Personal values are at the core of the human experience. That doesn’t change when we go to work every day, but they’re often overlooked in corporate culture. So, how can personal and brand values work together?

In episode 3 of “The talent time machine” podcast, CEO Marissa Geist spoke to corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson about the importance of understanding ourselves as we step into the future of work:

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What is corporate anthropology?

Michael: Anthropology is the study of human beings to see how various cultures are different from one another, or the same. Corporate anthropology is just taking some of the skill sets from anthropology. You might be helping people that need to communicate something to a government or trade partners, helping them just understand the differences between the two and how certain things work in one area.

When you apply that in the business world, a major part of what I end up doing is educating businesses on what culture actually is. Where does it come from? How does it form? Who leads it? Who owns it? Why does it sometimes change when you don't want it to? Why do most mergers and acquisitions fail or underperform because of culture more than any other factor?

Perhaps the most important thing is that clients suddenly realize is what culture delivers. And the primary thing for businesses or organizations is performance. Performance itself is driven by the culture more than almost any other factor.

Marissa: If I had to sum up in a in a different, harsher way: people care about culture because culture drives performance, which drives financial performance. And if you don't have a good hardwiring of that culture, you're going to get something you don't expect or don't want.

Michael: From a more social perspective, it’s about supporting human beings to have a great working experience and to support mental health, diversity, inclusion, and more while serving the business and the brand.

“The most important thing you can do in a workplace culture is make it safe to communicate. If you haven't … you end up with a toxic culture.” – Michael Henderson


How is corporate culture changing? What are some of the major trends?

Michael: The biggest shift I’ve seen is an awakening around personal values. And what I mean by that is, what are the key priorities that you as an individual human being organize your life around? What are the core principles you hold dear?

Let's say, for example, you had five top values of family, health, growth, learning, and nature. Three or four years ago they might have taken a bit of a backseat because you spent most of your time earning money or participating in your career. When, for example, you have time at home because of COVID, you suddenly have time to engage with those values.

Marissa: We're seeing that come in, where people, especially Gen Z, coming into the workplace are saying, “I would like work to fit with my life, not be living to work.” It's a shift that's been coming for a while really.

We've been in this blip of industrialization, but work never looked like this prior to industrial revolution, with people leaving their homes to go work, work not being a family business, work being something that exists outside of your personal identity, it’s really a new phenomenon.

It's almost like the pendulum went completely the other way and we had to pretend we weren't even humans anymore. How do you think that’s going to change?

Michael: I suspect that we’ll be on a path to experience our humanity at a level that maybe we've deprived ourselves of before.

As an anthropologist, you get out and see cultures all around the world. And I've repeatedly been amazed at some of the more isolated communities of human beings living slightly disconnected from very industrialized, technological societies. And in many ways, they're more human. They’re living the experience of being a human in a village or in a community, with a lot more human emotions on display. If we don't have to pretend, we can just be ourselves in a very raw, authentic, open manner.

I think there's elements of that happening, that we're even seeing the early signs of that starting to emerge now as people are reorienting themselves within themselves. And I see that as a potentially hugely beneficial thing.

If our personal and professional selves are more integrated in the future, what are the most important characteristics needed for people to flourish?

Michael: The history of work was largely about control. Control of resources, timeframes, systems, who you recruit, who you promote. I think the integration of artificial intelligence and automation frees up a concept called “develop.” Now, people think, “We have this available now, what could we develop with that? Where could that take us that we haven't been before?” So, we've gone from control as a concept for leading, to development, i.e. how do we develop ourselves and use this incredible resource that's available to us.

It's a little bit like the Wild West at the moment, as it could go anywhere and anything could happen. It could be a good outcome or a not so good outcome, so how do you lead through that? It’s possible we’ll need to go back to controlling to take all these different opportunities.

In anthropology, we call it a liminal space, meaning we're in between. So, we haven't let go of the past yet, but we haven't arrived at the future. It's like an adolescence, somewhere in between the two.

Artificial intelligence is becoming creative, with biases and morality built in. How will AI influence culture and how can we prepare for it?

Michael: The most important thing you can do in a workplace culture is make it safe to communicate. If you haven't created a culture where it’s safe to communicate, you’re creating a cult instead of a culture, where you follow the leader. You end up with a toxic culture.

At the moment, the best thing leaders can do is become a social scientist for 90 days in the workplace. And just walk around and ask people: “How are you using it? What's working? What's not working? Where do you see there's opportunities for us? And where are you alarmed or concerned about what this could mean for us?” Because it's so new, that none of us have the answer.

Marissa: We’re almost creating a two-class system because there's a whole part of the workforce that never went home or don’t use AI. People that have to manufacture or work in the cleaning business, for example. So, you’ve got half of the population on a rocket ship of innovation and assistance, and the others might be feeling a little left behind.

“It's not that advancement has taken away jobs or the opportunity to work, it’s just changed what humans are doing.” – Marissa Geist


How can we build a more inclusive corporate culture and brand values that help everyone benefit from technology?

Michael: Every environment can be visited and explored. Even with things like cleaning or driving a forklift, there are opportunities with artificial intelligence to apply to that situation – such as understanding health and safety practices. Or agriculture, for different ways of working with the land or cutting emissions. There are opportunities, even within areas that we might not suspect.

Marissa: Here in the U.S, at the turn of the 19th century, around 1 in 4 people were working on a farm and now it’s less than 1 in 20, I think. However, we have record low unemployment. So, it's not that advancement has taken away jobs or the opportunity to work, it’s just changed what humans are doing. As you said earlier, the best way to keep talking about this and really have people feel positive about it is safety and communication – having a safe place to communicate.

What can we do to create psychological safety and avoid fear in times of uncertainty?

Michael: We've talked about control being the historical approach to leadership, and development is the emerging aspect of leadership with artificial intelligence, etc. The third and final component is what I call “relating.” This means looking at the interrelationship habits that you have formed as a group that are often so habitual they’ve become unconscious.

So, what do we do when people are nervous or anxious or uncertain? How do you make it safe to communicate? I think one of the best things you can do is ask questions of each other.
There’s been a shift to looking at how people are processing things inside of themselves. Asking, “what emotional psychological reaction or responses are you having to this change?” I think that's a rich area for leaders to start to consider and build skill sets in.

Marissa: That's a really good way to frame it and puts it on the person to be able to articulate things rather than having the chaos of emotions – saying, “Tell me a couple things that you're thinking and feeling in your experience.”

What should we be teaching young people to prepare them for work in the coming decades?

Michael: The first thing is I'd be encouraging them to understand and explore their own personal values. There's a massive possibility emerging with automation of work, even manual labor, you know, being sort of supported by robots, or automation, etc., freeing up time for us to have those more intimate connections with ourselves.

I'm going to get a little metaphysical here, but please bear with me because I think this is actually the future of work. There's an opportunity to really unpack the subject of experience of being human.

If you look at something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's actually those three components that I spoke about before, this concept of control, relate, develop. The very essence of being human is the bottom levels of Maslow around control, the middle relates to social ability, and the top end is develop – the ultimate version of being human.

There are elements of being human that – because we get busy or invested or distracted – are sometimes simplified, reduced or even replaced. Now, you suddenly have a little bit more time you haven't been able to really invest there.

It’s important that everyone starts to ask the question, “Who am I?” And values are a lovely access point for that because answering it can be a lifetime journey, and an intangible one.
For example, with one’s children, you could just let them sort through a values list and ask: “What makes your day? What makes you feel alive?” It’s about just learning or helping them learn to identify themselves. You can ask yourself: “What does the concept of work mean to me? What are the values that are associated with that experience?”

Marissa: That's very practical and tangible advice to say, “Start with your own personalities.” As a parent, that's a good hack to be able to create the language to guide your child in the world of work or otherwise, and it seems so much more inclusive. I really like the idea that we're in this liminal moment between worlds and that the future of work is going to be about becoming more human, understanding our own experiences, and connecting at a human level.

And great advice about moving the culture forward by investing in knowing yourself and what you value. That's the constant. This will be an ongoing, very personal journey, but that's how you're going to connect to what whatever work looks like in the future.