How to Study Your Manager Like an Anthropologist

05.06.2020 |

Episode #2 of the course Managing your manager by Jordan Thibodeau and Joe Ternasky


“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment, and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” —Margaret Mead


Welcome back!

In our previous lesson, we learned the biggest reasons that most people forget to manage up. In this lesson, we’ll discuss how you can get to know your manager by becoming more like an anthropologist.


Common Miscommunication Traps

As humans, we communicate through multiple channels of communication using words, facial expressions, and body language. But, as we discussed in our Highbrow course “Mastering your conversations,” these are all easy to misinterpret. This misinterpretation causes miscommunication traps that harm our social lives and damage our careers. Here are a few common miscommunication traps that we fall into while communicating with our managers:

Over-emoting. Expressing any unnecessary anger or sarcasm could be misinterpreted as a sign of disrespect toward your manager. You might think you are being funny or honest, but your manager can easily interpret this as unprofessional behavior and a challenge to their authority. Furthermore, mocking or showing contempt for your manager’s decisions in front of your peers is another form of disrespect and will easily destroy your manager’s respect for you.

Expecting to be the center of your manager’s world. If you feel like your manager is upset with you, try your best not to internalize it. Your manager could be worried about something that has nothing to do with you. Avoid getting worked up, jumping to conclusions, or assuming the worst, and if you really think you’re at fault, then get ahead of things by speaking with your manager discreetly or privately to share your perspective and ask for feedback.

Assuming you know more than your manager. If your organization is healthy, your manager is in their position because they are competent. Sometimes you might disagree with their decisions, and that’s fine; but never assume that you know more than your manager. Doing so can cause you to make a mistake. Instead, assume you don’t know the entire situation and that your manager is making decisions based on information that’s beyond the scope of your role.


Becoming an Anthropologist

So how do we avoid these traps? First, we need to be able to separate our opinions from reality. Depersonalizing your appraisal of your direct manager will help you better understand your manager and yourself because your prejudicial opinions cloud your judgement. But sometimes we are too close to a situation to look at a manager objectively.

In these cases, a strategy you can use to inject some distance between your subjective views and reality is to view your manager through the eyes of an anthropologist. An anthropologist’s role is to study various cultures without casting judgment. Thus, anthropologists remain neutral and do their best not to let their own opinions get in the way of their professional goals.

Great anthropologists have these qualities in common:

1. They don’t judge others. A great anthropologist never judges the people they are studying because such judgement would prevent them from truly learning and appreciating those peoples’ cultures. (To learn how judging others hurts ourselves, enroll in our Highbrow class “Bouncing back from failure.”)

2. They appreciate psychological diversity. An anthropologist recognizes the unique thought patterns of different groups of people and sees the value of these varied viewpoints. Diversity helps make the world a rewarding place to live in. Without it, our society would stagnate.

3. They are humble. An anthropologist is humble enough to realize that they don’t have a perfect understanding of any situation because everything can be interpreted differently. Taking this wisdom to heart, good anthropologists don’t expect others to have all the answers, which allows them to be effortlessly compassionate to themselves and others.

The empathy you will gain from reflecting on the qualities of an anthropologist will provide you with a new lens through which to analyze your manager and question any assumptions you’ve made about their managing style.


Getting to Know Your Manager

The more you know about your manager’s background, the better you will be able to relate to them. Try asking them one or two basic questions about themselves to break the ice. Here are some sample questions:

• What did you do before you began working here?

• Why did you decide to work for this company? What attracted you to it?

• What was it like working at your old company?

• What part of your work feels effortless? What part seems tedious?

• What’s the most challenging aspect of your position?

The answers to these questions will teach you more about your manager and help you discover what you have in common, thereby making it easier to relate and communicate with them. You don’t need to ask your manager all of these questions at once; you can sprinkle them in during some unrelated interactions.


Communicating with Your Manager

Determining your manager’s communication style and expectations is critical to your success as an employee. Unfortunately, not many people take the time to analyze their manager’s expectations. Ask yourself questions like these to discover what your manager expects of you:

• Is your manager disinterested in graphs and figures, or do they require data supporting every claim you make?

• Does your manager want to be walked through your decisions step-by-step, or do they want you to start with the conclusion and work backwards?

• Would your manager rather watch a detailed presentation or read your analysis in private and then meet with you to pepper you with questions?

• Does your manager prefer discussing details over email, by phone, or in person?


To Do

1. Consider the questions posed in this lesson to begin evaluating your manager’s communication style.

2. In your Managing Your Manager Journal, fill out the section labeled “Manager Profile.”

In our next lesson, we will further explain how to identify your manager’s communication style.

Jordan and Joe

Managing Your Manager Teachers


Recommended book

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio


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