Organizational anthropology sounds like a grandiose academic affair. You may imagine the anthropologists armed with notebooks and cameras capturing the company tribes. Perhaps the corporate indigenous are not naked, they all are on their smartphones, and the tribes occupy glass door offices. Still, anthropology.
This is the forgotten discipline that could have spared us superficial ‘management science’ by going to the bottom of individuals, groups and relationships. Why it did not make it, or, why or how I would argue this with many people who think it did, is a conversation for another day.
Let me share a very simple and unsophisticated anthropological insight that just by simply considering it, could help directing some of the things we do or don’t in organizations. The French anthropologist Claude Levy Strauss (1908-2009) amongst others, told us how games are basically disjunctive and rituals conjunctive. Translations: Games are by nature divisive, they lead to winners and losers (ok, even if we say that ‘participating is all that matters’). Games are disjunctive. Rituals are by nature uniting, they lead to being together, to nurturing an identity of belonging. They are conjunctive.
On that frame, having a cookout or barbeque with the division, or an evening together to the theatre, would count as ritual, whilst racing each other in go-Karts in the same divisional off-site would be, well, a game where winners will get a cup and losers will clap. If you wanted team building, you would not do games.
This is of course a complete caricature and will irritate many. Starting by the ones who use games and sports as experiential analogies for leadership. And I know many people who do this very well (not me). Also, God knows that sales organizations worship games, competitions and winners and losers. They do that al the time. And gamification of life is becoming an industry on its own merits.
But before dismissing the anthropological distinction as irrelevant, I would suggest a pause, at least as a curiosity. Maybe there is something there that we don’t hear. Maybe we should have games (if this is what you want) that are more like rituals. Dare I say the best ritual-game is the one where everybody wins. Wow! What a bore and a contradiction I hear. Where all this competitive spirit will go?
Again, the anthropo-clever people would tell us of examples (remote islands perhaps with scantily clad people, maybe) where games are games, but have never winners and losers as a way to avoid any division in the community.
Rubbish? Curious? I believe we don’t pay enough attention to the insights coming from all those ‘humanity’ discipline.
Let’s say you have a multi-country gathering within your company, and that the countries represented are a bit heterogeneous in terms of performance. Some come with a reputation for delivery, others with one of struggling, or underperforming. In the real life they all are already a bit of winners or a bit of losers. They arrive with differences. The anthropologist would say, the last thing you need is to use win/lose games as a way of boosting some sort of ‘team building’, no matter who would loose or win. Use the ritual, not the game.
Suspend judgement and try to see the logic. One can always dismiss it but, I, for one, would follow the anthropologist recommendation.