Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Managing Effectively From Afar: Lessons From Anthropologists During the Pandemic

Federal leaders can learn a lot from anthropologists about observing agency culture and listening to employees.

The presidential transition and the inaugural year of the Biden-Harris administration was uniquely challenging in ways that continue today. Many political appointees, career managers and rank-and-file employees at headquarters and regional offices nationwide have been involved in the most extensive work-from-home experience in government history. Telework has created a leveling effect among these public servants at a time when the federal government is facing major mission delivery demands. The result has been that managers must find new ways to communicate and learn from others about what is going on in their agencies.

New agency heads and political appointees are experiencing the prolonged perennial risk of being in their own bubble. They are often perceived as connected to a concept of government, but not its mission in the same way as career employees see themselves. One frustrated Biden-Harris appointee expressed during the surge in the Omicron coronavirus variant that, “I’m used to mapping the org chart by hallways, offices and faces.” Similarly, as a career regulatory compliance manager observes, “without the ability to walk the halls, nod and say ‘hello,’ engage in office drop-ins, and receive a valuable ‘heads up,’ we can mistakenly assume everything is okay. That is, until an employee’s attorney, the IG, or the Hill contacts us.”

However, as former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker during the Obama administration told The Washington Post in 2014, “I have said to my closest advisers, ‘Your job is not to tell me about something you’re concerned with, it’s to get in my face and make sure I’ve heard you. You’re not off the hook by just telling me something in passing in the hallway.” Being a government executive today requires even more contextual breadth to be well-informed, rather than allowing others to “curate” and distill the information in advance.   

Technology as a Tool

Many sectors of society have been affected by the pandemic, with employees displaced from offices, classrooms, factories and other workplaces. However, for federal leaders and managers—and particularly political appointees who are often viewed as members of their own tribe—some of the most valuable parallels and insights on how to manage and communicate with employees in a remote work environment come from cultural anthropologists, especially “digital anthropologists” already using and studying technology, culture and behavior as part of their work. Anthropologist Daniel Miller, University College London, has found that existing cultural traits can result in technology enabling more informative research interviews. For example, conducting private individual interviews by webcam in the part of Italy that Miller studies resulted in learning more than he might have learned in person, possibly because the experience resembled how people speak to a priest during a confessional.

Cultural anthropologists were forced by the pandemic to evacuate from every corner of the globe, becoming cut off from the local people central to their ethnographic research. Anthropologist  Katie Nelson had to cancel her own plans to return and continue research in Chiapas, Mexico. Nelson also teaches in Minnesota, and in her 2018 text “Doing Fieldwork: Methods in Cultural Anthropology” describes the immersive approach of participant observation to be “cultural anthropology’s distinctive research strategy.” Nelson also emphasizes that anthropology “helps people think in new ways about aspects of their own culture by comparing them with other cultures.” Today, the point of comparison for anthropologists and all government executives and managers is having to understand the ways that the pandemic has permeated and impacted the lives of everyone centrally involved in their work.

As a digital anthropologist, Daniel Miller is assisting many social scientists—from students who cannot yet travel, to colleagues returning home and who must regroup. Miller is using YouTube as an open forum, for example, to discuss “How to Conduct Ethnography During Social Isolation.” Deborah Lupton, an Australian social scientist at the University of New South Wales, has compiled strategies such as the crowdsourced Google doc “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic.”

Miller’s modern use of anthropology is noteworthy because of how he incorporates the essentials of traditional participant observation research, especially the importance of listening. Similarly, some of the most experienced and respected presidentially appointed leaders and career government executives believe that listening is the most important, and often ignored, tool available to learn and understand what is going on from atop an agency, organization, or program.

The Art of Listening

John Koskinen, who served as the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under President Obama and was deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, told me in an interview: “You have to meet with employees and listen to what they have to say. Often leaders think engaging with the workforce means talking to them, not listening and learning from them.” Koskinen added, “Just take the time to meet and listen to front line workers across the agency, and then separately with their managers. Then you'll know how the place works, what the obstacles are, and what needs to be done to make the place work better in pursuit of the agency's mission.”

John Palguta’s distinguished 34-year career in government including in the Senior Executive Service is recognized for his knowledge and judgment about the federal civil service: “I was always amazed to see otherwise intelligent and well-meaning leaders, especially political appointees, come into a ‘new-to-them’ department or agency and immediately start to issue directives and ‘guidance’ to the career staff without ever asking them for their opinions or advice,” he told me. “The new leaders still get to call the shots regardless but talking to employees and listening to what they have to say just makes so much sense.”

The statements from these and other successful government leaders make clear that listening is a must. It is the necessary building block for establishing rapport and trust with government employees because it is a threshold requirement for people to begin speaking from their own personal perspective.  As a political appointee you do not want to be one of the people described as “they don’t know what they don’t know,” though no one will say that to your face.

One of anthropologist Miller’s secrets is that for technology to be effective in holding “virtual meetings” is that it remains essential to observe the cultural customs of the people, including the culture of organizations, you are interviewing or speaking to. First, while it is useful to have a title, subject, or issue you wish to explore, being overly rigid, controlling, or acting authoritatively because of your position in the organizational hierarchy will prevent the disclosure and discussion important information from the perspective of employees—the very purpose of the meeting. Second, government has cultural customs that may be invisible to political appointees, and to career managers who were unaware of these before the pandemic. Again, cultural anthropology provides a useful cross-cultural comparison approach for more productive conversations and meetings in the workplace.

Pith Helmet Not Required

Anthropologist Nelson describes her experience reaching a remote fieldwork destination in northeastern Brazil traveling on the back of a motorcycle. “After several hours navigating a series of bumpy roads in blazing equatorial heat, I was relieved to arrive at the edge of the reservation …. I removed my heavy backpack from my tired, sweaty back. Upon hearing us arrive, first children and then adults slowly and shyly began to approach us. I greeted the curious onlookers and briefly explained who I was … a group of children ran to fetch the cacique (the chief/political leader).”

The takeaway from this story is that all appointees, no matter how high ranking, are outsiders to an agency and its culture too. Unless you observe the unspoken customs in the federal government culture by requesting that the agency head, the “chief,” or equivalent person give permission to government employees or a task team to meet and speak openly with you, you will be received in guarded silence. It is equally important that the agency or program head involved reports back to career employees, as appropriate, and describes what was learned and how such efforts contribute to the agency mission and effectiveness.

Additionally, as Nelson has observed as an anthropologist in both teaching and professional academic capacities, she cannot ignore human behavior and cultural patterns that are surfacing as a result of using technology. Nelson has observed that since Zoom technology is not suited to people interrupting one another, women are not being interrupted as frequently by louder or more dominant voices coming from men as occurs in meetings held in person.

Even though you will not be writing an ethnography in the same way that an anthropologist does, working from a distance, using technology more strategically and listening better to those with the information that you need are essential management abilities whether you return to the office or continue working remotely. As Craig S. Barton, a senior career government contracting official, has become more keenly aware during the pandemic, “we have to be much more intentional about how we lead and manage today, to ensure that we listen and hear what we need to be aware of and understand what is going on in our agencies.”

That is the new culture of government management.

Steven L. Katz held legal and management positions in the Senior Executive Service during the Clinton administration, served in the Clinton White House, and consulted across many agencies. He is the author of the book Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses, and Other Tough Customers. He has led training for leadership and management development across the government and possesses degrees in anthropology, history and law. He can be reached at emailkatz@yahoo.com

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.