Midnight Archaeology

Where is my flashlight?  Oh yea, the office lights work; I am good. It is late at night and I am the only person in the office.  This can also be a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning – either way, I am alone in the office.  The work is done and I am thinking about my leadership writing and it hits me.  What can I learn about my environment by walking around and studying the artifacts, structure and symbols embedded in my workplace with no people around?  Hey, I studied Anthropology – it is time for some office archaeology.

I am not trying to be silly here – there is much for a leader to gain by seeing his or her environment through the lens of an Anthropologist.  A leader needs to recognize the importance of culture and the interlinked role of the leader in setting and developing culture.  A core resource for me has been the writing of Edgar Schein and his classic, “Organizational Culture and Leadership”.  This book is included in my resource page and I highly recommend it for all leaders.  Early in this book he provides an important message for leaders, “Try to understand culture, give it its due, and ask yourself how well you can begin to understand the culture in which you are embedded”.

There are many ways to define and work with culture and I will certainly write more on the topic in future posts.  For today Schein provides me with an accessible definition as I perform my “midnight archaeology”.  He defines culture with three levels.  The first level is the realm of the archaeologist – artifacts.  As Schein points out these are the offices, work space, furnishings, visible recognition, the way that its members dress, how each person visibly interacts with each other and with outsiders, and even company slogans, mission statements and other operational creeds.

The second level is the shared values of a group.  The third and deepest level is the tacit assumptions of the group.  For a leader each of these levels, from the directly observable to the deeper values and assumptions, are very important.  Once again I will circle back to these concepts down the road, but do not wait for me – explore these topics yourself.

As I return to my midnight walk through my empty office space I focus on the available artifacts.  How would I describe this workplace to outsiders using the language of an anthropologist? What did I discover as I walk around the empty office space?   Well, I will hold those observations for those I work with each day, but all good.  One observation that I will share with you is my team’s recent work to create a centralized gathering spot.  The layout of the workspace does not naturally allow for this, but folks are working with what they have to create a central gathering spot.

These observations are from my own workplace where I am a participant.  Imagine having the same observer mindset as you visit other locations where you are an outsider.  Look around you.  Look at the details. Look at the whole.  What does it all mean?

A key concept for an anthropologist is holism.  We work to pull together all the artifacts, shared values, and tacit assumptions to see the larger system at hand.  Remember culture is a learned way of being and as such it can be adjusted and changed as you, the leader, see fit.  That is a big responsibility and beyond today’s topic.  For today I want you to take away the following:

  • Understanding culture is important for the leader. An interesting point by Schein is that leaders create and change cultures, while managers live within them.
  • Work to understand your own work culture through observation and discussing with others living within the culture; work to define your work culture.
  • Remember the importance of holism – stepping back to see the larger context; if it helps, see the leader as pulling back to see the whole while the manager drills down to analyze the details ( see my post, Two Sides of the Same Coin).
  • Observation is such an important skill for the leader – both as a participant in your own workplace and when visiting other locations.  I invite you to read my post of Sit Still and Observe for a related discussion.

Let’s end with a little fun.  I remember this cartoon from years ago.  While I am a big fan of what archaeologist do, they need to be careful on how they interpret what they dig up.  How can they possibly look at workplace cubicles as a prison? 🙂

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