Why you can (and should) be an ethnographer in the workplace

Organizational culture and leadership effectiveness.

If you are like most, the term ‘ethnography’ may conjure up images of nomadic villages in Africa and the university professors who immerse themselves in them to document and analyze their cultures. Like the description suggests, ethnography, at its core, is the systematic study of the lived experiences of people from the native point of view. Researchers, like Margaret Mead who did fieldwork in Samoa in the 1920s, go and live with a community and provide an on the ground perspective of participant behavior through observations and interviews, as well as connecting with the locals and often times serving as avid human rights activists.

But is the work of doing ethnography only limited to those qualitative researchers in sociology and anthropology who have the exciting lives of living abroad?

No, of course not. In our own professional lives, we see daily that the organizations in which we work have multiple divisions and departments, each with their own distinctive histories and distinguishing patterns of behaviors. Taking the traditional view of ‘culture’, organizations also consist of certain qualities that make the entity distinctive, which include its history, values, rules, assumptions, communicative behaviors, among many others.

What successful leaders know, then, is that one the keys to leadership effectiveness requires a nuanced understanding of their organization’s practices and its various subcultures. In other words, successful leaders must become adept at observing and understanding these cultural practices using a process that draws upon the skills of ethnography.

Leaders should be students of various cultures and should focus on observation, listening, and the behaviors and actions of groups with whom they interact. For instance, we can seek to identify who are both the formal and informal leaders (influencers within the organization who do not hold positions of power), their roles and communicative behaviors, and even other external stakeholders.

According to Rutgers professors, Brent Ruben, Richard De Lisi, and Ralph Gigliotti, we should be observant of the interactions that take place not just in meeting rooms, but also lunchroom conversations and other chance encounters around the workplace. For instance, we might ask ourselves during meetings:

· What time do individuals arrive for a meeting set at 8am?

· How and who begins the meetings?

· Is the agenda formally set and distributed before the meeting?

· Who contributes to the agenda and what are the typical patterns of interaction?

· Do some, most, or all members speak? When challenges occur, how do leaders and colleagues respond?

· How do patterns of participation relate to gender, race, rank, or seniority?

Regarding communicative behaviors, we can further parse these observations and ask questions like:

· What themes, metaphors, or analogies are commonly used among the formal and informal leaders?

· Are post-meeting and back-channel conversations among colleagues a common practice? Are some colleagues predictably involved in these discussions, while others are not?

· Does the tone of discussion emphasizes collaboration and cooperation? Or do terms have a negative connotation?

· Are the views of external stakeholders sought out and used?

· Are comparisons to other organizations a common strategy in problem-solving or decision-making?

While many of these questions may seem overly pedantic, the purpose of doing this exercise allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the different subcultures and groups within our organizations. This knowledge is invaluable to leaders who must adapt to- and influence-different units and departments by making informed choices that are reflective of their understanding of organizational culture, rather than seen as random or arbitrary. Thus, careful attention to organizational culture and climate helps differentiate those leadership styles that will be familiar and well-received, as compared to those that will likely create turbulence with our colleagues.

So it is through thoughtful ethnographic observation that leaders can successfully understand the values and cultural practices of their organization. With this knowledge, leaders can better navigate the workplace, make more informed decisions, and engage in effective cross-cultural communication to reconcile and negotiate differences.