to follow at first.

Because, sadly, when it comes to status symbols we might not even see them anymore as unhealthy mechanisms in our organizations. There is a big chance that over time we got too comfortable with them. We easily conform to such social norms and, because they are so widely present, we don't even see them as a problem. But unconsciously, they are shaping the way we feel and act in the workplace.

Think for example of some of the status symbols that have already been removed in the last centuries, such as the cigar smoking director overseeing the factory floor. Or separated lunch rooms; one for managers and one for non-managers. Nowadays, we see them as unhealthy and wrong artifacts of an era that has passed. But not too long ago we also regarded these symbols to be 'normal' and 'part of the way we work'. Hopefully, in some years time, we will look back on the current status symbols and privileges and laugh about them as if they belong to an era long gone!

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