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Employee Engagement and Anthropology: A Dialogue with Jasmine Gartner

An Engaging Dialogue on Anthropology and Employee Engagement

It was my pleasure to share a dialogue with Jasmine Gartner on employee engagement. Here are a few of the snippets that stand out in my mind:

dozens of drivers, which can be really confusing because if every employer has to start thinking about dozens of drivers they’ll never get their work done, let alone engage people. So, I think what anthropology does is say all right, OK, well what are the core values, what are the things that unite this culture?

You have to have a really good structure in place to uphold a big company

We’re sort of like the mediator, or you know I’ll come in and look at the different kinds of cultures and try and figure out first of all, why people aren’t getting along, you know, and then be able to point that out and help them see it from a different side.

Objectively, what could we say that will apply in every situation, and one of the things we said was culture. So, in other words, if what you say are your values, in other words in your mission statement or your vision statement, and what you do are consistent, then people will plug in to it.

What you’re looking for, again, is patterns of behavior that you can systematize, so even though engagement might look slightly different in every workplace – it will look different in many workplaces, there are some patterns that are the same everywhere.

My apologies for the low volume on Jasmine’s voice. I encourage you to read the transcript as you listen.

If the video does not open in this window, click here.

Employee Engagement Conversation Jasmine Gartner from David Zinger on Vimeo.

David Zinger: Hello, this is David Zinger, and we’re about to embark on a brief dialogue on engagement with Jasmine Gartner who’s a cultural anthropologist, or corporate anthropologist I should say. We’re going to spend about 15 minutes looking at her background. I became fascinated about her work as I came across a blog post she wrote on the topic. Jasmine, welcome to the dialogue. [00:32]

Jasmine Gartner: Thank you, hi. [00:33]

David Zinger: Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and anthropology and engagement, how do those two things fit together? [00:42]

Jasmine Gartner: OK, good question. My background is like you said, it’s in cultural anthropology. The way it started to come about was that I was in academia for a long time, but I was really interested in getting out there and actually taking ideas and making them practical, and so a lot of the ideas that I looked at in anthropology I then used when I started teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where I taught cross-cultural studies for international business majors, and that meant that you really had to make ideas practical, because these were people in business who are going out there and trying to do well in the world and you couldn’t let them down. So, that was sort of where the seed started, and then through teaching as well I was always really interested in getting my students onboard, having them engage with the material, and really be interested in it, and that’s sort of where it stemmed from, because then in the workplace I know it was the same thing; it was really a question of how do you get people to fully engage with the work, with the people around them, and so on? So, that’s kind of where it came from. [01:52]

David Zinger: OK, so that’s the million dollar question or billion dollar question depending on who you talk to – how to get people engaged. Just, you know, before we launch on employees and corporations, what engages you most in your work? [02:07]

Jasmine Gartner: Two things; I would say it’s the subject matter, you know, absolutely if there’s really good meaty ideas and a lot to work through, that will engage me, but I’d say more importantly than that it’s people. You know at this point in my life all the people that I work with, because I have various partners, the relationships are the most important thing, it really is. I think it comes back to, I think it was Marcus Buckingham in First Break All the Rules stated people don’t leave their workplaces, they leave their bosses or the managers, and I would say that’s absolutely true with me; if I’m not working with somebody where not only do we get along, but we can make the work go further than either of us could by ourselves, then that’s what will make me stay. [02:53]

David Zinger: So, then the relationship, and as we’ll get to it in a few minutes, the culture; kind of background of your study is really also what engages you in your own work? [03:04]

Jasmine Gartner: Absolutely, yeah, that’s definitely true; it’s got to have a good culture. [03:09]

David Zinger: And I came across your work with this first blog post, maybe I saw it off a Twitter or somewhere – Employee Engagement – What’s Anthropology Got to do With It? And you got my attention with the question because you know psychologist race into this field, HR races into this field, organizational theorist’s race into this field, and then all of the sudden anthropology. [03:33]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah, because a lot of people, I think it’s true, will say oh, like I said in my post, do you pick up dinosaurs? You know, but that’s not really what we do; we study culture, and I think if you look at the definition of culture, you know, which I think is the shared and learned values that groups have that then define their roles and the rules that they have, and their behaviors, it makes perfect sense in the workplace that that’s exactly what you’re looking for is that culture, and that if you’ve got a consistent, cohesive culture, people will be able to plug-in to it. If it’s not consistent, if it’s not cohesive, if they can sense hypocrisy in it, then they won’t plug in to it and people will disengage. [04:14]

David Zinger: OK. There was a theorist Count Korzybski in 1933 once said the map is not the territory, and so there’s many maps we can bring over, organizations, and engagement, and what are the things that anthropology offers on a map to look at the workplace; what things start to show up and what kind of things do we see, Jasmine? [04:36]

Jasmine Gartner: I think what you start to see is systems of behavior so that you can… You know a lot of the times if you look at what people say employee engagement is they will throw out, you know, dozens of drivers, which can be really confusing because if every employer has to start thinking about dozens of drivers they’ll never get their work done, let alone engage people. So, I think what anthropology does is say all right, OK, well what are the core values, what are the things that unite this culture? You know, in other words if you were to go into a workplace and they say, you know, openness is really important to us, and then you walk around and the data you’re gathering is oh, there’s lots of closed doors, people are kind of huddling, and acting secretive, then you say OK, you know what, the culture that you’re saying you have is completely different to what the real culture is, because that’s what we’re picking up by reading behaviors, and we’re looking for a consistency. So, it’s not just one person who’s doing it, but how the whole group behaves is what we’re looking for. [05:37]

David Zinger: So, you’re looking at that, and then in the blog post you have a little discussion – when two cultures come together in a banking industry and one group has a pool table in the room and the other signs her emails with her full names…[05:53]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah. [05:53]

David Zinger: Can you just talk about that example, because it really stood out in my mind. [05:57]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah, that’s a really interesting example. When I wrote my thesis for my PhD I looked at a sociologist called Ferdinand Tonnies who’s writing in the early 20th century, and he was looking at how groups change, and the smaller the group, or when you have a small group there’s completely different rules to when you have a big group; small groups are absolutely based on relationships, big groups are based on structure. You have to have a really good structure in place to uphold a big company, and so what happened there was you had this big American bank which had taken over this small British company, and the small British company was all about relationships, it really was, and in order to cement those relationships and keep them going there were things like a pool table, or you know, in their recreational room they had plants all over the place, they didn’t have cubicles, it was really easy for people to move around and engage each other. Whereas at the big American bank it was very much, you know, cubicles, and people didn’t talk to each other, and there was no entertainment, you know, you took your 20 minute lunch and that was it, or your lunch at your table, and so each group coming from their different cultures looked at the other one and judged them through their own lens. You know, so if you’re coming from a big bank which says if we don’t have this hierarchy in place then things won’t get done, then when you look at something that looks really ambiguous, you know, when are people doing their work if they’re playing pool, that sort of thing, then to them that just looks like chaos, and so they judge it and they think you’re not doing any work and you’re just, you know, playing around, and the small group as well; they looked at this big culture and thought when do you get a chance to talk to other people, and if you don’t know other people how do you know who you can rely on, how do you know who’s going to back you up? So, they just thought you’re too, you know, you’re arrogant, you’re informal, you’re not paying attention to what’s really happening, and so it was sort of when they were able to look at each other through a different lens that they had that aha moment where they said oh, actually what you’re doing makes perfect sense in your culture. [07:58]

David Zinger: So, that’s part of what you do with corporate anthropology; you’re not just looking at it and analyzing it, but you’re helping people make connections, or come together, engage, or create some understanding of how that culture may be different? [08:12]

Jasmine Gartner: Absolutely. We’re sort of like the mediator, or you know I’ll come in and look at the different kinds of cultures and try and figure out first of all, why people aren’t getting along, you know, and then be able to point that out and help them see it from a different side. But yeah, absolutely, it’s not just about analyzing it; it’s definitely about going and talking to people, again building the relationships and helping them build relationships. [08:36]

David Zinger: So, in the MacLeod Report, culture was really one of the drivers of engagement, and in this slide we have up on the screen right now we have cultural building blocks, and there’s three elements that come forward. First, if you’re looking at the slide, robust and clear. Can you just briefly talk about that? [08:55]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah, so basically what happened with the MacLeod Report is that all the research that we did, you know, previous to that report coming out showed that, again, if you look at here in the UK; I’ll use that as an example because that’s what I’m familiar with. If you look at the Sunday Times it has a list, it’s the best companies to work for, it comes out once a year, and if you look at various things on the internet, articles and so on, like I said earlier, you’ll see all these drivers, you know, so that people will say oh, well you have to have time for your family, maybe it’s maternity leave, maybe it’s about parking, maybe it’s about, you know, just all of these things that are very individual. And what we thought instead was, you know, actually you have to take a step back and think it’s not all of those drivers – those are too individual, too subjective, too open to interpretation. Objectively, what could we say that will apply in every situation, and one of the things we said was culture. So, in other words, if what you say are your values, in other words in your mission statement or your vision statement, and what you do are consistent, then people will plug in to it. If they see a mismatch, like the example I gave before where you’re saying oh yeah, we’re absolutely open, or we put our people first, but your behaviors say something different, you’ll lose them. So, having a robust culture, in other words where there’s a 1:1 correlation between what you say and what you do has to be the first building block. [10:25]

David Zinger: One of the people, I know Mike Morrison, who used to be the dean of Toyota University, wrote a book called The Other Side of the Business Card, and one element of the book that’s always stuck with me is he said we need to rethink of our values as promises. You know, it seems to me like values are something you put on a wall, promises are something we keep, and it’s always stuck with me that unless we turn those values into promises, they’re just kind of statements on the wall. [10:49]

Jasmine Gartner: Absolutely. I think that’s a good way of putting it, definitely. [10:53]

David Zinger: So, the second building block, Jasmine? [10:56]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah, so the second one is leadership, and what we thought there was OK, well what follows on from culture, you know, and in terms of leadership it can’t… Again, I think if you were to look around you could find hundreds of articles about what leadership is, and the truth is that it’s got to come out of your culture. So, again you have to build on what you have, and leadership has to come from that, and it has to be, again, consistent with your culture. So, even the example I gave before where you have a small group and a large group, leadership will be different in those two organizations because one is much more hierarchical, so you expect a lot more from leaders. The other one which is smaller, there’s not as much of a hierarchy; leadership becomes a much different kind of term. [11:44]

David Zinger: And as you were talking, I dropped in the final building block. Can you bring the package together? [11:52]

Jasmine Gartner: Yeah, so this is the how-to, if you will, you know it’s one thing to say there should be a 1:1 correlation between what you say and what you do. The million dollar question I think is well how do you do that, and it comes down to effective communication, in other words it’s got to be two-way, and if you want your employees to be onboard with what you’re doing, you also have to involve them in it, and so you have to ask them for, and I know this actually happens probably more here and in Canada than it does in places like the US to some degree, but where you really consult with your staff, you really bring them in on big decisions and little decisions, and listen to what they have to say. You might not necessarily end up taking it onboard, you know, if it doesn’t make sense with your strategy, but you absolutely want to have their voice in there, and so if the other side, you know, on one side you have leadership, and on the other side you’re going to have what the employees are saying, how they’re responding to that, and you have to pay attention to that as well to see if the promises that you’re making, if they’re perceived as being kept. [12:57]

David Zinger: So, engagement really is that connection. It kind of reminds me of a line from the field of positive deviancy that goes never do anything about me without me. [13:06]

Jasmine Gartner: Exactly, yeah, absolutely. I mean the other thing I would say as well is that I think there’s a perception sometimes that employee engagement is something that you do to your employees, you know, and in fact it should be something that you do with them. [13:20]

David Zinger: And with makes all the difference. [13:22]

Jasmine Gartner: It makes all the difference, it really does. [13:24]

David Zinger: So, we have a slightly different diagram of organizational culture. Anything you want to elaborate with this one? [13:32]

Jasmine Gartner: The reason I have this image is usually when we talk about culture in terms of anthropology, it’s unspoken, it’s below that waterline that you see there, and you know when you talk about culture like a national culture, we would say that it’s almost like language; you don’t remember learning your culture, it’s unspoken, it’s passive, and you almost do it without thinking. Whereas in an organization that is turned upside down and the values are on the top, and so it can be a quite precarious situation, because like I said, again if your values don’t match up with your behaviors and the rules that you put out there, people will see it straight away. [14:12]

David Zinger: Yeah. [14:13]

Jasmine Gartner: That’s why I (inaudible). [14:15]

David Zinger: And so anthropology plus engagement equals question mark. People seem to be into making equations out of things. So, if that’s the equation, what’s the answer? [14:28]

Jasmine Gartner: I’d say that it’s anthropology plus engagement is it brings a science to it; it’s going to become more systematic. So, maybe anthropology plus engagement leads to a, you know, a formula that everybody can follow that simplifies it. Maybe you’re looking for a one word answer, I’m not sure I can come up with one, but you’re looking to simplify engagement, or at least that’s what I’m trying to do is make it more accessible to people, as many people as possible. [14:54]

David Zinger: Simplify it, but also with data and a more scientific orientation as opposed to the biases and the things that we might be so prone to? [15:04]

Jasmine Gartner: Exactly. What you’re looking for, again, is patterns of behavior that you can systematize, so even though engagement might look slightly different in every workplace – it will look different in many workplaces, there are some patterns that are the same everywhere. [15:16]

David Zinger: So, I’m not sure we can do this but let’s give it a shot. So, you’re going to teach a manager to be an anthropologist in 30 seconds or so. If I walk into my organization and I had an anthropological viewpoint of what’s going on, what would I be looking for? [15:35]

Jasmine Gartner: I think what you would be looking for is behaviors, because you know you can’t see values. I think that’s what it comes down to; you really cannot see values, it’s there in people’s heads, they’re ideas, they’re, you know, and so you would be reading behaviors. I was just reading an article this morning about, it was a guy saying well, you know as a boss, as a manager you decide well I’m going go into a room and stay the day and go and make contact with people, I’m going to go and chat with them, and you all of the sudden walk through and realize people are laughing as you walk through, often they’re silent. So, it’s behaviors like that that you would want to be watching out for, and then reflects on your leadership, it reflects on the culture that you have there. If they’re still open with you, if they include you, I think that would be one thing that you would look for. So, you analyze behaviors to get at values, and that means in terms of your employees as well, you know, you want to know what they perceive the culture to be. [16:27]

David Zinger: OK, and where you make a difference in corporate anthropology is looking at not just analyzing, not just looking at it, but helping people get onboard and looking at the drivers of robust culture? [16:40]

Jasmine Gartner: Absolutely, I mean that’s the meat of what I do basically. I do a lot of training, I do a lot of work in teaching people how to communicate well, and a lot of that is about looking for those systems of behaviors, those patterns, and then trying to change your own behavior within that to communicate well or to help other people to do so. [17:02]

David Zinger: Well, Jasmine, it’s been just a very short period of time, but what a wonderful, quick snapshot on engagement, and offering us a different lens to look at the workplace. So, if anybody’s watching this, listening to this, I really do encourage them to go to your website and to look at your blog and the areas that you work in. What’s your current work right now; what are you focused on right now these days? [17:27]

Jasmine Gartner: Right now I do a lot of training around information and consultation, which I think you have in Canada as well don’t you? Where you basically go into the workplace and work with staff forums to build up a culture that’s open, that’s robust, where there’s open communication between staff and management about change. [17:47]

David Zinger: Yeah, that seems so vital and so important. I want to really thank you for joining us for the 15-20 minutes that we’ve been together. This is running in conjunction with the Employee Engagement Network, and the recording will be posted up on the network, it will probably be also at my site. Jasmine, you may decide to post the recording at your site, but a number of ways people can have access to the information, and to offer us another lens to look at this vital field of employee engagement and look at how we can make a difference by focusing on the culture. Thank you so much for joining us today. [18:23]

Jasmine Gartner: Thank you for having me. [18:25]

David Zinger: Oh, it’s just been wonderful. Thanks so much. 

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Jasmine Gartner. To learn more about Jasmine’s work I encourage you to visit her site: www.jasminegartner.com.

David Zinger is devoted to helping organizations and individuals fully engage in work to build and sustain successful and meaningful results and relationships. Request his speeches, workshop, or consulting today on the pyramid of employee engagement to engage all of your employees. Mr. Zinger founded and hosts the 4700+ member Employee Engagement Network. Contact David today at zingerdj@gmail.com.

 

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