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 email@example.com.