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Employee engagement – what’s anthropology got to do with it?

“You’re a – what?!” - The response I often get when I tell people that I’m an anthropologist is: “do you dig up dinosaurs?” Yet, there are many corporate anthropologists out there and we have a lot to offer the business world. So, I thought I’d explain a bit about what corporate anthropology is and why it is such a useful tool for implementing employee engagement.

Any kind of anthropological endeavour involves looking at what people say and do in order to unearth the values that drive their culture.

Traditionally, the goal was to learn from, but not affect, the people being studied. Corporate anthropology works differently; the goal is to use findings to improve the business. Not coincidentally, in our aim to improve business, we’re very interested in employee engagement.

Culture, Employee Engagement and Anthropology

Why is the idea of culture such a useful tool for the workplace? Last year, the government commissioned a report on employee engagement, the MacLeod Report. Several of its findings were striking. First of all, the authors suggested that engagement is intrinsically linked to productivity. If engagement seems too politically correct of an idea, or too woolly, consider this: in 2008, Gallup suggested that disengagement resulted in a loss to the economy of between £59.4 billion and £64.7 billion (p 17). This is just in the UK.

Having shown the importance of engagement in the workplace, they then went on to establish some of the drivers. One of these drivers of engagement was having a robust organisational culture.

If culture is so important to the well-being and success of the workplace, then anthropology – which after all, is the study of culture – is perfectly placed to contribute towards understanding and improving the workplace.

Every organisation has a culture, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, purposefully or unintentionally built. One goal of the corporate anthropologist is to understand that culture, based on qualitative and quantitative analysis, and then align it with corporate strategy, whilst engaging staff and management. Since culture is really an amalgam of values, we have to use the external clues in the workplace to work out those values.

I usually work with the following definition of culture: culture is a shared and learned set of core values, which provide us with our roles as members in that culture, and rules for how to behave.

What exactly do we do?

So the job of the corporate anthropologist is in part collecting and analysing data and in part it’s about analysing the data to find trends, and then interpreting the data and presenting it in a way that will get people on board.

That last bit – getting people on board – is perhaps the most important thing that anthropology can contribute to improving the corporate environment. A major part of our role is centred on presenting our interpretation of workplace behaviours and rules in an engaging and accessible way that will help embed cultural change. If you want to translate this into HR terminology, a lot of what we do is learning and development.

Case Study

I was called in to do a training session for a small British company, which had been acquired by a large American bank. I had people from both groups in the room that day, and both simmered with resentment. The staff from the American bank could not understand the presence of a pool table and plasma television in the staff room. These artefacts suggested to them that people must have not been working very hard at all. The employees from the small British organisation, on the other hand couldn’t understand why the Americans were so arrogant (one outraged woman said, “they sign their emails with their full names! Including their middle initials!”). Each group had misread the clues provided by the others’ behaviours, and come to the wrong conclusions about their corporate values.

Luckily, the topic we were exploring that day was diversity, one aspect of which was how culture differs in large organisations as compared to small ones. We discussed the values important to each group, and people soon realised that their analyses had been incorrect. That was the “aha” moment. Now understanding that each company encouraged specific behaviours that would help them run well (personal relationships in the first instance; formality and structure in the second), they could see those behaviours in a different light.

Strengthening Organisational Culture

In short, corporate anthropology has a lot to offer. Our systematic methodologies mean that we can ensure that data collection will be logical and connected to cultural values, so that trends will be identified consistently again and again. We can use this solid groundwork of data and analysis to provide compelling training, including identifying learning needs, so that aiming to understand is embedded in the very culture of the organisation. And all this adds up to a robust culture – one of the main drivers of employee engagement, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article!

Want to find out more? Ask me questions!

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