What Would a Cultural Anthropologist Say About Your Company?

Cultural anthropologist is a job title that conjures up studies of tribes in Papua New Guinea, right?

Not anymore. Today’s cultural anthropologists study a new kind of tribe: those at large corporations (Microsoft, Google and Adidas among them) and fast-growing startups. They quietly watch what’s being said and how people behave inside offices, retail stores and homes, and, through social and behavior psychology and observation, they’re uncovering what big data cannot. They uncover the hidden reasons why people do what they do, whether it’s why customers aren’t buying or the real reasons employees are quitting.

“A good cultural anthropologist can blend in with the wallpaper,” says Christian Madsbjerg, CEO of ReD Associates, a social science consulting firm that has observed and advised brands like Adidas, Legos and Chanel. “It’s being there with people in the most natural way. We see what’s important and what’s annoying.”

The science is even being applied to office space.

At Knotel, we have cultural anthropologists on staff, who work with Knotel’s customers to plan their office space according to how their employees behave and think.

All too often, companies simply design their offices based on what’s trendy. Says Madsbjerg: “They’ll put in a bunch of beanbags and use primary colors on the walls. It seems to be an afterthought instead of trying to figure out how your team will really use the space.”

So what would such an expert say about your company culture?

Here are three common scenarios Madsbjerg often sees:

The Mass Exodus

The surveys say turnover is high because of a low salary or lack of promotion. But when Madsbjerg observed an Indian tech firm that had this attrition problem, he discovered it had nothing to do with salary. It had more to do with the emotional makeup of the culture.

Turns out, many of the 250,000 employees didn’t really have a connection between the work they did and the bigger picture of the company. On exit surveys, they listed salary as their reason for leaving. But observation revealed that really, it was the cumbersome projects and not feeling a connection to the company’s overall mission. Often they wondered if their work really mattered.

“You can ask, and they’ll tell you what you want to hear,” Madsbjerg says. But if you observe them, listen to them talk about annoyances and see them leave at beer-o’clock, he says, it tells a different story.

The Fanatical Workplace

In this culture, Madsbjerg says employees talk with fervor about changing the world with their company’s product. There is a heaven: an IPO. And, there is a hell: having a regular job at a regular company. The founder is akin to Jesus, complete with founding myth and employees must be believers. Say anything contrary, and you’re not a believer, he says.

Madsbjerg says that often, these companies draw people who are open to new ideas and new directions, and a kind of irrational youthful exuberance may be useful for getting things done.

But it doesn’t necessarily lead to a long-lasting healthy culture. The soul-crushing work and long hours are not sustainable, and those pieces of the culture are simply covered up with juice bars and Friday afternoon kegs.

The Lasting Culture

The healthiest cultures observed by Madsjberg were those in which employees envisioned themselves building careers at the company. They act deeply interested in their business topic and the people they serve.

How, exactly? Employees tend to talk about customers as humans rather than simply numbers or “users.” They tend to speak with intensity about work projects, and the language they used might be similar to outside activities like exercise or past personal experiences like college or travel. There is a clarity about how they are connected to their workplace.

At Lego, for instance, Madsjberg witnessed employees who were passionate about kids’ play and education. They got excited about a shipment of boxes that arrived off the truck. Employees at Chanel could get engrossed about conversations about embossing leather, while people at Adidas dropped everything to watch Barcelona soccer matches.

Even in less sexy companies, Madsjberg’s team saw that same kind of passion, whether it was geeking out over energy services or widgets for medicine.

Ultimately, these cultures tend to be more resilient amid crisis and change, and more willing to work together across silos. Employees may not be the best paid, but that doesn’t matter as long as there is passion.

Says Madsbjerg: “The truly healthy cultures are those that are saturated by a purpose and meaningful work.”