Have you ever had to prepare for an encounter with an adversary? Someone who is on the other side of the fence, diametrically opposed to you, your worldview and aspirations. The preparation for the meeting is never pleasant, and no mater how brave a face you put on, unless you are someone who thrives on conflict, you always wish that the meeting is going to be easier. And it can be, with a little help from anthropology and an understanding of the way we operate as individuals and members groups.

Back in November I was asked to give a presentation to the members of the QMCA (Queensland Major Contractors Association) in Brisbane. The suggested topic for the presentation was: “How to Talk to People, Make Friends and Influence Unions”. It was a topic that, I was assured, would be of great interest to those attending the breakfast meeting and might attract a good crowd who would be eager to discover the formula to better engagement with Unions and their members.

As active members of a society we tend to believe that we have a complete understanding of the environments we operate in, especially if that environment is the society or culture that we originate from. However, as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have been arguing for a long time, what we think we know and what we actually know do not always align. We tend to take things for granted without giving them a second thought especially those things that are right in front of our noses. One common, but erroneous, assumption many people have when talking about Trade Unions is that they are Marxist entities, created to propagate and maintain a stranglehold on labour and modes of production. While this particular belief is widely held, especially in the west, there is only a fraction of truth behind the claim. Karl Marx wrote his communist manifesto in 1848, and while the manifesto would go on to be adopted by a number of Trade Unions in the UK and Europe, especially after 1889, unions existed prior to the advent of Marxism, growing out of the process of industrialisation. In the US for example one of the first Unions was formed in 1827, 21 years before Marx published his manifesto, and only 9 years after his birth.

The truth is that humans have been forming social groups since prehistory. Like all the primates, minus the Orang-utan (where the environment and lack of predators may have meant that the species was able to thrive without the protection of a social group), it is a part of our DNA, and a part of what makes us human. As the old saying goes; ‘there is safety in numbers’, and as a species that isn’t the fastest, or the strongest, we rely on the social group, our large brains and advanced forms of communication in order to survive and thrive. Humans form groups, whether they be ‘unions’ or ‘associations’,… ‘We are social’, and we operate best when we cooperate!

So, returning to the question of ‘how we talk to people, make friends and influence unions?’ Well, the answer might not be what people would expect to hear or want to hear because there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. From an anthropological perspective, this would be approached in the same way that any social or ethnic group would be studied. The process requires us to engage a number of intellectual approaches within the field (structural, functional, psychological, cognitive, symbolic semiotic, practice theory, historical, etc.) It requires us to be able to speak the same language as the group to be studied. We have to understand backgrounds and histories as well an understanding of human wants, needs and desires. We also have to understand that the wants of political elites do not always coincide or represent the wants as needs of the average group member. Only once an understanding of all of these areas has been gained can one begin to communicate with the chosen group effectively.

In my experience, the most successful business leaders and CEOs are true practitioners of such behaviour. They are able to effectively communicate their vision through a clear understanding of the needs and wants of every stakeholder inside and outside of their organisation and marketplace. And through this understanding they bring people with them and create a loyalty that helps organisations to succeed. Whether we talk of Mary Barra, Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, each is known as a truly transformative leader. As an anthropologist, I know that part of their success is down to their ability to truly understand, empathise and communicate with others, which, in turn, allows them to inspire those around them.

If you would like to learn more about what this means in practice or how anthropology can be used to address problems facing your business please contact me for a free confidential discussion.

Kevin Porter
Consultant Anthropologist