5 Ways Listening Like an Anthropologist Will Make You a Better Leader

When I was in grad school, there were clearly two camps (and they didn’t respect each other all that much): The scientests out to prove their hypotheses through experimentation, control groups, and statistical analysis, and the qualitative researchers who showed up, listened, and let the theories emerge.

Being in business, and studying at night, I was initially drawn to the power of proof. But as I grew into executive roles, it became clear that the most important research skills I learned during that time were the ethnography skills of the anthropologists. See also The Power of a Road Trip.

As you move up the ranks, there will be others to crunch the numbers, and yes, you must be able to interpret them and make decisions. But most execs never fully master the art of showing up subtly, without pre-conceived conclusions and letting the data inform their hypotheses.

The good news is it’s not that hard (close your ears, ethnographers, I’m on your side.)

Karin Hurt’s Big Rules of Showing Up Like an Anthropologist

I label this as such to prevent losing my status as an adjunct professor in a prestigious MBA program, or to make anyone roll over in their graves. This is not based on a scientific review of the literature in the field as applied to business. Just my gut. Here it goes.

1. Truly believe you don’t already know

Quite frankly if you can’t pull this off, you’re better off staying in your office. Great Translators know they must listen first. If you’re out and about to “teach them a thing or two” know that you’re missing the most important point…and so will they. See when MBWA becomes OCHTC, you’re won’t learn beans. Like a good anthropologist observe what’s happening to you as you live in community with your employees.

2. Dress the part

Don’t show up in your power suit. Meet them where they are.

3. Shut up

Yes, you may think you have all the answers. In fact, it’s quite possible you really do. Save it for later. Sure it’s more efficient to turn the tables right there and then. What these folks need most right now is to be heard. Yes, yes, let it inform your communication plan. Yes, yes, explain your perspective. Yes, respond back in a personal message to them. But remember for this moment, don’t express your shock at the buried bodies. You are a listener. Concentrate on doing that well.

4. Collect unbiased themes

Honestly, I’ve attended skip level meetings with execs where they missed 90% of what they needed to hear, only to take away the stuff that proved everything was working just fine. And worse: that’s what showed up in their report! That works for a minute, but it’s no way to win well or achieve long-term success.

5. Engage

This is where I’m going to get into trouble with the scholars. But if you’re an exec, your intervention is, well, an intervention. Don’t argue or retort, but do show up with huge appreciation and an appetite for more. Explain why their perspective helps to improve the business. If there are immediate actions you’re taking away for goodness sakes say that.

Imagine the possibilities if you showed up like an anthropologist every now and then.