My Weird, Wise College Friend (and Why We Should all Be Anthropologists)

My best friend at college decided to become an anthropologist. And I have to admit I thought she was weird. Not exotic weird, just weird. (Which is saying something from an African History major.) But, seriously, an anthropologist? It felt so National Geographic to me. Could the concept even exist outside the heated confines of the local coffee shop? Where were the jobs for anthropologists? What was their purpose other than to introduce us to people and cultures that probably wanted to be left alone?

But, you know what, maybe girlfriend was on to something? Maybe I should have ditched African history for anthropology, equipped myself with a degree in human behavior? Because over the course of twenty plus years focusing on social and organizational change – on how to get humans to behave differently – I’ve so often wished I had a little more learning to back me up.

Truth is, I’ve spent my career as an armchair anthropologist, trying to figure out why people do what they do. And I still don’t have the answers.

Except for one answer. One essential Fact that I absolutely hold to be True: becoming keen observers of human behavior – our behavior and that of the people around us – is the single greatest foundational skill for leading, managing, being a good team player, a good change maker. For being a good human at work.

Come to think of it, maybe we should all be anthropologists?

Tuning Up Your Awareness

Good news is that it’s not too late. Probably too late to get a degree, yes, but you can tune up your inner anthropologist if you want to function better in your workplace. If you want to flourish in that Me, Me + You, Us continuum that I described last week; or if you want to chunk out the concept of Discipline into some perfectly do-able behaviors.

I imagine I have antennae attached to my head. Seriously, I do! Maybe it’s some peculiar facilitatory/change agenty quirk, but I’ll own that. Yes, I actually imagine that I have the physical capability to pick up signals – mine and others – indicating feelings and beliefs; that I can sense the rich emotional life that exists beyond our shared exteriors.

I will myself to be highly attuned. And I lean into it.

Which often just involves pausing to consider the potential reasons behind an action or reaction, just asking a question of someone when I could otherwise walk away and form my own conclusions about them.

For me, practicing anthropology – or the study of my fellow humans – revolves around four different “tasks”, which are essentially a set of deliberate, but very basic, behaviors:

Think (Switch on your Curiosity)

Yes, observing behavior does require a degree of thought. Let’s call it being thought-full. Not in terms of remembering birthdays, but by actively, mindfully considering people’s behavior patterns, their choices. What their script is and your place in it. Not because you have to understand or agree with those choices, but because you’ve got to work with or around them. You don’t have to necessarily care for your colleagues, but you’ve got to care about how they impact you. So think about your workplace, like a visiting anthropologist would. Try understanding it better, so that you can affect it more profoundly.

Notice (Switch on your Self Awareness)

Yes notice yourself at the next meeting, on the Skype call, walking into the office, bumping into someone getting coffee. How do you carry yourself? When do you smile? What aggravates or pleases you? Who aggravates or pleases you? Exercising awareness is the critical first step in exercising control. And learning to manage your own behavior is the first step in trying to influence others. So see self-awareness as your own private superpower; amp up those antennae and point them at your heart!

Spot (Switch on your Empathy)

Now take all of that awareness you’ve directed inwards, and shine it out. Particularly at the people closest to you: your boss, your partner, your assistant, your colleagues. Your crew. You need them if you’re going to shine in your role, so get to know them. Again, not boyfriends or birthdays. Know their stories, and your place in it.   Consider it the unwritten part of your job description.

Try (Switch on your Courage)

Now comes the hard part: actually behaving differently. Yes, I mean you behaving differently. All of that thought and awareness is pointless if it doesn’t lead to new and better relationships and ways of engaging. It doesn’t have to be a resolution or a regime – just tiny experiments in change, micro-investments in a better tomorrow.   Say yes when you usually say no. (Or no if you say yes) Stop looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. Book a lunch with your assistant. Share a little bit more of your story. Create cracks for new light to come in.

Does this sound exhausting? Are you screaming at me: I can’t be anthropologist and an account manager or a product designer or a doctor! Well I think you can. OK, so the antenna feel a little awkward at first, and maybe you’ll finish the first few days with a headache. But once they’re really working – sending out powerful signals in all directions – you won’t even know that they’re there. But your colleagues will.

Written by Jillian Reilly