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Lessons from an anthropologist

Lessons from an anthropologist

Authored by Sherryl Oosthuizen

Over a glass of wine and good conversation with a respected anthropologist, I discovered that consulting and anthropology are in many ways similar and require many of the same talents. Anthropology describes the impact of humans on humans – their cultures, tools, techniques, traditions, values, economic mechanisms, and struggles for prestige.

Anthropologists study the culture of living people – past and present. If you want to know why people cross the road at the zebra crossing, or why they believe in witchcraft, or why some groups sanction marriage between cousins and others not, ask an anthropologist. They study how people adapt to their environment (or adapt their environment to them), how they organise their societies, and the shared systems of meaning and belief that they develop. Anthropologists gather this information by observing and talking to people.

Is this sounding a bit like a regular day in your life?

Another glass of wine and we agreed that both consultants and anthropologists must:

  • Remain ever curious about their world and that of others. And, importantly, realise that they are different. They are people living in the same time and city, or even working in the same business, who have different perceptions and beliefs and so see things in vastly different ways. Our brains are wired more differently than we believe (lessons from neuroscience, courtesy of David Rock).
  • Have the ability to zoom in and live and breathe in ‘their’ worlds, and then zoom out to observe the greater whole and how it works together. And from this position of understanding, coupled with relative objectivity, be able to create hypotheses and frameworks from which we can learn to build a better future.
  • Observe without judgement in the firm belief that in general people do what they do from a position of positive intention. No one wants to foul up, fail or give up. As human beings we want to prosper, get ahead and make good.
  • Appreciate that the variables are such that the lessons cannot simply be replicated in another civilisation or business, but need to be tailor-made with the collaboration and support of the people who must live in that environment.
  • Beware the ‘comfort conspiracy’. From an anthropological perspective it is clear that human beings like their creature comforts. There is also an unspoken conspiracy about not wanting to make anyone else uncomfortable, physically, mentally or emotionally. And this is a lesson we consultants sometimes struggle with: the need to create a certain amount of discomfort, challenge the thinking around the table, disturb the ‘old boys’ clubs’, and continuously stretch ourselves and others.

I would like to believe that as consultants we get the opportunity to influence the course of history (before it becomes history, of course). But this is probably a vanity created largely by my particular brain hardwiring and will have to wait for another time, another conversation and another bottle of wine!