Tips for starting a new job: Play the role of anthropologist

Image courtesy Understanding Science
In my search for advice on starting a new job, I encountered this 2006 article on Yahoo! Personal Finance by Jim Citrin, which suggests that the new employee “play the role of anthropologist” to get a good assessment of the company’s organizational culture (and ideas for how to change it if in a managerial position).
He writes:

As most people know, organizational culture is one of the most intransigent things to change. So don’t try to transform it in the first 100 days. Assess the culture, and begin the change process slowly.

The way to start assessing a culture is to listen to how people really describe the organization, bearing in mind that within most generalizations lie an inner core of truth. Ask probing questions relentlessly, not only among the most senior people, but to those who others cite as thought leaders. Visit not only your largest customers, but also the smartest ones as well. You can be sure that they will give you feedback.

Play the role of anthropologist, searching for clues among the language people use and through physical evidence such as office layout, dress code, and the cafeteria. Once you finish your assessment, start experimenting with measures of success, incentive systems, and operating structures to find productive ways to get traction on the desired behaviors.

I think this is both a correct understanding of what an anthropologist does (or can do) and a nice way of incorporating the metaphor into an applied business setting. Here, the new-employee-as-anthropologist attempts to assess and understand the culture in which he or she is immersed by asking deep, thoughtful questions and talking with a wide variety of “informants” (to use the old-school term). The new employee also takes care to pay attention to every detail of the cultural context, from space/place and discourse to traditions of dress and social interaction. Finally, in an applied manner, he or she takes this information and processes it, and turns it into actionable insights in order to make changes within the workplace without disrupting the people and relationships that exist there.
Moving away from his direct use of the anthropologist metaphor, a lot of the other points he makes in his article resonate with the anthropological approach, including:
  • Do your homework/research about the company
  • Immersion (not total immersion in the sense of Malinowski, since you’ll hopefully have a home to go to at night)
  • “…recognize that most will be listening through the lens of their own self-interest” (i.e. pay attention to positionality, hidden or overt agendas, etc.)
  • Don’t make assumptions about the talent around you (in fact, don’t make assumptions about anything, ever!)
  • You will need the buy-in of all stakeholders to move a proposal or plan forward
  • Establish relationships by understanding people’s motivations, whether unstated or obvious
  • Communicate effectively
  • Understand how your decisions as a leader or employee will affect those around you

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