Corporate Anthropology: Michael Henderson at TEDxAuckland

Corporate Anthropology: Michael Henderson at TEDxAuckland


Translator: Catherine Dean
Reviewer: Maria Pericleous So to get us underway,
would you please give a warm welcome to corporate anthropologist,
Michael Henderson. (Applause) (Cheers) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. So I just thought, to start off,
to make it very clear, when I was sitting, the smoke that appeared
behind me wasn’t due to me. (Laughter) I’d hate to go down on my CV,
as the guy that did that on TED. I thought for a moment
they were running out of time and decided to cut speaker number one, “Gas him now!” Still glad to be here. I thought I’d start off with a story
my grandfather told me. This was many years ago,
about a worker in a Russian factory not long after the revolution,
in the new Soviet Union. At the end of every work day, the workers would leave the factory, go down to the gates of the factory, and be stopped by security guards they would be searched to ensure they weren’t taking
any tools or any equipment, or even any of the motherland resources out of the factory. This one particular worker,
used to wheel a wheelbarrow with him, he’d carry his winter coat in there and perhaps a basket
to carry his lunch in. The security guards
everyday would stop him, search under the coat,
make sure it didn’t have any tools in it, and this went on, day after day,
week after week, for years and years. And after four or five years, it was found that this particular worker
had skipped the Soviet Union. Apparently with a very large sum of money. Turned out, he’d been
stealing wheelbarrows. (Laughter) I suspect this happens a lot
with company culture. Company culture wheels in and out
of the building on a daily basis, but no one actually pays attention to it. And traditionally, that didn’t really need
to be an issue in the last century. But I think, this century, it’s something, we need to be
paying attention to in organisations, because people, even what we’re doing today,
playing with ideas, have actually started to contribute
far more to organisations in that way, than perhaps they have ever before. And as an anthropologist,
I find that fascinating. So, the field of corporate anthropology, is literally the discovery
and the search for what is the nature of people
in organisations. I got into corporate anthropology
almost by mistake. I graduated from Auckland University
in anthropology, I highly recommend
their anthropological programs. And on graduation, the professor
gave me some very good advice, he said, “Two things I need
to let you know, Michael. Number one, congratulations, you will
never be bored for the rest of your life. You’re an anthropologist,
we don’t suffer boredom.” “Second thing”, he says,
“you’re unemployable. Good luck with that.” (Laughter) Turned out, he was right on both counts. Difficult to get a job when you say, “Hi, I’m an anthropologist,
where do I start?” So I took off to London,
as we Kiwis do and went on an OE, and decided that I’d better go
and get a “real job,” I think that’s what my mother called it, joined an advertising group in London, and was selling advertising, in that particular market in the 80s. I’d been with the company
for about a month, and suddenly there was called
a “crisis meeting.” I didn’t know what it meant,
maybe the building was burning down. Turned out it was about financial figures
we weren’t doing as well as we could be. This gentlemen came on stage,
a distinguished looking chap, and there was hundreds of us
brought together to sit at his feet. And he was introduced as the CEO. I didn’t know much about business,
“CEO, what’s that?” So I leant across to the person next to me
and said, “What’s a CEO?” They said, “Well duh,
it’s the Chief Executive Officer.” And I just went, “Woah!”
because that first word, as an anthropologist,
captured me of course. (Laughter) So, I went, “Coo.l” I pulled out my little black notebook
and got my pen ready. Two things you should know,
anybody carrying a black notebook, is one of two things,
an anthropologist or a policeman. (Laughter) They both ask the same question, “So, what is it you’re doing here?” Anthropologists do it
with a matter of inquiry. The police are
a little more threatening. I listen to this guy talk about how badly
the organisation was performing, how results hadn’t been
how they should have been, that we needed to lift
our endeavors and our efforts, that times were tough. That we needed to pull together more
and make this thing happen. Now, the interesting thing
about his talk was, he didn’t actually use the words,
but he made it very clear, it was our fault. (Laughter) I thought, “This is interesting.” I’d been there for a month,
and it suddenly clicked, this guy didn’t realise,
that he was head of a cult. Not a culture. Most businesses don’t know
the distinction between those two, how that happens and what it delivers. I wrote that down and thought
“Wow, this is really interesting. He’s got no idea.” The difference being that in a cult, a leader sees greatness in themselves. In a culture, the leader sees greatness in … the people, of course. It was interesting
even from his comments I realised he doesn’t
realise he’s set up a cult. So, a lot of the performance issues
he was blaming everyone else for, in fact, I believe, possibly,
was a reflection of his leadership style. So as a result of that, I took his money,
I did some selling, didn’t do too well, I was too busy with my black notebook
and kept getting warnings, “The sales not right.” I headed to South America
and Africa for a couple of years and went to study the cultures and tribes, that I was interested in
and had a passion for, to learn what they were doing
around culture and leadership. And one of the central revelations
of anthropology is, it’s a little bizarre. You become an anthropologist because you
want to study other tribes and cultures, and a big number of you
putting your hands up saying you’d been there, done that. So, nice to be talking to an audience
full of fellow anthropologists. You go there to study other people and perhaps even reveal
who they truly are. In reality what happens is,
as you’re studying them and spending time with them,
you reveal not who they are, but of course, who you are. You come face to face
with your own prejudices. It can be sexist, it can be political,
it can be racist. That’s not necessarily
a pleasant thing to experience. The more I looked at this, I suddenly realised that in fact, the lessons that are to be learnt
from traditional tribes and cultures, did not need to be shared with these,
they were already okay. It occured to me that the people
that needed these lessons on how to build cultures
and effective leadership, were in fact the tribe
I’d just left in London. That toxic cult environment. It occurred to me
in fact that organisations, are the modern tribes. I experienced that many of us spend
far more hours in our work place, or our education places,
here we are at the school, than potentially we do even in our
national culture or in our ethnic culture. And that perhaps, that’s something
we should be paying attention to. Perhaps that’s giving us some indication
as to what’s going on in society and the way it has been going on. I looked at the history of organisations. Organisations have been
running the world for 400 years now. My question is, “How’s it going?” Rhetorical question. So, I gathered all this, came back, got back to London,
thought, “Hmm,” got another job and started to sit within organisations
and view them as a tribe. So as I said, started to see the CEO,
as the chief, executive officer. Let me explain what that means C, E, and O. The chief is head of culture,
the executive is head of structure, who’s at what position,
with how much power, how much authority. And the officer, clearly military,
the delivery of strategy, if you like. I saw that the chief
actually had three mandates of power, this is not a title or a position
within the business, it’s the three things that the individuals
should be paying attention to. But my experience showed me that
they tended to favour two of those and delegate the other one
to a group called HR. Have you heard of this group, HR? (Audience) Yes. Human Resources. When you use the phrase “human resources” with a traditional tribe,
you can see them pull back a little bit. They don’t like that phrase. It brings up bad memories for them, they have another word
associated with that; it’s called slavery. What’s intriguing is one of the lessons I believe organisations
can learn from traditional cultures is tribes don’t do HR they do RH. In other words they resource humans
for an occupation, they don’t have human resources. Think about that, it sounds like a clever
play on words, doesn’t it? Just nod. It’s actually more than that. It’s a whole mentality. Yes. So resourcing humans,
where would you rather work? Somewhere that resources humans or somewhere that treats people
as human resources? I just wonder if there’s some
opportunities for us to learn here. I’m often questioned,
people go “Yes, yes clever stuff, but is this the latest business trend? Is this what companies are doing
at the moment, looking at culture?” My response to that is clearly no. In fact I’d say, business is just
the latest cultural trend. Culture’s been around, as long as humans
have been processing cognitive thought, and communing together on this planet. Business, in the forum that we,
currently, most of us, operate in, is barely 400 years old. So do you think, maybe there’s some lessons
in traditional cultural experience, that we could draw on and engage from, within our organisations? I started to play with that,
share that with organisations, there’s a couple of things,
some of those lessons we can take from traditional tribes
and apply within organisations, very simple, they’re obvious
when you look at them. I guess that’s one of the benefits
of being an anthropologist. Most people suffer from
a thing called “déjà vu,” have you heard that expression? You feel like you’ve been here before,
had this conversation, often accompanied with goosebumps,
hairs standing up, going, “Oh it’s a bit freaky,”
been here before, had this conversation. Anthropologists don’t suffer from that,
we suffer from “vuja’ de'” that’s actually the reverse,
we’ve been there 100 times, but this is like seeing it
for the first time. Every time I go into an organisation
I’ve been there before, but I always treat it
like a new experience, a new beginning, a fresh mind. Just as we’ve been asked
to clear our minds for this session. What are the lessons that
organisations could learn from tribes if they clear their minds
and see themselves for the first time? The big one, is a thing called engagement. Tribes are famous for doing two things
fundamentally: enabling their people, preparing the next generation
to be able to hunt, fish, make babies, build huts etc. And also engagement, which is making them
proud to be who they are. Finding their place to stand,
the Tūrangawaewae of the people, actually defining who you are
through historical text and stories and symbolism. Here’s the intriguing thing: Global surveys around the world,
show that in engagement surveys on average, in most modern organisations,
20% of the people are engaged, 80% are either sitting on the fence
or are clearly disengaged. What we mean by engaged,
is three things: they’re willing to stay
with your organisation; to speak positively about the organisation
which given the social network forums that we have available to us nowadays,
crucial comment, you bad mouth your company
to millions of people on the Internet, it effects things like your reputation
and your brand etc; the other thing was to strive
for your organisation. Imagine if an organisation
has low levels of engagement, people aren’t willing to stay,
to speak positively about it, or strive on behalf of it, what do you think that
does to productivity, customer service and job fulfilment? And yet all round the world,
we have 80% of the workers, and I’m talking about millions of people,
are not fully engaged in the work they do. Those numbers may sound familiar
if you’re in business, have you heard of 20-80,
the Pareto theory? The theory being that 20% of your people
deliver 80% of your results on average. I’m not saying there’s
a correlation between those figures but isn’t that interesting? 20% are engaged and they happen to
be generating 80% of the results. Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve travelled extensively, I think
I won that prize for countries visited, over 70 looking at cultures and tribes, so if a chocolate fish is up for grabs
put my name down for it. I found that no tribe
that I’ve ever come across that runs engagement surveys. Why would they? They’re in contact with the people, know what’s going on,
they don’t need a survey for feedback. It’s in dialogue, in everyday expression, brought to the table at every meeting. They’re paying attention to,
truly listening to each other, as tribe members. We don’t do that in organisations. I often suggest that leadership
in modern organisations has become an email sort. In tribes, it’s a contact sport. Again it sounds like
a clever play on words but some real differences
show up when you do that, and lessons potentially
to be learnt from that. The other thing about engagement
in traditional tribes is it’s not 20% of the people
delivering 80% of the results, it’s 80% of the people
delivering 100% of the results. The 20% that aren’t involved
in delivering those results are either too young and still learning, being brought up as tribe members,
learning the traditions, the skill sets required to make them
contributing tribe members, or they’re too old, so their responsibility
then is more a mentor role, passing on the traditions
and the stories of the old times to the next generation. Which in our western societies
seems to have drifted away, doesn’t it? We tend to, when we they get too old,
we stick them in a retirment home and go and visit them every second month
if we’ve got the time, or is that just what happens in my family? (Laughter) It’s interesting, yes? They embrace them. So even this whole
Gen Y thing in the workplace, Gen Ys have to have their managers
taught how to manage a Gen Y generation. What is intriguing is, how come no one’s teaching the Gen Ys
how to respect the older generations? Respect the wisdom that has come before. As you would do in a tribe. Bizarre, don’t you think? What else can we learn? I guess one of the things I’m big on, is
something around dignity in the workplace. You see, the thing I find
in traditional tribes, it doesn’t matter who you are, what your role is,
or how old you are, it doesn’t even, often, not always,
matter what gender you are, you are provided with instant dignity,
instant respect is afforded to you. And in southern Africa,
they have a word called “Ubuntu.” “Ubuntu” meaning a person
is a person because of the people. So a manager is only a manager
because they have people to manage. Sales teams are only sales teams
because they have people to sell to, they have accountants
that process the numbers, a manufacturing department
that manufactures products, researches and develops those products,
imports those products in the first place. It makes sense, doesn’t it? That who we are and what we do
is absolutely because the world we live in dependant on our ability to function well
with others, to serve with others. So this ubuntu is acceptable in tribes. And yet in businesses it’s often missing. I know it would never apply
to the schools or businesses that you people belong to, but have you heard of organisations, where they have silo mentality,
one department at war with the other? Have you heard about that? It’s just bizarre, because that
never occurs in a tribe. And it’s interesting,
the way leadership responds to this, one of the key areas, that there’s an
opportunity as well as the leadership role in organisations and tribes are two
fundamentaly different things. Do this … A little exercise for you,
for just a moment. Take a moment, in your mind, picture
the structure of a typical organisation. It could be the school we’re at today, a modern business,
a government department, if you were going to draw
a symbol to represent the structure of that organisation,
what would it look like? You got that? Now, picture within that where
would you typically position leadership? Hold that for a moment,
you’ve got a structure and a position. Now, even if you’ve never been
to a traditional tribe, think about the structure
of a traditional tribe, what shape would you choose for that? Picture that in your mind. Then think about where
would you position leadership within a traditional culture. Here’s a question for you: How many, for the first one
went for something like a triangle, hierarchical, with leadership at the top? Show of hands. Yes, so we’ve all been
indoctrinated through that, yes? And traditional tribes, how many of you
did a more flat maybe even circular shape as the symbol that came up,
and where was leadership? In the middle, yes, centered. And so this is a huge insight into why
tribes are able to sustain culture, our neighbours in Australia,
we know from the artefacts alone, traditional culture there
is a minimum of 30,000 years old. So, here we are, modern society,
talking about sustainability, we have experts across the channel
we could be learning from. Likewise in this country. Some of the wisdom
contained on the Marae here, is what we should be paying attention to. The ability to be in amongst
the people as an equal, listen and pay attention to one another,
is incredibly powerful and offers an opportunity to do,
not only learning and sharing, which of course is crucial,
it’s why we’re all here today at TED. More importantly, it offers us
the opportunity to share that dignity, to pass that respect
back to different people. Even the language, I often refer
to language within organisations, and with any culture,
language is the bloodline of culture. If you want to gauge how well a company
or a traditional culture is going, you listen to the language. It gives you clues as to what’s going on. I was doing some work where an organisation
asked me to do exactly that. I spent a few weeks floating around jobs doing whatever it took
to listen to the language. Interestingly, the most commonly spoken word in that
organisation began with the letter “F.” It wasn’t football. (Laughter) Yet interestingly enough, when you went into the reception area
they had the values on the wall there, of integrity, teamwork, sharing and trust. Which do you think
is believable and real? The language people are speaking, or the proclaimed values? The difference between
tribe and organisation is a tribe lives the values
lived on a daily basis, organisations typically have executives
that go off on a thing called a retreat. As an anthropologist it’s fascinating that businesses go on a retreat
and not an advance, but that’s what they choose
to do and call it. They create a set of values, come back and they have the audacity
to stand up in front of their tribe and announce the tribe’s values
to their own people. “We, your esteemed leaders,
have come up with a set of values. They are integrity
and team work and respect. And we will honour these values
and we will fight for them. In the workplaces and in the cafeteria
and in the carpark. We will never surrender
our commitment to these values.” It used to work well in the last century, but nowadays that’s
a bit like a Tui (beer) ad. (Laughter) The audience sits there,
they don’t hear values, what they hear is violations. They hear you go, “Integrity”: “Really? Weren’t you having
an affair with the secretary?” (Laughter) So, culture’s started to position itself
in such a way within businesses, that I even inform
a lot of my clients now, that it’s possibly their strongest
form of competition. They’re threatened by
their own competition more than the physical competition
in the market place. I started to pay attention to this
once Enron Arthur Andersen and Co started to fall apart at the seams. Here’s the interesting thing: Enron’s competition didn’t
put them out of business. Enron’s culture did. And Enron’s leadership
of that culture more specifically. I’ve seen this time and time again. We are failing at culture
in organisations. And yet we have the innate ability
for that just not to happen. It’s a natural way of being human. Birds flock, fish school, humans tribe. We know how to do this, it’s very simple. I guess to wrap this up, one of the key things I’m interested
in paying attention to is two dynamic forces
I see play out in many organisations. This can be government departments,
churches, schools, or organisations. And that is the dynamic forces
of relationship versus result. If you don’t pay attention
to those two in your organisation, there’s some bizarre stuff
that starts to happen. We talk a lot with our organisations
to pay attention to those two. To get a result, what happens
to the relationships? Is there a relationship between
relationship and results? Do people need to get on
to deliver the results? If there is, you better pay attention, you better take culture seriously. You better start to get tribal. I guess the best story
I can share with you on this that really massaged the point home for me
was actually our own children, my wife and I, this was
about a year or so ago, we heard our daughter and son fighting
over the TV remote in the room next door which normally means trouble, we were debating who was
going to go and play United Nations and rescue them. It was getting pretty intense. And then suddenly, it went silent. And that terrified us, because when it goes silent,
we realised someone was dead. (Laughter) So we both stood up in panic,
and ran into the room and came accross a bizarre situation. Daughter and son, standing there
just looking at each other. My daughter looked a bit upset. Oh, here we go, what’s happened now? And I say “Guys, what happened?” My son turned round and says,
“Dad, I waved the white flag”. I said “You what?” “I waved the white flag.” He’d overheard us talking about
some work that we’d done about results versus relationships. Waving the white flag,
what that means is – and this is how he put it –
“I was just thinking Dad, I’m bigger and older than her, I could easily get that remote
and demand it off her. But I realised this is my sister, I have to grow up with this girl
for the rest of my life, the relationship is more important
than the result right now.” Wave the white flag. Interestingly he also said, “Besides, I need to borrow
pocket money off her on Saturday.” (Laughter) So in reality, there’s a result
in there as well. So, parting words for you, what I’d like to leave you with, is the opportunity to explore
in your own lives and tribe be that your own family, the organisations
you work for and belong to. Have a look and measure yourself in terms of how you relate to others
and the results you strive for. Are you jeopardizing relationships that maybe deserve more dignity than that? And can you find the courage to consider
maybe waving your white flag, surrendering your position,
your opportunity to win, for that relationship? I believe that’s a great idea,
worth doing. Thank you very much. (Applause) Fantastic.

8 thoughts on “Corporate Anthropology: Michael Henderson at TEDxAuckland

  1. This was my favourite talk when I was at the live event.
    Probably because it was so relevant to what I see in my day job.

  2. Great talk. I really liked the shapes activity on organisations and where the CEO sits vs a tribe and where the chief sits.

  3. how can an Anthropologist compare general traditional tribes findings on general organizations? completely out of what Anthropology is about, what is a traditional culture? where, how? which traces are common and how commonality works in that particular context? This is a science that should not create and propagate notions of cultural generalization.​

  4. Awesome piece 👍🏾mispronunciation around 14:00 SAs say UBUNTU..sharing=humanity, I am coz we are
    Totally intrested in Anthro programs at AU 😁👌🏾

  5. I've been a part of an organization for almost 20 years now, and as I move through different areas of the organization I can see a HUGE contrast. The distinction between those areas ran more like a cult, and those ran more like a culture, can be seen in the (just like Mr. Henderson said) the language of the people. There are areas where people will tell you how happy they are to come to work (and they usually say things like "It doesn't feel like work." or "I'm getting paid to do what I love."), they understand how important they are to the team, and then in other areas, the way people describe their position makes it sound like they feel more like a number than a person, like they can be easily replaced, like their passion is gone, and if they had a way out that wouldn't cost them to sacrifice their livelihood they would take it without thinking twice. We have to do better.

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