To understand organisational culture, think like an anthropologist

Written by
André Spicer
Cass Business School

21 May 2019

21 May 2019 • by André Spicer

Entering the atrium of a bank’s headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf, the first thing I saw was a huge screen with the company’s share price on it. I was there because I was undertaking a study of how banks were trying to change their cultures.

Every one I visited showed me impressive PowerPoint slides featuring their cultural values; terms such as ‘integrity’, ‘ethics’ and ‘innovation’ were common. Executives told me how they train their top managers to live these values. Many were even tying remuneration to the culture they wanted to see. 
I concluded that banks were trying to change, but something seemed to be going wrong. Culture change had become seen by many employees as just another thing that gets in the way of doing their job. As I looked back over my notes, I realised that most banks were looking for culture in the wrong places. Instead of examining value statements and desired behaviours, they should have been looking at the things that actually make up culture. They needed to look at their organisations like an anthropologist.  
When an anthropologist studies a new culture, they can spend up to a year familiarising themselves with it. They become a participant observer; someone who takes part in day-to-day life but also carefully records what they see. To give order to their observations, they might look out for some of the following:  
Rituals. What kind of elaborate routines do people take part in which seem to mean a lot to them but have no obvious immediate function or outcome. Think about the average meeting and you get the picture.
Myths. What stories do people routinely tell each other, even if they don’t know whether they are true. Stories about how the firm was founded are a common example.  
Symbols. Which items in an organisation have a deep sense of meaning beyond their obvious use? Back to that giant bank HQ atrium which is there to remind visitors and employees how important the organisation is.  
Gods and devils. To whom do people in an organisation attribute god-like qualities, and who are spoken of as evil personified? Many firms see their CEOs as having the power of gods, but, when they are deposed, they can become devils.
Castes. Which people are on top and which people are ‘untouchable’? When visiting one financial institution, I met investment bankers in plush surroundings similar to those of a five-star hotel. I then crossed the street and met the IT staff in a cramped building with old office furniture and peeling paint. 
Language. How do people speak to one another, what words do they frequently use and which are taboo? I noticed in many banks that a generous helping of jargon was an easy way to speak for an hour and say nothing.  
Kinship networks. Who is linked with whom and how? In companies, that means looking for corporate families, groups of people related by the experience of working with each other in the past.
Systems of exchange. What do people trade in the organisation and how does that circle of trade work? People might swap information today for a job opportunity in a few months’ time. 
Thinking like an anthropologist helps us to understand the real cultures underneath all those value statements. Try the approach yourself or, better still, bring someone in with anthropological skills to give you a more objective outsider’s view. 
Train your staff to be insider anthropologists too. It all helps to build a richer picture, getting beyond buzzwords to understand the cultures that really drive your organisation.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School at City, University of London.

Cass Business School