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Better management through anthropology

Journalist Gillian Tett urges business leaders to look at their world through a different lens.

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of strategy+business.

Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life

by Gillian Tett, Avid Reader Press, 2021 

The next time you hear someone arguing that a liberal arts education is wasted on businesspeople, direct them to Gillian Tett’s Anthro-Vision. In this new book, the award-winning journalist, chair of the Financial Times’s US editorial board, and Cambridge Ph.D. in social anthropology makes a compelling, readable argument for the business value of her academic discipline. Tett finds that this value is delivered in three ways: anthropology makes the strange familiar, it makes the familiar strange, and it attunes awareness when listening for social silence.

“Making the strange familiar”—the quest to understand other people and cultures—goes back to the origins of the science of anthropology in the 19th century (although its main purpose in the early days was to justify “civilized” Western colonialists who were stealing the labor and resources of “primitive” peoples). In 1990, this quest—understanding, not plunder—led Tett to a remote village in Soviet Tajikistan, where she studied marriage rites for her Ph.D.

Making the strange familiar has also led marketers in a global economy to embrace anthropology in their quest to figure out how to sell their products to customers in far-flung markets. The resulting insights can be valuable indeed. The sales of Kit Kat bars, from Switzerland-based Nestlé, were lukewarm in Japan, until 2001, when marketing executives noticed that sales of the candy bar surged in December, January, and February on the island of Kyushu. Curious, they discovered that students associated the name Kit Kat with kitto katsu, which means “you must overcome” in the local dialect. The students were buying the bars for luck when they took their exams for high school and university. Nestlé built its Japanese marketing strategy around this insight, and by 2014, Kit Kat was the country’s best-selling confection.

The quest to make the strange familiar generates a valuable by-product: it provides a platform on which to view one’s own culture with clear eyes—a task that Tett calls “making the familiar strange.” I got a firsthand lesson while attending a wedding shortly after reading Tett’s description of Tajik marriages. Suddenly, the choreography of an American wedding seemed as alien as the Tajik practice of driving the entire wedding party to a statue of Lenin for a photo session.

“Almost all business leaders and policymakers could benefit by asking the basic question that dogs anthropology: if a Martian was to land here suddenly and look around, what might they see?” writes Tett. In 1997, when GM was struggling to get teams of engineers from its small car group, its Saturn subsidiary, and Germany’s Opel to create a new vehicle together, the company called in anthropologist Elizabeth Briody to figure out what was wrong. Briody discovered the source of the dysfunction in differing cultural assumptions about meetings. The Opel team expected meetings to be agenda-driven, decision-making sessions; the small car group expected working sessions in which ideas would be shared and discussed; and the Saturn teams expected consensus-building sessions. As a result, the meetings were chaotic and frustrating for everyone. Unfortunately, Briody’s insights came too late, and GM’s senior product development leaders shut down the project.

Lastly and most intriguingly, anthropology can help surface what Tett calls social silence. Listening for social silence, she writes, is like using “an X-ray machine to look at society, to see half-hidden patterns we are only dimly aware of.” Anthropologists listen for social silence by looking for and trying to make sense of the unspoken biases, assumptions, and mental maps that people inherit and create as a group.

Social anthropology is as useful in making sense of an Amazon warehouse as in an Amazon jungle.”

In 2005, while leading the capital markets team at the Financial Times, Tett discovered a social silence around the explosion in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and swaps (CDSs). No one understood the parameters and risks in this huge market, including the financiers themselves. “Different desks at different banks could not see how the entire CDO or CDS market was evolving, since their view tended to be restricted to whatever sat beneath their nose,” she writes. “The world was oddly opaque to insiders—and even more opaque to outsiders.” Of course, it became much clearer to all of us when CDOs set off the subprime mortgage crisis. Tett also calls out other, more recent social silences around data-bartering (consumers giving up personal information in exchange for free internet services) and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues, both of which she is convinced are poised to become triggers for far-reaching changes in the business world.

As with The Silo Effect, Tett’s 2015 book on the perils of walling off business units and functions, Anthro-Vision’s insights aren’t news to most business leaders. As she points out, large companies, such as Apple, IBM, Intel, and Google, have been using the tools of anthropology and ethnography for several decades. Microsoft, Tett writes, “became one of the biggest employers of anthropologists in the world.” The tech giant hires anthropologists in areas such as user experience and product design, and in Microsoft Research, where, for example, MacArthur Fellowship–winning anthropologist and senior principal researcher Mary L. Gray studied the invisible “ghost work” upon which many tech companies depend, such as labeling, moderating, and sorting data or content.

Nor is Anthro-Vision a how-to book. The tools of anthropology, argues Tett, offer insights “for business executives, investors, policymakers, economists, techies, financiers, doctors, lawyers, and accountants (yes, really). These ideas are as useful in making sense of an Amazon warehouse as in an Amazon jungle.” But aside from the naming of a few of the tools, such as unstructured observation, and practices (“look around, watch, listen, ask open-ended questions, be curious like a child, and try to walk in ‘someone else’s shoes,’ to cite the proverb”), instruction gets short shrift.

Rather, Anthro-Vision is a paean to Tett’s education as an anthropologist and the discipline’s applicability to business. If it leaves you wanting more, you’ll need to do what former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan did as he sought a clearer understanding of the dynamics driving the 2011 eurozone debt crisis: ask Tett to recommend a good book on anthropology.

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