If you do not look up, you will find it hard to navigate your way through a dark forest with only a compass. While the compass will steer you broadly in the right direction, it will not tell you about the trees in your path. I love this elegantly simple illustration from Gillian Tett, Editor at Large of The Financial Times on the importance of lateral vision, a skill that has long been part of the anthropologist’s way. We have developed amazing tools, big data sets, and models that are defined by what we put in. But when our context is rapidly changing, models may not work as well.
What can work, are the tools of the somewhat anti-establishment or renegade anthropology profession. Anthropologists study the silences, they look at how we as humans make sense of the world around us. Anthropology can help us to build back better after the pandemic, says Tett.
“Anthropology makes the familiar seem unfamiliar and vice versa, giving us badly needed three-dimensional perspective in a world where many executives are plagued by tunnel vision, especially in fields like finance and technology.” – Gillian Tett
Anthropology is dedicated to making the strange, familiar. This means you look at people who are different from you and they could be on the other side of the world, but they can also be in your neighbourhood, or in the next department at work. Taking time to see what is ‘weird’ for you, external to you, helps to develop empathy. Empathising with ‘the strange’ grows our sense of what makes humans tick. Then, we can flip the lens back to ourselves, and think about what our own weird is. Shedding light on your quirks and flaws allows you to work on them. Tett gives us another beautiful metaphor here – she says “A fish can’t see water.”
Making the familiar strange, developing empathy for others, and giving yourself a clearer sight of your own community – all of these things help us to think about people and their human behaviours, beyond our models. We can start to see the ‘social silences’. We are not as rational and linear as we think. Let’s look practically at how this might be relevant for us right now.
It may seem that we use logic, planning, plotting, discussing, and rejecting to do our best work. But as it turns out, humans also absorb and rely on many non-verbal cues and signals in their sense-making process. We are constantly reading the environment, navigating through trial and error. Offices are the ‘sense-making’ vehicles for us, where we can swap embodied non-verbal cures, read the room, and as a group, process and think. (This is the reason that trading floors are in place for banks. Working from home for bankers produces lower performance.) What’s the saying – a chance encounter is worth a thousand meetings?
Smaller teams with higher levels of social capital tend to do well when working remotely, as they have invested in building the bonds of trust and loyalty that define high social capital. For those large and dispersed teams with little or no social capital, virtual work or work from home is not replicated as easily. Perhaps the social silence here is that the small and natural human behaviours count. Just as much as logic and process and models, if not more so.
Having personally worked with senior teams in the run-up and some way into the world pandemic (when we well went remote), I have seen a stark difference in the psychological well-being and overall resilience of the business. Those investing actively in their people and the quality of human interaction are faring much better two years down the line. They are not placing bandaids on widespread burnout as the world pandemic shows signs of abating. They are gearing up for the opportunities they are in a position to pick up, but also others they have discovered along the way through their connected, committed and supported journey.
Anthropology makes you look differently at the world. Let’s take another example. Many tech companies have set up a grandscale barter system where we swap data for services – eyeballs for personal content. Economists assume barter is an outdated and ancient practice. Barter has not only survived, it is flourishing and drives huge economic value. Tech has made barter between services and data super-efficient. Many of us are simply unaware that we are engaged in these transactions. We give up our data in ways we do not understand and as a result, we are not haggling about the trade or its terms.
‘We talk about free, and getting free services, in the absence of money. Yet we live in a culture that is obsessed with money. People avert their eyes to free. People are ignoring a very important set of transactions that define tech and which shape the economy, which create anti-trust questions that need to be discussed.’ – Tett
If we don’t like the terms of the trade, we should be able to go elsewhere with our data. But how can we reset the terms of trade to make it fairer, increase transparency and take control, how do we champion data portability, for example, if we don’t talk about what is really going on, the social silence?
Anthropologists illuminate the world.
3 Skills for leaders, then, taken from the discipline of anthropology:
- See the weird external to you. Why? It helps to develop empathy as a leader
- See the weird in you, flip the lens back at you, with humility. Why? It shows up your own quirks and flaws so you can work on them.
- Look for the Social Silences – what is not spoken about. Why? This often points to critical issues we must talk more about.
Do you hold an important truth that few people agree upon? Perhaps it is time to talk about it.
Listen to the Outside Lens Podcast Anthro-Vision: Shifting the Perspectives on Life and Business, where Mark Bidwell interviews Gillian Tett, Chair of the Editorial Board in the US for The Financial Times, and talks about her book “Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Life and Business.”
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