Hear how anthropology can send your business zooming to the top
I love to read the Financial Times. It provides a very different perspective of the world from our US papers. As I was browsing recently, I came upon a story about Gillian Tett, FT’s US Managing Editor, and her new book, Anthro-Vision. Curious as I am, my question was, What is a journalist doing writing a book about anthropology, and promoting AI (Anthropology Intelligence)? My joyful discovery was that Gillian is an anthropologist who became a journalist, a bit by chance and then by design. Her book is about the power of observation. Whether in Tajikistan as an aspiring anthropologist studying marriage rituals or reporting on a major conference before the financial crisis of 2008, she mastered the art of listening to the stories being told, the resistance to change that people demonstrate, and the wisdom an anthropologist can offer—if only others are willing to listen. As a fellow anthropologist, I am fascinated and I know you will be too. Enjoy.
Watch and listen to our conversation here
As anthropologists, our job is to see what is unseen
Anthropologists love to observe, and by capturing the real lives of people, we offer insights that other data capture methods might complement or even might ignore. We know that people don’t really know what they are doing and often tell you what they think you want to hear. It’s their stories that offer opportunities to better ascertain the meaning of their daily lives and see the patterns that their cultures command.
In Gillian’s book Anthro-Vision, there are wonderful stories about how cell phones have become the way in which kids growing up in the pandemic have built social lives, and why this is probably not going away. There is a great story about Bad Babysitters and how an anthropologist could open up their eyes to why they were messaging incorrectly to potential customers.
She and I spoke at length about the social silence that gives us a view into what people are thinking. You will enjoy listening to her and love her book as I did. Our interview was at times deep and at others filled with humor, as we shared our journeys and who we are, not what we do. You can contact with Gillian onn LinkedIn.
Gillian’s 5 big ways Anthropology Intelligence (AI) could help you:
- Recognize that we are all creatures of our environments.
- Accept that there is no natural cultural frame. As humans, we create this diversity.
- Find ways to immerse ourselves in the minds and lives of others to gain empathy.
- Look at ourselves through the lens of an outsider to see ourselves more clearly.
- Listen to what is not said, that social silence.
To learn more about how we at SAMC apply corporate anthropology to businesses to help them get off the brink and soar, read the first chapter of my book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.
For a deeper dive into anthropology and how it can help your business thrive:
- Blog: Will You Adapt Or Die? How Cultural Anthropology Can Transform Your Business Strategy
- Blog: What is Corporate Anthropology and Why Should I Try It?
- Podcast: Rita Denny—Maybe You Need Anthropology To See Yourself In New Ways
Additional resources for you
- My award-winning second book: Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business
- My award-winning first book: On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights
- Simon Associates Management Consultants
Read the transcript of our podcast here
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink with Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide and my job is to get you off the brink. So I try to find people who are going to give you a fresh perspective, see things through a clear lens.
Let’s just step back and take a moment to be a little anthropological and begin to understand that you really don’t know what’s happening until you pause and think about it differently. And as you know, in my books, I help you see things through the eyes of my clients who all got stuck or stalled because their stories were so great that they couldn’t see all the things that were going on around them. And that’s why a little anthropology can help you change, grow and your companies get unstuck. As you know, I myself am a corporate anthropologist, which is why I’m so excited to bring to you today’s guest.
Today, Gillian Tett is with me. Let me tell you about why she’s so special, and why you’re going to enjoy watching her or listening to her. Listen carefully to the stories she has to tell. Gillian serves as the Chair of the Editorial Board and Editor at Large in the US of the Financial Times. Forgive me for reading this, but it’s very important that you hear it.
She writes weekly columns covering a range of economic, financial, political and social issues. She’s also the co-founder of Financial Times Moral Money, a twice weekly newsletter that tracks the ESG revolution in business and finance, which has since grown to be a staple FT product. In 2020, Moral Money was the SABEW best newsletter. I’ll tell you, it’s a great newsletter. Previously, Gillian was a Financial Times US managing editor. And she’s also served as assistant editor for the Financial Times markets coverage, and a lot of other things of great importance. I love to read theFinancial Times and I bet you do as well.
She’s the author of The Silo Effect, which looks at the global economy and financial system through the lens of cultural anthropology. She’s also authored Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed Catastrophe, a 2009 New York Times bestseller and Financial Book of the Year at the inaugural Spirits Book Awards.
I must tell you she has written really good books. I brought her here today because she has a new book out called Anthro-Vision. And as you might imagine, it touched me and my heart. And I read right through it. I couldn’t stop because it was all about how, what she’s calling AI, not artificial intelligence, but anthropological intelligence, more intelligence and a whole new perspective. And what I would like you to understand is how a little anthropology can, in fact, help you and your business see things through a fresh lens and why it’s so important. Gillian, thank you for joining me today.
Gillian Tett: Well, thank you for interviewing me. And it sounds like we not only have a lot in common, but a lot to learn from each other. I’m interested in your own career and your own story because it sounds fascinating.
Andi Simon: Well, I have enjoyed reading about yours. But I’d like you to tell the listeners or the audience about who Gillian is because you’ve had a great journey that’s taken you to many places. And as an anthropologist, I smiled. Just a little aside, I took my daughters when they were four and five to Greece to study Greek women. And I know you’d appreciate this, I learned a whole lot about the Greek woman through my children. I’m not sure what my children learned, but they still love me. And so that’s all that matters. Tell us about yourself.
Gillian Tett: Anyone who reads my biography would think that I’m thoroughly weird. That has been the reaction of many business leaders, political leaders, economists, grown-ups who pretend to run the world, when they hear about my background because most people who work in high finance or business assume that if you’re going to be a journalist writing about them, you should have a PhD in economics or an MBA, or some kind of training in quantitative intellectual pursuits. And my background is actually in cultural anthropology. And I did a BA and then a PhD at Cambridge University in the UK.
And what anthropology really is about is looking at human cultures and systems, and what makes people and societies tick, not just in terms of the obvious things that we recognize, but most importantly, the things that we tend to ignore around us all the time. Just like psychologists look at our hidden biases in our brains, anthropologists look at our hidden biases and patterns and assumptions in society.
So in my case, I went into anthropology because I was fascinated by the rest of the world. I’ve always loved to explore and travel. And as a child, I dreamed of going to wacky weird places or places that seem weird to me. But like Indiana Jones, if you like the intellectual world, and cultural anthropology pretty much came out of that impetus in Victorian England, the idea that people would go off to other cultures to find the essence of what it meant to be human. And a lot of what anthropologists did in that way mid-century was indeed to go and travel. That’s changed a lot in the 21st century. I’ll come on to that in a moment.
But I went off in my case to a place called Soviet Tajikistan in 1989. And I spent about a year and a half of my life up in the high mountains in Tajikistan living with a group of wonderful villages. I imagine most people listening are saying, I’ve got no idea where Tajikistan is on the map, or what it’s like there. But basically, if you imagine the scenes you might have seen of Afghanistan on the news, and take out the black veils and put on very brightly colored clothes, then you roughly have the idea of what my village was like. It was in the high, high mountains of the Hindu Kush. And I was studying Tajik wedding rituals there. But I wasn’t just studying wedding rituals, I was looking at these rituals and symbols and ceremonies, and all the economic exchanges associated with weddings as a key to try and understand how the Soviet Tajiks reconciled their identities of being Islamic and communist at the same time.
Now, after I did my PhD, I then left Tajikistan. I actually became a journalist, originally a war reporter. And then I joined the FT and became an economics correspondent. And for the first few years, it felt as if all my training in cultural studies was completely irrelevant. But it’s funny how life works. Because a few years after I started writing about finance, I suddenly realized that actually human beings are humans wherever they are. And in just the same way that I went studying Tajikistan wedding rituals in the Hindu Kush, and looked at how they use symbols and ceremonies to express ideas about their world.
To give you an example, two investment bankers get together for gigantic ritualistic ceremonies called investment banking conferences, where they have all kinds of rituals like PowerPoints, and bar meetings, and golf tours. And those rituals and ceremonies and symbols also create social networks, and express all kinds of assumptions which could and should be studied through an anthropologist lens. So the latter part of my career has been all about trying to use this anthropological vision, and apply it to the world of business and finance and economics. And frankly, I think it’s something that anybody could benefit from, particularly now, given that COVID has ripped up our normal lives and has thrown us all into culture shock. And we can all benefit by thinking about what makes us really tick.
Andi Simon: When you think about that, you in your book play out some of the stories in there. You’ve provided us with a broad range of fascinating illustrations of the application of anthropology to different situations. Whether it was to a childcare center that wasn’t doing well, or getting into pet care, or to the economic crisis of 2008 or what happened with Cambridge analytics, give us some illustrations, some case studies that are some of your favorites. The reason I ask is that, as you were describing, I could imagine being in the highlands of Russia.
I took my kids to see what it was like to be a woman in Greece, and I studied the Greek immigrants and they returned to migration. But if you haven’t done that, there’s no way you know what it’s like. And when you do it in modern society, in our businesses, people say, Well, what do you really do? I say, Well, I hang out a lot. And I listen a lot. And I’m looking for all the gaps that are on the sides of what people assume to be true. The only truth is, there’s no truth, I tell people, and then they get really frustrated because it’s all an illusion that we’re living. So some illustrations, some great stories that you enjoy sharing about the ones that really make a difference.
Gillian Tett: Well, one of the problems with anthropology and trying to communicate it in a corporate setting is that the corporate world likes to see things in shades of black and white, and things on PowerPoints. And anthropologists say, well life is grey and subtle and often contradictory. And in reality it is, that’s really the only way to understand situations. But it’s not always easy to boil down into a single chart. But for me, one of the most important moments in my own career was when I realized that actually the same tools I looked at Tajikistan weddings with in terms of analyzing and symbols could and should be applied to investment banking conferences.
I went down to the Mediterranean in 2005 to an event called the European Securitization Board and looked at those rituals as if I was seeing them like an anthropologist. It showed me that the bankers that were engaged in that securitization business back in 2005 had all kinds of assumptions that they were barely aware of themselves which were distorting their vision of finance quite significantly and laying the seeds for the subsequent 2008 financial crisis. So when I looked at the bankers at play in their conference, I can see that they were a tribe set apart with a strong sense of their own identity. And like any social group that has a tight network, that was birthed and being reflected and reproduced in the banking conference.
And they had a creation mythology. You know, every group has a creation mythology. Their creation mythology was that perfectly liquid markets, so called liquefaction of financial markets, was the ultimate perfect gold, the Holy Grail. And they were so addicted to this idea of a perfect free market. So they kind of failed to see all the contradictions in their creation mythology, like the fact that, although they were creating these innovations supposedly to make markets more innovative and more safe and more prone to perfect trading, most of these new products were so complex, they weren’t being traded at all. And they weren’t even able to value them with free market prices. Because it wasn’t at the market prices, they had these models, the tools they were using to disburse risk were actually introducing new risks in the system because they were too complex for people to know where the risks were. And they said that these tools were done entirely to help people. But there were no faces in their PowerPoints. It was all Greek letters that indicated it wasn’t just an accident that there were no faces. And their PowerPoints reflected a mentality that the end user had been kind of screened out of the way they saw finance.
And you can say, well, that’s kind of a pity. But actually, it had a really practical implication because what it meant was that the people creating new financial products were so caught up with the creation process, they couldn’t actually see how the products were being used on the ground at the end of the financial chain. There’s a wonderful scene in the movie, The Big Short, where a hedge fund trader goes and meets a pole dancer in Florida. Great scene. The financier, the hedge fund guy, goes, Holy crap, these people are doing this with subprime mortgages. And it was a real shock. And the thing that was shocking was not the fact that subprime mortgages were being used and abused on the ground, it was the fact that so few financiers could see what the end result was because they were so detached.
So I came back from my conference, having spotted all this in terms of how the bankers were conducting their rituals, and it’s one thing that led me to later warn that there was going to be a financial crisis. And I kept issuing those warnings over and over again. So that’s one example where you can use anthropology tools to look at how a social group is blinkered and has blind spots that don’t see, which can be dangerous.
But in my book, I talk about ways that consumer industry groups can use anthropology to try and understand consumers, to try and understand what really drives fashions and trends to try. And also I’ve talked about how businesses can use anthropologists to see what’s going wrong in their companies. General Motors did that very effectively several times. And you can also use anthropology to understand how other offices really work, or how they don’t work. So almost any sphere of life where people are operating can benefit from some anthropology.
Andi Simon: Often, I’ll take a client with me out to their clients, to go spend a day in the life of their clients. So I’m going to teach you a little anthropology, I say. Let’s go watch and see what’s going on. You sell them solutions that you think are perfect. Let’s watch how they’re actually using them. Because to your point, if I went out and looked and came back, they would delete me. You didn’t hear it, right? You didn’t see it, right? So we go with them. And the two of us watch in the same factory exactly how it’s being used. A sensor that’s actually measuring the color of something or some technology that’s being applied. Then we go out and we write down everything we saw. And the two of us were in two different places at the same time. We were each seeing completely different things.
The conversation that follows is fascinating to me, because they’re still trying to figure out what it was I was looking at and listening to. To your point, this is about listening and seeing and what they were listening to and why they were trying to fit it into their box. Like, you’re a wonderful economist, we’re trying to fit it into their illusion of reality, and what the reality actually was and I might claim as mine in a better reality, but I’m looking for the gaps for you and you’re looking to fit it into your box, which may no longer be the right box anymore. And that’s so important now, coming out of the pandemic The way we used to do things isn’t any longer the way we’re doing it. So people are hiring us to figure out, what do we do now? What’s happening out there? Come watch with us. So as you were putting together your book, I have a hunch each of the stories touched you in some of the same ways.
Gillian Tett: I mean, the power of anthropology, in many ways I would argue, is essentially what you’re doing is trying to engage in a three part journey. And the way I put it, that basically you are trying to simultaneously immerse yourself into the minds and lives of others so that you can understand them better. You’re trying to not just immerse yourself in the mind of others, but really trying and seeing the world through their eyes in a kind of humble, open-minded way and to collide with the unexpected. You’re trying to then use that knowledge to look back at yourself. Because, there’s this wonderful Chinese proverb that a fish can’t see water. None of us can see the assumptions that shaped us unless we periodically jump out of our fishbowl, go with other fish and talk to other fish and then look back at ourselves again with clarity of vision. And then you use that inside-outside perspective. The experience of being a stranger in your own land to not just look at the parts of the world that you talk about, the visible parts, but also the parts of the world that you don’t talk about, or the assumptions that you ignore because they seem boring or geeky or dull or taboo or obvious. And that sort of three-part journey can be really powerful.
An example: General Motors brought in an anthropologist to look at why some of its meetings were going so badly wrong, why some merging initiatives were going so badly wrong. There was an attempt in the latter part of the 20th century to create a sort of joint car between German and American engineers.They tried and tried for about two years to create a joint small car by bringing this team of engineers together. And at the time, they assumed the problem was because of linguistic differences. I know the tendency to think oh, those Germans don’t understand the Americans and Americans didn’t ask the Germans, because that was the obvious difference and distinction that was in everyone’s faces. But some anthropologists observed the group and realized that actually it wasn’t a straight story of German versus American clash. There was a bigger clash between different teams of Americans between Tennessee and Detroit. And because they all had very different cultures in their factories.
And the really interesting thing was they kept calling meetings to try and resolve the problems without realizing that all three different groups had different ideas about what a meeting was and what the whole point of it was. The Germans thought it was basically to rubber stamp a decision that had already been taken and that it was very hierarchical Their meeting didn’t really count as work because work was what you did elsewhere. The Tennessee group thought that a meeting was there to kind of brainstorm and you had to have some kind of collaborative consensus-based system and they thought meetings were work. And the Detroit group had another idea all over again.
So all of the people were coming into that meeting with different expectations, and because they weren’t actually talking to each other in advance, and they weren’t looking at the story behind the story, which is basically what were their different cultures, and what were their expectations of meetings, they kept wrongly describing it as a German-American thing, and it wasn’t. So those patterns played out over and over again in offices.
And it’s really important to think about that now for two reasons. Firstly, most businesses right now are in the grips of radical tech transformation, as automation and digitization takes off. And that’s creating a whole different bunch of cultural clashes, because the way that a group of techies in San Francisco are trained to think about meetings is not the same as say, a group of metal bashers in Detroit. But secondly, COVID and the pandemic and lockdown has challenged all of our ideas about how offices and work and meetings should happen. And we haven’t been together in groups to kind of learn from each other and thrash it out. We’ve all been scattered and isolated.
So within every company, the longer that COVID and lockdown has gone on for, the more you’ve created micro subcultures, who may be totally talking past each other all the time. And often exasperated senior managers who are middle aged, go, Oh, these millennials, they’re so weird. But what about the age gap between different generations? Or maybe just the fact that different subcultures are growing up inside companies as we’re scattered. And as we return hopefully to the office, different cultural patterns will develop all over again, and we need to think about it.
Andi Simon: Well, you’re not Malinowski, and you’re not going off like Margaret Mead to a small island. To some degree, that’s just what’s happened during this pandemic, islands have been created. And as we’re watching them…for example, I have a wonderful client that I’m going on my fifth year with them all in transformation. And they used to give remote work as a benefit to their partners and their employees, until the pandemic hit and everyone went remote. All 70 employees. Now they can’t get them back into the office. And they said, Well, what was valued before as a benefit, it’s now a penalty. And how do you take the same thing: remote work one minute is wonderful and in one minute it’s awful. What are the values that are coming, and the partners are lonely.
And the reason they want them back together is for human companionship. And what’s so interesting for me is to watch the dynamics going on. Because they don’t find a way to articulate what really matters here. It isn’t about having them come back in the office, and that’s not bad, and people decide with feelings. Their logic is, Well, I don’t have to commute for an hour plus, I can get so much work done. Why do I have to be there to have lunch together, we’re not going to do that. I mean, it’s so interesting to watch the head and the hearts here at odds with each other on this island that I’m not quite sure was perfect before. And I’m not quite sure it’s so bad right now, but nobody’s quite sure what we should do to build coming out of it. And I have a hunch this is the proliferation of islands that all of us are watching happen across the country and across different industries. It’s really interesting as an anthropologist to step back and just observe and laugh a little and cry a little bit too.
Gillian Tett: I guess the point that you know very well that you’ve seen in your own kind of work, which is so important, is that we need to talk not just about what people are obviously talking about all the time, that’s in your face, but also we need to always ask ourselves in any context, whether we’re in an office or any other setting, What are we not talking about? What are we missing? What is the story behind the story? What’s the context? And one of the ways I try to illustrate that point is through an issue that isn’t to do with work.
Practically, everyone who’s middle aged with teenage kids is grappling with why are teenagers so addicted to their cell phones? And if you ask people that question, they go, it’s because of cell phone technology. Or is it because of those wretched teenagers or it’s because you know, evil tech companies are busy designing algorithms, which are addictive? Certainly that’s true to some degree. But the reality is that you can’t understand teenage cell phone usage without stepping back and looking at what people don’t talk about, which is how teenagers move in the real physical world. And if you go back 100 years, teenagers had a lot of opportunities to physically roam, to meet their friends on the streets, even 50 years ago, they went to the shopping mall. They cycled to school. They would hang out with their friends on the fields, without parents watching every move.
But in the 21st century, and even before lockdown, you had a whole generation of middle class American teenagers, particularly in suburbs, who essentially are overscheduled. They are driven everywhere by their parents constantly being monitored. And then you go into the pandemic, and suddenly this sense of physical constraint is even more extreme. So is it any surprise that you have a generation of people who think that the only place as a teenager that you can test boundaries, congregate spontaneously, explore the world without parents watching is online, in cyberspace? You can’t talk about cyberspace experience without looking at the physical world. That’s the social silence, to use a word that anthropologists sometimes use. And that model or metaphor applies over and over again to almost any aspect of modern life.
Andi Simon: You said something very profound and well worth emphasizing. The times make the man or the man makes the times. Here we have a transformation of trust and of safety. When I was a kid growing up, we would go outside and play stickball on the street, and get on my bike and ride to the mall to go shopping with nobody. As my kids grew up, we began to realize how much more structured their lives were without thinking about the implications of it. I don’t think we spend our time saying that’s good or that’s not good. We sort of flow with what society is doing and then you have all of the after effects of transformation.
I’ve had several university clients who are frustrated because they couldn’t get their Gen Ys, now the Gen Zs, to come in and play athletics. They spent their days on video games. And they were much happier playing a video game and not coming in to go play baseball or basketball or watch them. And socializing with more challenges. I actually had a grownup client, a professional, who spent his weekends playing games. His whole friendship network was there. And as an observer, I said, Oh, this is really a pure point, a transformation of our society without much intentionality here, if you know the world he was in, he never met any of the folks that he played with, which by itself was sort of an interesting and new and bizarre society in which we’re in.
You know, as you’re thinking about what’s coming next, I don’t know when the pandemic is really going to end or if we’re going to live in a COVID world for a while. Are you? As this is a futurist podcast, I would like to ask what are the signs you’re seeing? What do you hear coming through? I have a hunch, you’re picking up little signals already that you’re curious about? Because I know I am. What do you see?
Gillian Tett: Well, I think that people have been forced to re-examine how they’re living. And what is fascinating was the late 20th century was a time when people had quite rigid boundaries between home and work in many professional contexts. Not always, but most western professionals thought that the office was a place you worked in, you might bring work back to home. But that was separate, you had a work time and a home time. You had your office colleagues, your friends, your family, they all sat in different buckets and we took that for granted.
The reality is that actually that pattern of the 20th century is an absolute aberration throughout most of human history, and even throughout many parts of the world today. And what COVID has done has tossed most of us back into a state of being something like a peasant farmer, where your house is your locus of work, and your family is mixed up with your colleagues and everything else. And we may not like it, but it certainly challenged our boundaries. I don’t think it’d be that easy for people to recreate those boundaries in such a rigid way going forward.
A second change that’s happened, which is not so bad, is because we’ve been locked down in our own groups, I think maybe we’ve become myopic. We’ve basically been locked down with people just like us, our pod, our friends. And people thought initially that when we went online, we would somehow break down our tribalism. Quite the reverse has happened because the key thing to understand about the internet is that it allows us to customize our identities and experiences in a way that’s never been possible before. And I think it’s changed our vision of how we as individuals relate to society.
You know, most societies in human history have seen the individual as a derivative of society. We’re a cog that fits into a machine with identities that are pre-assigned. You know the enlightenment in Europe and this idea that we are the center of our society. The “me generation.” “I think, therefore I am.” Society’s derivative of me. 21st century with digital tools has given us the capability to basically customize our world as we want to know. We customize our coffee choices, our media sources, our friendship groups, and identities online. We customize our music tastes. Today’s generation doesn’t want to have a vinyl record, which has been pre-assembled with someone else. We want our own pick of a mix of music to listen to when we want, exactly what we want. And that’s really a shift that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic because we’ve been so reliant on cyberspace. And it’s made us even more tribal, I think, in a very bad way.
Another shift that’s happened is that people’s sense of the future, being a predictable, rigid path that goes in one direction has been shaken by the pandemic. Late 20th century was a time where most Westerners had lived a pretty stable life, pretty predictable life…no longer. And it was also a world where people thought okay, so I have business economics in one bucket, and sort of a do-gooding environment, social issues in another. And I think, again, that’s breaking down. And you can see that in the corporate world where, essentially, companies are realizing that environmental, social and governance issues aren’t just about activism, they’re about risk management, about making sure that you don’t suffer reputational risks, or the loss of assets that lose value if the regulatory climate change changes, and you don’t alienate your customers and your employees. So people are no longer seeing business in just such a rigid tunnel vision way, it’s more about lateral vision. And that’s very, very important.
And last but not least, I’d say that another shift has been in terms of cryptocurrencies and finance. In some ways, the move into cryptocurrencies, the move into meme stocks, is also part of this pick and mix culture. Patterns of trust are changing. As anthropologists, we used to say there was either vertical trust, or horizontal trust, where people trusted each other in peer-to-peer groups. This provides a social group glue to keep groups together. Or, you had vertical trust, which was trust in institutions and leaders on a large scale. It was presumed that when you had big groups, you couldn’t have horizontal trust. Digital platforms have enabled something called distributed trust to explode. Suddenly, huge groups of people can do things on the basis of trusting each other via digital tools. That’s how Airbnb operates. It’s also how most cryptocurrencies operate. You trust the crowd through a digital platform, but not through an organizational hierarchy. And that’s, again, changing people’s attitude toward money and value and exchanges in a fascinating way.
Andi Simon: If we write about this in about five years, we will have captured a major catalytic moment transforming society. If you listen to the multipliers of what we’ve just described, when I work with my own CEOs, mostly mid-market size clients, they are becoming far more stuck, stalled and immobilized than they’ve ever experienced in the past. They don’t know what to do. And what’s so fascinating to me is that they really don’t know what to do. And they’re not willing to go out of their corner office, out of their comfort zone to begin to see. And so they’re really struggling with whether or not their businesses are going to survive. And there’s no reason why they can’t survive, they just have to change. And all of a sudden, that entrepreneurial spirit that got them there is stalled. And the certainty you spoke about, I’m not sure that was true, or an illusion that humans prefer certainty versus being fragile. But in fact, it’s really raising up those people who can see opportunity in being agile, and I’m willing to change. The brain hates me when I go into a company to say, You’re going to change and immediately all that cortisol is produced, and they go, Oh, please get out of here.
But in fact, I do think there’s going to be a training ground now for the agility that’s needed for the next phase. Because as we come out of this, it’s not going to be certain either, and nobody can really plan the way they might have thought. And I don’t think that you should plan anything. I think you should try to be nimble, agile, adaptive, and talk to people. You speak about the silence, it’s a great time to start listening. Just talk to people and you don’t have to do it in person if you don’t want to, but you can try. But I do think it’s a time to listen to each other and not decide anything, just pull it in and just be anthropologists. Just listen to the conversations.
Judith Glaser has a wonderful book on conversational intelligence, that you start by saying all of society are conversations. And I truly think that’s a simple way of saying, Yep, just listen to each other. But the conversations are hanging out, and begin to think about what’s really going on in those conversations. It’s a little like that picture of that scene when they say, Who’s doing the subprime mortgages. What are we missing?
You have some great five big things in Anthro-Vision. Do you want to share them with our audience? I guess I’m pushing people to bring a little anthropology into your life. It’s important and one of those five things.
Gillian Tett: Absolutely. Well, having said you can’t boil anthropology down to a PowerPoint, here’s my PowerPoint. Lesson one: recognize that we’re all creatures of our own environment. In a cultural sense, we’re all fundamentally shaped by a set of assumptions that we inherit from our surroundings that we never usually think about. And they matter.
Lesson two: recognize that just because we are shaped by sort of assumptions, that doesn’t mean they’re universal. It sounds very obvious, but the reality is that it’s human nature to assume that the way that we live and operate and function is not just inevitable, but natural and proper, and that everyone else would kind of live like us. And guess what, there’s a multitude of different ways to live and think, and if you think that yours is the only right way, you’re going to suffer badly in business.
Lesson three: coming out of this is to take time to immerse yourself periodically in the minds and lives of people who seem different from you. In my case, I went to Tajikistan, which for someone having grown up in England, it was very, very different indeed. But you don’t have to go to the other side of the world of Hindu Kush. Just go talk to someone down the end of your road who lives in a different world. Go talk to someone in a different department, go take a different route to work, go swap a day with someone with a different profession. And if you can’t do it physically, because of the pandemic, get online and basically explore another tribe online. And then mentality: I mean, just change the people you follow on Twitter, say for a week, and you’ll see a completely different perspective on life.
And then lesson five: for us, the experience of immersing yourself in the minds of others to become a stranger in your own land, and to look back at yourself with fresh eyes, and see what a stranger would consider to be weird or shocking, or impressive about how you live and your assumptions. And think about what you’re not thinking about. What are the parts of your life that you’re ignoring, the social silences, often thinking about the rituals that you’re using in your everyday life, the symbols, the patterns that you use to organize your space, and your family groups, or your time. Those can often be very revealing, if you step back and look at them with an inside or outside his eyes. You know, why would you consider it to be odd to keep your hairbrush in the fridge? What does that mean? I mean, what are you missing? Well, what is one of your ideas about different body parts and about your mouth versus your hair, or you know all these inbuilt assumptions, which you take for granted, but are often very revealing.
There’s nothing wrong with the patterns we inherit from our surroundings, unless we remain prisoners of them and cannot imagine alternatives. And right now, as we come out of the pandemic, try to reimagine the world and recover and rebuild. It really is time to have an open mind, particularly after a pandemic that’s kept us locked down mentally and physically, and in danger of being captured by tribalism.
Andi Simon: What a beautiful ending, Gillian. Thank you so much. I’ve had such fun. It’s fun to wander with you. Any last thoughts? How can they reach you? And how can they buy your book?
Gillian Tett: First, let me say what a great joy it has been to do this with you. And I greatly salute what you’ve done in your own career, which is fascinating. I write for the Financial Times, twice a week with columns. I also oversee a platform called Moral Money, which is the ESG sustainability platform at the FT, which is a newsletter that goes out three times a week. And my new book, Anthro-Vision, is out on sale. I should say last but not least, as another sign of culture, if you’re listening to this in America, you can find my book Anthro-Vision, with a bright red jacket cover, and a picture of me on the back wearing a bright red top looking like Fox TV because that sells in America. If you pick up my book in the UK, or any part of the former Commonwealth as they say, you’ll find my book is sold with a nice white understated cover with a picture of me on the back, wearing a blue shirt on a stoop clutching a cup of coffee. The British publishers thought that a picture of me looking like a Fox TV babe was too scary for the British market. And therein lies a story about why culture matters.
Andi Simon: And you hope they’re right. Well, I think that for the listeners, and our audience, whether you’re watching this or listening to us, it’s been truly a special time to share the essence of On the Brink with Andi Simon, our podcast, but my job is to help you get off the brink helping you to see, feel, and think through a fresh lens. There is so much going on today that’s going to expand in a positive way the possibilities that are before you. It’s the art of possibilities now. And rather than trying to go back…people say, I can’t wait till the old comes back. It’s not coming back because I don’t even know what the old was and you don’t either. But you also know that the new is giving you opportunities that are tremendous. Think about them in a positive way and you’ll see them turning lemons into lemonade or limes into margaritas as somebody said to me recently.
It’s a great time. Gillian, thank you for joining me today. And for our listeners, don’t forget, here’s what I’d like you to do. I get emails from across the globe at info@Andisimon.com. You send me your ideas, you send me people whom you want me to interview. Send them to me, give me some ideas about topics that would be cool for you. I actually am doing a Leadership Academy and one of the gentlemen there, a physician, said, You know, my sons are listening to your podcast, and I laughed, and I said, How old? Eight and ten! I said, so that’s my target audience. And I will keep talking to them, but they should listen because I think they and you will really benefit from understanding how a little anthropology can help you and your business soar. Bye bye now. Stay well. Bye bye.