It’s a great pleasure to welcome back Gillian Tett, who chairs the Editorial Board in the US for Financial Times. She has a regular column at FT, writing about finance, business and the political economy. Gillian’s work is all about looking at the world through different lenses, and moving from tunnel vision to lateral vision. It’s about leveraging diversity, embracing the unknown, and learning from others in non-related fields, cultures, and geographies.
In this interview, we talk about her new book, “Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life,” and we cover a lot of topics from an anthropological perspective. We also talk about controversial topics like Bitcoin and Trumpism, as well as more enduring issues like leadership, and what that looks like in this VUCA world that we live in. So whether you’re a business leader, a policy maker, an investor, or even just a parent worrying about how your kids appear to be over-reliant on technology, I hope you will find this conversation as fascinating and inspirational as I did.
Mark Bidwell 0:39
Hello, this is Mark Bidwell, welcome back, or welcome to the OutsideVoices Podcast. It’s a great pleasure to welcome back Gillian Tett, she chairs the Editorial Board in the US for the Financial Times. And for those of you who read the Financial Times will know, she has a regular column writing about finance business and the political economy. She is a real source of inspiration for me, her work is all about looking at the world through different lenses, moving from tunnel vision to lateral vision. It’s all about leveraging diversity, about embracing the unknown, the different, and learning from others in non related fields, and cultures, and geographies. As I say, I found her work inspirational and valuable for me both personally and professionally, as I think about my journey from anthropologist into the world of corporate business in different geographies, different parts of the world. Most recently, as I’ve left that world behind, and I’m working as an independent, as a board member, and investing in and helping build some startups and working closely with entrepreneurs. In addition, the principles of the anthropologist mindset which she talks about in this interview, are very, very similar to those upon which I based my business OutsideLens. So it won’t surprise you, this is a very rich and quite a dense interview, quite a long one, but it is packed full of insights and fresh perspectives. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I suspect many of you will want to go out and get a copy of her new book, “Anthro-Vision” as soon as it hits the shelves. And that’s irrespective of whether you’re a business leader, a policy maker, an investor, or even just a parent worrying about how your kids appear to be over reliant on technology, so we cover all these topics. We also covered the hot topics like Bitcoin and Trumpism, as well as more enduring issues such as leadership, and what does that look like in this world characterized by white water, this VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that we live in. I learned a lot from preparing for this, from reading her book and reviewing some of her previous materials, but also just from talking to Gillian, and exploring some of the topics that are important to her, and that she brings out in this fascinating new book “Anthro-Vision.” So here is Gillian Tett.
So Gillian, you just published a new book, “Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and in Life.” And why do you think several years ago that you needed to write this book?
Gillian Tett 3:15
Well, I needed to write it, because whenever I told people who had grown up business and policymaking and financial, economic jobs, that I had this background in anthropology and I have a PhD in cultural anthropology from Cambridge University based on research looking into marriage rituals in Tajikistan; when I told people that, they kind of eyes would roll and then go, that’s kind of weird and hippie, what’s the point of anthropology? So I set out to write this book to explain what the point of anthropology is, and why I feel very passionately, that right now is actually a great moment why people need to be talking about anthropology, to build back better after the pandemic, whether it’s in their communities, at companies, or countries, or even just their own family.
Mark Bidwell 4:01
Okay. And maybe we start with the three principles of the anthropology mindset, can you just outline what those are?
Gillian Tett 4:09
I divided the book into three parts, because it’s tough to define anthropology sometimes. I think one way to frame it is to see the three different ways in which anthropology essentially illuminates the world. The first is, anthropology is dedicated to doing something they call making the strange familiar; embracing people who have a different way of looking at the world, a different mindset, different cultural patterns to yourself, and who very often may seem strange, or weird or scary. That can apply to people who live on the other side of the world, and live radically differently from you, or it can sometimes be people who work in the next door department in your own company, or live down the street. It’s about embracing cultural shock or cultural difference. An anthropologist does that because they believe very strongly that you need to empathise with the strange, with something different, to understand how the world works, and to really get a sense of what makes us all tick as human beings. Empathy is critical in today’s world, given that we’re both globalised and polarised. But secondly, anthropologists believe that the value of doing that is not just to get empathy for others, but then to flip the lens, and to look back at yourself with fresh eyes. Because there’s that wonderful Chinese proverb that a fish can’t see water, we can’t see our own cultural assumptions unless we jump out of our fishbowl, and look back. And so anthropology in a way is a win-win, that you get empathy for others, and clearer sight and self-knowledge of your own community, and that enables you to do something else, which is to look at what anthropologists call social silences, the parts of the word anthropologists don’t talk about, all the assumptions we have that are unstated, or ignored, or taboo because they seem so obvious. So it’s about making this strange familiar, the familiar strange, and talking about social sciences.
Mark Bidwell 5:59
And we might get into the social silences that characterise financial crisis later on. Maybe if we get into some practical examples, and maybe the next place to go is the oil drum mystery, which I think is a lovely example of the danger of taking things for granted.
Gillian Tett 6:14
Absolutely. Basically, one of the ways I try and communicate the point about how anthropology can make you look at the world differently is to use the example of a man called Whorf, who was trained as an anthropologist for a while, and then also became a chemical engineer, and was hired in the 1930s, because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else, to work with an insurance company in Connecticut. And he was sent one day to go and study why oil drums kept exploding in warehouses. And up until that point, the scientists have been looking at this and trying to work out what the chemistry was causing the oil drums to explode, and they haven’t found an answer. And Whorf went in there, and he was fascinated by the language that people use to describe these kind of things, because he had previously studied the Hopi people, and noticed that the linguistic structures used in the Hopi language presented a different vision of time, and the passage of the seasons from that in standard Western American English. To give one example, in English today, we say that summer occurs on a certain date, and it might start on, say, the first of June and we imagine it as a fixing. And once the Hopi, according to Whorf, people will say it feels summery as an adverb, and summer was defined when the temperature rose to a certain point, not by a fixed point in the calendar. So Whorf used that background analysis of language to look at what was happening in the warehouses, and realised that one of the biggest problems was that people were being incredibly careful when oil drums were marked full, because full to people sounds kind of scary and important. But when they were having the label empty attached to them, they got ignored, because in English, the word empty sounds like nil or naught or nothing, you just ignore it. But of course, in reality, empty oil drums are full of fumes that are very flammable, which can explode. A large reason why the explosions kept happening was that people were ignoring things called empty. So he said, let’s try and change the labels, and it has an amazing effect. Sometimes cultural analysis can be even better than chemical analysis in trying to understand why explosions happen.
Mark Bidwell 8:19
Lovely. The segue there is, I think someone referred to, I’m not sure whether it was you or quoting someone, but I think you wrote these words, labeling something as free is the financial equivalent of the empty oil drum. This was in the context of the free data in the world of AbTech. It’s a bit of a clunky segue, but I’m very keen to understand that piece of the free data, and why that’s such an important concept to understand from an economic perspective, if you like.
Gillian Tett 8:45
Well, people might say, it’s all very cute to hear about those oil drums in Connecticut, and the way that you can use anthropology or linguistic analysis to think about what we’re ignoring you know, why does it matter in today’s world? Well, one way you can see how it matters is, if you look at the tech companies, and the fact that tech companies today are engaged in incredibly important transactions that really shape and dominate, which are to do with this swap of data for services. And so, we’re constantly giving up our data in ways we don’t fully understand, in exchange for services like email, Gmail, you name it, Facebook. And we don’t really have a way to describe that very well. We talk about free, in the sense of giving up data for free and getting free services, which is a negative, it’s basically an absence of money. An absence of money basically, sounds really boring, because we live in a culture which is obsessed with money. We think money makes the world go round. We think that there’s an entire economics discipline, which defines everything in terms of what’s happening to money. If you start talking about free people avert their eyes, and this matters, because right now, people are ignoring this really important set of transactions that define tech, and which shape the economy, which creates anti-trust questions which need to be discussed.
Mark Bidwell 9:59
Yeah. So that’s free as the equvalent to empty in that context.
Gillian Tett 10:03
Absolutely equivalent to empty. And it’s a very bad label to use, because it makes people avert their eyes, and in fact we should be talking about these swaps.
Mark Bidwell 10:12
The swaps between eyeballs and content, essentially, personal data.
Gillian Tett 10:16
It’s a swap between eyeballs vs. content. I suggest we should use the word barter to talk about it. Barter is a positive, clearly defined thing that can grab attention and make people go, oh, barter. Wow. Okay. And barter is fascinating, because although economists used to assume that barter was an ancient practice, it only occurred amongst cavemen, who had evolved into the habit of having money. People like Adam Smith, basically wrote, the barter was going to disappear as soon as money appeared. And that’s turned out to be totally wrong. Barter has survived, And if you look at the swaps occurring between data and services today, you can argue that barter actually is far more prevalent today in history, than any point before, partly because digital technology has made barter incredibly efficient in today’s world, and easy to organise. Now, you might say, well, actually, it’s not proper barter, because people aren’t haggling about the trade. Consumers are often barely aware that they’re actually involved in a two way trade, or a one way trade, they think they’re just getting all these services free, and they like that. But actually, that’s the whole point, they should be haggling, they should be trying to control the terms of the trade more clearly, even if they want to hang on to that barter trade. And to do that, we have to talk about what’s going on, hence the importance of language.
Mark Bidwell 11:27
And I guess, if I was an investor assessing some of these companies that engage in these practices, before these distinctions are made public, I wouldn’t spend much time on these activities. But in actual fact, they drive huge economic value, they drive a huge source of competitive advantage, and, as you say, antitrust issues as well.
Gillian Tett 11:47
If you’re an investor, you need to think about it for several reasons. Firstly, because you can’t get a good sense of the economy, how it really works, unless you recognise this happening. There’s a huge problem with economic statistics today because it only tracks things through the medium of money. If you think that these exchanges have boosted productivity dramatically, which I do, then they’re probably not being measured in the productivity data. Just to cite one example, if you think it’s an area of consumer activity, which isn’t really quite spending in the classic way, again, you can’t really catch that accurately, and you may be undercounting consumer spending, or consumer consumption. If you think that companies have to be valued according to their position of power in the markets, and you’re just looking at monetary activities or money based activities, you’re missing part of the things that make the big tech giant so valuable. An important thing is that, if you are trying to defend consumers, and build a more equitable world today, and are concerned about antitrust for many decades in America in particular, but also to a degree in Europe, antitrust rules were written on the basis that a monopoly could be determined on the basis of consumer prices. If consumer prices went down, there wasn’t a monopoly, if they went up, there might be. That doesn’t work in a world with no consumer prices. So you need to talk about barter, if you’re going to try and think about how to uphold antitrust principles. And I can’t stress this strongly enough. I’m not saying that the barter trade needs to be abolished, necessarily. In fact, I think most consumers don’t want it to be abolished, because it’s so convenient. We need to talk about ways that reset the terms of trade to make it more equitable. That means giving a lot more transparency, giving consumers more control over the duration of the trade, and above all else, creating data portability, so that if a consumer doesn’t like who they’ve been starting a barter and trade with, they can go somewhere else, but take that data with them. And there’s a model for that in the financial industry, where banks are required to make it easy for customers to swap service providers, and that should be applied immediately to the tech world too.
Mark Bidwell 13:48
Absolutely, I think one of the challenges, when you look at some of these companies, and the investors or the analysts talking about them, is the stickiness of these businesses. A lot of their valuation has to do with the fact that the expectation is that it’s just so painful to transition from one provider to another. We got into this in terms of an example of a social silence, I guess, in the sense of not many people talking about it at the moment. Would you still characterize it as social silence, or is it beginning to get some traction today?
Gillian Tett 14:15
I think that what’s going to get traction today is the fact that one, what’s been going on in the AgTech industry has often been manipulative and a threat to democracy. The political aspect of that is a noise. I think there’s a lot of noise around the fact that companies have been collecting data, where there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about it, the fact it’s a two-way trade, that actually people have been getting free services back in exchange for that. And I think if you would ask consumers whether they want to give up their free services, or pay for it with money in exchange for getting money from selling their data, it’s not clear to me that consumers would want to do that. When they’ve even been offered so far, they haven’t had a lot of uptake, and that they reflect inertia, but it will also reflects the fact that people instinctively recognize, although they can’t articulate it, the fact there is two-way barter trade going on, it’s pretty convenient. They like its convenience, even if, when they stop and think about it, they want to reset the terms of trade quite significantly.
Mark Bidwell 15:09
Yeah. Now we’re talking, not explicitly, but we are talking about Western consumers by and large, not necessarily. There’s a wonderful quote in the book, which I just want to just read out, “One Achilles heel of the Western corporate technology world is that its engineers and executives assume that everyone did or should think like them.” And I guess this comes back to one of the fundamental mindset principles of the anthropology mindset is that we do need to have empathy for strangers, and we do need to recognize that not everyone is like us.
Gillian Tett 15:42
Absolutely, and also recognize the fact that we are also creatures of our own environment, and trapped by cultural assumptions that we inherit unthinkingly from our own surroundings, the good and bad, often bad. I am part of that too. I often fall back, if I’m not careful, into lazy ideas, picked up from the fact that I’m trained as a journalist, I look at the world I was raised in myself, picked up from the fact that I live in New York, that I am lucky enough to have a fairly elite existence by the standards of like 99% of humanity. That shapes how I think, and you can’t change that, we’re all going to be creatures of our own environment, where we are. What you can do is recognize that, reflect on it, and try to sometimes atone for it.
Mark Bidwell 16:25
Yeah. And while we’re on the subject of technology, and I love the section on it talking about, I think you’re a parent, as I am, the concern of teenagers disappearing on their iPhones for hours and hours, and there was a very interesting anthropological perspective on what that actually means, why they were doing that, which is something somewhat different from the conventional wisdom is that they’re all addicted by the behavioral scientists on the West coast. But can you just share that, because it was just very interesting, and a very different perspective on why kids are stuck to their cell phones.
Gillian Tett 16:57
Well, the issue with teenagers and cell phones illustrates the value of looking at the world from an anthropological perspective, because it really highlights why it pays to think about social silence, or what we’re not talking about. My thinking about this was shaped by an amazing woman called Danah Boyd, who runs something called Data and Society in New York, she has previously worked at Microsoft and Yahoo, and she went out to study what teenagers are doing with cell phones, but not as most techies would do it, or even sociologists, which is to just look at the teenagers and their cell phones, or just look at what they’re doing. She actually interviewed them about their cell phones per se. She did what an anthropologist does, and stepped back and tried to look at their activity in context above all else, and try to understand what they were not talking about in relation to their cell phones. She realized that what people were not talking about was the physical real world or the context in which teenagers were operating. The key point to understand is, if you dial back 100 years, in a country like America, and to a degree in Europe, teenagers had an enormous amount of physical freedom, they could roam around the world, they could congregate behind the bike sheds, they could cycle to their school or see friends, they could do all kinds of things without their parents knowing or controlling. If you look at what’s happening in suburban American in the last couple of decades, teenagers are being physically more and more constrained, and this was even before the lockdown, by the way, because, they’ve either been driven around by parents to activities, or parents would stop them from just roaming the streets at late at night by themselves, because it’s seen as dangerous, and a sense that their physical world has been narrowing. And so cyberspace has been almost the only area in their lives, where they can go and roam and collide, and spontaneously explore, without being controlled by parents. So you have to look at their behaviour in cyberspace, in tandem with what’s happening in the physical space, and cyberspace is the area of noise everyone talks about. Physical real life existence is now a silence.
Mark Bidwell 18:56
Interesting. I guess the takeaway from that is this doesn’t mean to say that it’s a great thing they’re spending all their time glued to their phones, but they’re getting different things from it, from what we might originally be concerned about.
Gillian Tett 19:08
I guess the takeaway is, as someone who has two teenagers myself and is constantly frustrated beyond all belief by their phones, and wants to rip them out of their hands half the time, particularly sitting at family suppers, the recognition is that we need to, maybe if you want to stop them exploring all the time on cyberspace, give them a bit more freedom to explore in real life.
Mark Bidwell 19:28
Yeah. You touched on what an anthropologist does in that example. And so maybe we can step back theoretically into the tools of the anthropologist, and the participant observation, which is the main tool. You practiced it in the former Soviet Union, Kirgistan, I think?
Gillian Tett 19:46
Tajikistian. To the outside world, they all seem so strange to people sitting in Europe or America that are like, oh, a “Stan”. Ever since we had Borat movies, everyone is like, oh yeah, weird “Stan.” Of course, weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. To people in Tajikistan, what we do and how we live looks equally weird and exotic.
Mark Bidwell 20:06
Then you took it to a study of a place, which more listeners will be aware of, to a niche, to the financial crisis or to the rapture. What does participant observation, or what does being an anthropologist mean in the corporate world, or for you as a journalist? Maybe you can give us a couple of distinctions to help us understand, for those of us who aren’t, well I’m actually an anthropologist, I didn’t get the PhD, but I studied anthropology, and I try to bring the tools into the corporate world. But what does that look like from your perspective?
Gillian Tett 20:36
Well, it’s hard to define anthropology for two reasons; firstly, the study of humans by other humans is by definition everywhere, but nowhere. And secondly, many of the boundaries in social science are pretty artificial these days, and there’s a huge amount of overlap. It’s better to think about it as a spectrum of social silences, rather than click boxes, I think. One of my hopes is that in the 21st century, some of these boundaries will essentially either become porous or whittled out. Many of the ideas I’m going to talk about in anthropology you can find in group psychology, social psychology, and other areas like that. But essentially, what anthropologists try and do is to immerse themselves into what they’re studying. If they’re studying a community, in my case, Tajikistan, or Wall Street bankers, you immerse yourself into their lives, and you try to participate alongside them in whatever they’re doing. Anthropologists believe that you don’t just understand the world through your brain and your mind, and through verbal cues, that actual physicality matters too, and the physical experience of being in the area, of having embodied cultural knowledge is important. This idea of embodied cultural knowledge is seen as one way that communities define their shared cultural assumptions, and reproduce them. Sounds abstract, but I’ll say what I mean in a moment. So, anthropologists like to get their hands dirty, they don’t kid themselves that participating in a community in that way means that they’re looking at an objective scientific truth, because the mere act of being there can change what they’re observing, but they try to get the perspective of the people that they are studying, and see the world through their eyes. They also try very hard to not look at just one area of life, but take a holistic, interconnected view. So if you’re studying, say, religion, as a sociologist you might look at a top down version of what all the churches in a Christian country were doing. If you’re doing it as an anthropologist, you probably just go and sit in a church, and observe it, and look at both the local economy, and the political structures, and the social structures and see how they all fit together. So you tend to work bottom up, and you tend to also be conscious that the preconceptions you start with in your research might be wrong, and may be a function of your ideas of their ideas, and be willing to change them. You’ve spent a lot of time looking at ritual symbols, use of spaces, language, and above all else, trying to listen to both what people say, or see what they draw attention to, but also what they don’t say, and what they try and ignore. That’s essentially what anthropology is about. And as I say, these ideas are not unique to anthropology, but they are pretty powerful.
Mark Bidwell 23:07
There were some examples of the kinds of companies that have used anthropologists at length, Intel, Microsoft, some new companies using them quite a lot as well. There’s some wonderful examples from Intel around paper and about cars. Paper as this stubborn artifact. At Intel, where everyone was saying papers were gonna go away, the anthropologists found a good reason for paper remaining, and this was quite a long time ago. What is a stubborn artifact, and what insights do they generate around paper, for example?
Gillian Tett 23:36
Well, basically, if you look at the world through a very rational lens, in the way that many computer scientists or engineers are trained to do, paper is kind of ridiculous, because it’s wasteful, it’s costly, it’s clumsy, it can get destroyed. Why would anyone keep paper in the office anymore? The engineers at Intel were predicting, really around the turn of century, that paper would seem to dissappear, and a paperless office. Anthropologists who watched Intel went, actually, human beings don’t do rational cost benefit analysis, or Waste Safety Analysis like engineers. They hang on to many items in their lives, because they have webs of cultural meaning, which can’t be just modeled, or measured or weighed with a big data set. So actually, paper is something which has a lot of emotion for people, and has all kinds of rituals and things like that. So, it won’t dissappear that quickly. What’s fascinating is it turns out that it was the anthropologists who were right, not the engineers, because paper is floating around. I was fascinated as I was talking to the people in America who do online tax filings, or tax filings at a business just recently, and they were telling me that even after the pandemic, even after we’ve all been forced to go home and go online, be forced embrace digital technologies, which have obviously created more focus on digital technologies, not paper; even after all this, it’s astonishing how many people in America still want to file their their taxes with paper systems, and how many tax advisers find it hard to do it digitally. So we don’t change as fast as we think we do.
Mark Bidwell 25:05
Yeah. And then the other one, which I found fascinating, is this distinction between slow and fast money. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Gillian Tett 25:13
Well, one of the fascinating things about anthropology is, although it’s been applied in many areas of consumer life, it hasn’t been applied a lot to consumer finance. And there was a team in Denmark called RED, who were very fascinated by why that was, and started going around about a decade ago, and tracking consumers in America, Germany, Denmark, and the UK to see how they imagined money, and how they talked about it, and how they interacted with their financial institutions. They realized two or three things; firstly, that consumers have really weird, contradictory attitudes towards money, in that they might talk a lot about one piece of money, and then totally ignore everything else. They might spend hours obsessively trying to track some money, and worrying about being very careful about spending it, but then they are completely spent with other pockets of money. They often don’t even know what kind of money they have, because they have all this network of different cards and accounts, and they ignore half of them, or don’t actually tidy them up. The other thing I realize is that that is true even of highly educated people. I know this from my own life, because I’m actually a financial journalist, and I find it incredibly hard, for psychological reasons, to actually sit down and count up my money, or to create an overarching plan for it.
Mark Bidwell 26:28
It’s interesting you say that, because I remember reading some story, about a Goldman Sachs banker or someone, who was suing his home helper who ran off with $18 million. I just couldn’t believe how someone became wealthy, but it wasn’t like this was chump change, it was a big sum. The only way to understand that was that he looked at money, and he put intellectually or emotionally the different buckets of money in different buckets, and was disconnected with one bucket.
Gillian Tett 26:54
Yeah, psychology explained a lot of this, and there’s a field of behavioral finance and stuff. But what the anthropologists were doing was saying, actually, cultural patterns matter too. And they suggested that one cultural pattern is that essentially, consumers often divide the world into fast and slow money buckets. Fast Money is the everyday stuff that you;re very rational, pragmatic, you deal with quickly, that’s your current account, you keep track of it in most cases, you don’t feel scared about embracing exciting new technological tools to manage it, you use ATM machines, you use a phone, that’sfast money where your fast, quick, rational brain operates. And then there’s slow money, which is the stuff you have for investments and savings, and pensions, and sometimes even credit cards and things like that, and a lot of different things. That’s where people, act with shame, and secrecy and blindness, either because they just don’t understand it, or because there’s moral dissonance because they’re taught money drives everything, but also it’s root of all evil, all because they know that they shouldn’t have this kind of really weird split between fast and slow money; also because actually, financial companies often don’t offer Fast Money tools to slow money customers. So there’s always reasons why we have the splits, and that’s fascinating. By the way, that echoes patterns found in most societies in relation to different spheres of economic life. It’s actually not usual, or rather, it’s an aberration of Western society to think that money should be fungible in all contexts, and everything should be consistent. To give you one example, the Tiv group in Nigeria has different types of money for different spheres of economic activity. There is ceremonial, sacred money, they have everyday money, and they have, I think, money for trading outside their community.
Mark Bidwell 28:36
Interesting. I’m always interested in which leaders in the public domain, I mean, corporate leaders, not necessarily limited to, but let’s talk about corporate leaders who actually demonstrate some of the characteristics of an anthropologist. It strikes me that, not necessarily when a leader goes into a new role, but some of the skills an anthropologist needs developed, as they’re learning and practicing around being able to observe without judgment versus jumping to conclusions, the ability to demonstrate a level of humility, and a curiosity versus having the answers. That seems to be a shift going on in the narrative of successful leaders, that they’re moving from the omnipotent or omniscient ,to the curious, to the humble. Are there any leaders that you come across that you think that characterize or exhibit some of these behaviors of an anthropologist? Because essentially, we’re talking about, what I think you mentioned in the book, these are very, very relevant skills in this VUCA world that we’re living in, in this whitewater world of change. I just wondered if there are any leaders who strike you as could have been good anthropologists in a former life if you like, or a previous life?
Gillian Tett 29:43
I happen to think that there are at least four skills that anthropology can offer to any leaders, which they probably need to embrace in today’s world. One is the ability to have empathy for difference, and to recognize that not everyone thinks the way that you do, that’s vital. Another one is to flip the lens, look back at yourself with a sense of humility, and see how weird you may seem to others, and see your own flaws, that’s also vital. A third is the ability to look outside the model, and look at the context and models or big data sets or corporate balance sheets, or whatever tools you’re using to navigate the world, casue they are often bounded. And the fourth one is to recognize that, even in a digital world shaped by AI, or especially in a digital world, we need to think about people’s human behavior and how culture matters. And those haven’t been the skill sets, which have been embraced by leaders often in the past, and not were taught at MBAs, but I think they’re starting to creep in. I was very struck when I spoke to Bernard Looney last year who’s a chief of British Petroleum, but we’re talking about BP, because it’s anything but British, he says.
Mark Bidwell 30:45
And anything but petroleum as well, right?
Gillian Tett 30:47
Exactly, it’s anything but petroleum, which leads me on to my point, which is that I used to write about energy companies in the early part of the naughties, and I was working on the Lex column. And the executives I spoke to are, a) usually incredibly arrogant, they thought they were the Master of the Universe, because in some ways they were. They were utterly dismissive and scathing about environmental activists. I think they thought of them as being secondary to anthropologists, and being hippie dippie. When I interviewed Bernard Looney last year, he revealed that he had just become CEO of BP, that he’d seen some activists demonstrating at the BP AGM in Aberdeen. And then, activists have been turning up for years, and doing things like throwing paint and scaling buildings, and protesting and stuff. Bernard decided to go and talk to them, and he spent subsequent hours trying to listen to them, and hear what they had to say, trying to understand their point of view. And that didn’t mean that he automatically agreed with them, or changed his mind overnight and said, yes, you’re right. He did shift his position in some areas, but he tried to get empathy for a different point of view, and see how the company itself looked in their eyes. Listening to things like, one of the activists said to him, why do you always put pictures of renewables in your advertising, rather than pictures of oil wells? Are you ashamed of your oil wells? And Bernard Looney said, of course we’re not ashamed of the oil wells. Well, if you’re not ashamed, why don’t you put them in your advertising? What are you trying to say there, or signal there? Anyway, it got Bernard Looney thinking, and I think it’s probably one reason why he came out later, and it was more aggressive than most of his peers, in trying to reorientate BP towards a renewable energy strategy. Now, you can sit there and say, it doesn’t go far enough, and that’s what activists would say. You can sit there and say, well, maybe the whole thing was hypocrisy, that he just was trying to read the room, and change in accordance to that. Perhaps true, but the point is, having some empathy and an ability to listen is critical for any CEO today.
Mark Bidwell 32:46
You might remember, I was in Syngenta several years ago, and when I consider how we, as a group of leaders, used to think about the NGOs, the activists, the Green Peace, demonstrating any empathy was at best weakness, and the worst, it was an indication that actually we were on the other side. It was a social silence in the organisation, the taboo issue in the industry. That’s one of the reasons why the industry is in such difficulties at the moment. There’s a huge gap between what consumers want, and what’s in the marketplace around crop protection products, for example. So a very good example. Yeah, fascinating. You wrote a lot of articles, but there was one article you wrote about Jamie Diamond taking his leadership team on a bus tour to the west coast to meet with bank tellers and stuff. That struck me as an attempt, assuming it wasn’t a cynical sort of PR exercise, to actually really understand, do some firsthand participant observation, if you like, to really understand what was going on. But there are few and far between these examples, I think.
Gillian Tett 33:48
Absolutely. And it’s very easy to be cynical. Jamie Diamond, I have no way of knowing what’s really in his mind, and whether that really was an attempt to listen, but I think he at least recognized that he ought to seem to be listening. And that in itself is quite a mindset shift from where we were a few years ago. I do think that actually, there are some CEOs who really are listening these days. They’re listening as much out of fear as anything else. The reason is very simple. If you look at what’s happened, in transforming business radically today, in terms of the sustainability and ESG movement, there’s not a CEO on the planet right now, at least in the Western world, who is running a big company, who dares to ignore it completely. And what ESG is really all about in his most cold way, is looking beyond the model, looking beyond the balance sheet, taking note of societal attitudes, because in an era of radical transparency, with people who are investors, consumers, employees, customers, have the ability to watch what companies are doing and protest if they don’t like it, CEOs are realizing that and recognizing that they have to start listening. Otherwise they’re going to be torpedoed by reputational scandals, of the sort we saw with the hashtag #MeToo, or potential regulatory issues, or simply the risk of losing their best staff, and customers and investors.
Mark Bidwell 35:08
Yeah. And it strikes me that externalities, until very recently, have been elements of social silence, right? No one’s ever talked about all these externalities, but now they’re coming into focus for the reasons that you mentioned.
Gillian Tett 35:23
Another reason to understand why ESG is relevant is, because anthropology is a discipline that is obsessed with what people might call externalities, social sciences, the stuff, we don’t notice, the stuff that’s a black spot at the edge of the map, or it’s a piece that falls between the cracks, or it’s the silence that we don’t actually address.
Mark Bidwell 35:42
Gillian Tett 35:43
Taboo subjects, exactly. If you look at how most of the Western policy making and corporate leadership roles have developed for the last few decades, we’ve developed these amazing intellectual tools to navigate the world with, such as big datasets, economic models, balance sheets, which are brilliant, but they’re bounded. They’re defined by the inputs you put into the model, which by definition means there are things you ignore outside that model, the context. That doesn’t matter if the context is not changing, if it’s stable, but it matters that the context is changing rapidly, which there has been in recent years, and relying on an economic model or a corporate balance sheet to find in the old way in that situation, is like walking through a darkwood at night with a compass. You don’t want to throw away your compass, but if you just navigate by looking down the dial and nothing else, you’re probably going to walk into a tree. You need to lift your eyes up, look around. That’s sort of what ESG has been doing. It is saying, let’s look at stuff that’s external, like the environment, like social issues. That is exactly what anthropology has also been doing. But anthropology isn’t the word that people toss around the boardroom normally, even though it’s kind of the same instinct.
Mark Bidwell 36:53
Yeah. And I think recently, you’ve been putting the word out there quite a lot. I think last week, you’re on MSNBC, and using the word anthropology, probably for the first time ever on the airwaves, right?
Gillian Tett 37:03
I think I’m, certainly at the moment, trying to explain to people why it matters. Anthropology has a massive image problem compared to other social sciences, like psychology, or history or economics, people look at anthropology and think it’s a weird, wacky discipline full of people who want to be Indiana Jones, going off to far flung tribes and looking at bones or exotic rituals. And that was the case in the 19th century, but today is not. Today, I’m actually spending a lot more time looking at Amazon warehouses than Amazon jungle. And exactly the same tools can be used to shed enormous light on modern corporate and political life.
Mark Bidwell 37:40
Wonderful that you mentioned political life, because last time we spoke, I think Trump just got elected. I loved the section in the book about someone advising you to, if you really want to understand Trump, but let’s face it, it’s taken us a long time, and maybe we haven’t even got there, but to really understand him, that you go to a wrestling match. You went to one of these, right? You were an anthropologist, in a sense, trying to understand Trump. What happened, and why is that helpful in understanding the man and his appeal, if you like?
Gillian Tett 38:09
I basically am a creature of my own environment, so I’ve never paid any attention to wrestling, because that’s not something that educated, global elite, and I’m pretty elite by the standards globally, people tend to do. I’m a creature of my own environment, I ignored it. It was actually a friend of mine who came from a different background and said, you know what, most Americans actually know Trump from the television screen through wrestling, because Trump was a sponsor of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation for a long time, not through the apprentice show. If you want to understand Trump, you need to go to a wrestling match. And Naomi Klein, the activist has pointed this out as well, and I looked for the insight to her. The point about wrestling is that when you go to it, and actually have the physical embodied experience of participant observation, you realise that wrestling matches a crude, angry, noisy, aggressive, full of staged, fake contests, which are very aggressive and someone wins, and everyone cheers on. They’re full of color and noise and light, and melodrama. And the more melodrama the better, and the people who are engaged in it call each other stupid names. And if you want to understand what Trump was doing when he went campaigning, he borrowed, either by instinct or design, lock, stock and barrel, the performative aspect of the wrestling ring, and took it into politics. So things like Little Mark Rubio and Crooked Hillary, all those name tags are literally copying what happens in the wrestling ring. What’s brilliant about that was that he didn’t just tap into a cultural pattern, which many voters, not elite voters, recognized, again almost instinctively, almost by Pavlovian signals, and thought was fantastic. Also, as they saw him performing in that way, they didn’t interpret his words literally, they interpreted it through the prism of wrestling, right, and understood the emotion, and where he was going with it. He did all that in a way that most elites did not even understand what was going on, because they’ve never been to a wrestling match. So if you don’t try and empathize how different people are living, and what they think, you end up missing half the picture. In this case, it was one reason why people like myself, who came from this journalistic community, where we were used to thinking with our heads, and looking for a reason, and looking for politics to be done in a certain prescribed ritualistic manner, developed from Washington, we’re looking forward to that. We did not know what was going on.
Mark Bidwell 40:28
And yet you probably, like me, read the Clifford Geertz book about Balinese cockfighting probably 35 years ago, right?
Gillian Tett 40:34
Yeah, Balinese cockfighting is incredibly relevant to understanding what Donald Trump was doing with his performative ritualistic displays. It’s also very, very, very relevant to understanding what’s happening with Bitcoin today.
Mark Bidwell 40:45
Really. So this is not in the book, so can you say a little bit more about that then?
Gillian Tett 40:48
Yeah, actually sort of a bunch of anthropologists have done some brilliant work on this recently, looking at how the kind of activity that most grown up economists dismissed as irrelevant, such as a meme culture, such as Elon Musk tweets, all of that. They think that’s irrelevant, it’s ridiculous, it’s stupid. It’s got nothing to do with economics. Actually, it’s got everything to do with economics right now. Because, Balinese cockfighting rituals are a good way to make sense of what’s happening with Elon Musk and Bitcoin, or with other cryptocurrencies, in terms of defining tribal groups. Value in something has been defined partly through allegiance to a tribe. I use that word in a very loose sense, sort of civic sense. The role of rituals and symbols in terms of defining groups and the role the emotion plays. It really boils down to something that Clifford Geertz celebrated, which is the value of having an emic perspective of etic perspective, that means learning to look at the world through someone else’s eyes, not your own eyes.
Mark Bidwell 41:44
Yep. Fascinating. Any particular references, because this is a rabbit hole that I’ve kind of skirted around, but haven’t gone down, but maybe the way into it would be through the anthropological angle. Any particular people who are published and deep in this area?
Gillian Tett 41:58
Well, there’s actually quite a lot out there. I’m actually about to write a column about it myself. Someone like Mick Morucci, I think he’s called a really good piece in Bitcoin Magazine online about two months ago, is great. As a UX researcher and designer who studied the different tribes of Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency, making the very important point, essentially, if you look at the different groups who are buying different types of digital assets, they’re not all the same, there are different dynamics. There’s an anthropologist in Germany who has looked a lot at how Bitcoin is changing power structures, and against sort of hierarchies and things like that. So all of that can be helpful. There’s also a wonderful book by Rachel Botsman, who’s a sociologist, looking at patterns of trust, and what underpins the things we trust, whether it’s vertical trust in institutions, or horizontal trust in your paygrade. And that’s also very relevant.
Mark Bidwell 42:46
Super. Okay. A couple of other areas that I just wanted to touch on, before we begin to wrap this up, working from home is interesting. Jamie Diamond is now sending his people back, 50% of his people, he wants that. But he also wants, it’s not in TAC teams, it is bringing diversity back into the workplace a little bit. I’m just curious about how you see the importance of the workplace, if indeed it still remains important after this 18 months of hiatus that we’ve been in?
Gillian Tett 43:14
Well, the issue about the workplace really revolves around two phrases that anthropologists use. One is incidental information exchange, and the other sense making. To take the second one, what sensemaking argues is that the way we make decisions, and do our work is not through the things we think we use, which is our brains and our rational tools and plans, or a version of GPS to plot a course and then project on the world and follow. It is a process in sensemaking where you absorb signals, often through nonverbal cues all around you as points, and read the environment and navigate through trial and error, adn they’re great. What officers do is essentially provide a way of enabling that process to work, we can keep swapping embodied nonverbal cues, you can actually bounce ideas around in this bubble room with a group. That helps us to process and think. So that’s one point, and it helps explain why banks have kept trading floors in place, and kept building big and bigger trading floors in recent years, even though changes in financial technology means they could have all worked from home 20 years ago.
Mark Bidwell 44:20
And their performance is 50% down, I think, year on year given the fact everyone’s going virtual, right. I mean, that’s the other piece of it. The facts are clear though.
Gillian Tett 44:27
Yeah, actually going back, working from home for bankers produces worse performance, it appears. The second point is very important, is that small groups or teams that have a high level of social capital can also replicate their operations online, because they actually trust each other. The problem really comes from people who don’t have high social capital. In an office, there’s often people who are in that situation. Or where you have different groups that need to talk to each other through incidental information exchange, or bumping into each other at basically the edges of teams and that is very hard to replicate on Zoom. So those are the reasons why offices matter.
Mark Bidwell 45:01
Yeah, there’s a wonderful quote, I think it’s from the Middle East, a chance encounter is worth 1000 meetings. That’s one of the things that’s clearly gone, and people are desperate to get back to create those new relationships, and as you say, the stuff happening at the edges of conversations.
Gillian Tett 45:18
It’s really about serendipity a lot of the time.
Mark Bidwell 45:20
Yeah, super. So just before we wrap up, Gillian. Three questions which I didn’t send through to you, so I apologize in advance, but let me see how they land with you. Firstly, what have you changed your mind about recently?
Gillian Tett 45:31
I think probably cryptocurrency, because I tend to assume, because I work as a financial journalist, that the whole thing was ridiculous and a scam, and it should be dismissed. I actually think, partly through the recent work of anthropologists, but also looking more deeply into it, that parts of it are a scam and should be dismissed, but actually parts of it should not be. So that’s one area.
Mark Bidwell 45:49
Fascinating. Secondly, where do you go to get fresh perspectives, especially when you’re facing particularly tough situations?
Gillian Tett 45:56
I’d probably go far enough, and it’s something that I really want to do in 2021 as we open up. Physically, I go for runs and bike rides, I try to let myself on the internet as widely as I can, I find that if I’m trying to look for intellectual inspiration, reading websites, like the conversation are wonderful, because you collide with a completely different ideas all over the place that you didn’t even know you should know. And they come from the world of academia. Academic institutions are repositories of brilliant ideas, which often don’t see the day of light, because they’re not translated into a way that ordinary people can understand. The Conversation website is somewhere that I’d recommend anyone looks at, just to get fresh inspiration.
Mark Bidwell 46:33
Interesting, I’ll check it out. And then the third one, do you hold an important truth that very few people agree with you beyond Bitcoin perhaps? Although there’s plenty of believers out there?
Gillian Tett 46:43
Gosh, that’s a very good question. I think the value of anthropology is something that people probably haven’t agreed with me on for many years. So I’d probably hold that one up to be honest. I hope that’s changed, that’s one reason I wrote the book. But for many years, anthropology was seen by almost everywhere I knew as being hippy and useless.
Mark Bidwell 47:02
Yeah. We haven’t touched on it, but it’s such a shame that the anthropological perspectives that came back from studying Ebola in West Africa were just completely ignored, for instance, in the UK, in how they responded, and I think it’s depressing. But having said that, it’s wonderful that a mainstream public figure and journalist is writing a book for the mainstream business reader, which I think will begin to change that. So thank you very much. I’ve learned a ton from the book, but also from you. As I said to you when we first met, it’s been inspirational watching you, but also reflecting on my career and looking at it through the anthropological lens. So thank you personally very much. I’m sure my audience will find it as interesting as I did. Best of luck with the book launch and many thanks, Gillian.
Gillian Tett 47:43
Thank you very much indeed, and look forward to more conversations. So thank you.
Mark Bidwell 47:46
Super, thanks a lot.