Kiwi corporates are now turning to anthropologists to address systemic cultural issues in favour of business psychologists.
Wool carpet manufacturer Bremworth is one of a growing number of New Zealand firms engaging the services of corporate anthropologists to address systemic workplace cultural issues or help navigate periods of change.
One of New Zealand’s few corporate anthropologists, international expert Michael Henderson, said NZ companies have lagged behind in their use of anthropologists, instead favouring business psychologists.
But this has changed significantly since the covid pandemic as businesses look for new ways to attract and retain staff.
Henderson, who said he has worked with organisations in more than 40 different countries, said with the labour market becoming more competitive, many sectors of the economy struggling to keep staff.
“The impact of the pandemic has been manifested as a flip in the business model where people have realised they now have the upper hand.
“Employees now understand they have the choice of where they work, when they work and what they work for.
“As a result, I don’t have a single client anywhere in the world that isn’t under the pump trying to attract new talent in.”
While anthropology is the study of humanity with the goal of understanding our evolutionary origins and our distinctiveness as a species, a corporate anthropologist assists companies in better understanding their customers, along with the differing cultures within a business and how to create high performing individuals and teams.
The use of anthropologists is common among multinational tech companies, including Google, Intel, Xerox and IBM, with Microsoft believed to be the second largest employer of anthropologists in the world.
“While we know companies such as Google have almost 50 full-time anthropologists on staff, in the southern hemisphere it is more common for businesses to work with organisational psychologists.”
While psychologists primarily work with the brain and how individual personalities or profiling influences their behaviours, an anthropologist looks at the interactions of individuals and a group, including the unspoken components of behaviours.
“We know that when people understand the environment they’re operating in, what’s required of them and what’s required of the business in the marketplace, then the need for leadership’s role, influence and oversight is diminished significantly.”
Culture can’t be measured, but the output of what it delivers can.
“The realisation that culture isn’t linear or binary is a big learning for businesses.
“The first thing we tell organisations is that they can’t apply measurements to an intangible concept such as workplace culture and that while cultures aren’t measurable, they are meaningful.
“The primary role of culture is to establish what is meaningful for us and what motivates us to behave in a certain way.”
Bremworth chief executive Greg Smith said the company has introduced a new anthropology-based cultural training programme for a sector of its workforce.
The initiative, Te Ara Ranga Tira (the way that unites people), was developed following a period of sustained organisational change as the company moved away from the use of synthetics to the production of all-wool carpets and rugs.
In 2020, Bremworth began a process of divesting itself from the use of plastics and focusing on the use of natural fibres.
“More recently Te Ara Ranga Tira was developed to help us grow and transform our leaders.
“It allows us to create a more sustainable environment within our teams to encourage higher levels of productivity.
“Ultimately the programme was driven by the recognition that people want to be part of a culture within an organisation that makes them feel valued, that supports diversity, rewards hard work and recognises talent,” Smith said.
“We recognise that nurturing our culture will deliver the KPIs the company is targeting with greater levels of consistency.”