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HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Martha Bird, Business Anthropologist, ADP
Episode: 361
Air Date: April 17, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. I’m your host, John Sumser. Today we’re going to be talking with the most interesting person. Martha Bird is the Business Anthropologist at ADP, and you might go like I do, well, ADP is a big place. I wonder what an anthropologist does there?

And we’re about to find out. She’s been all over the place. She’s a farmer and an artist, at heart, work the farms until much later than most people start their PhD. Some of them ended up getting a PhD in anthropology, and that took her to the early days of eBay where they were trying to figure out these weird people who wanted to sell stuff on eBay and she became part of the anthropology team there and now she’s happily ensconsed at ADP doing I don’t know what. Hi Martha.

Martha Bird: [00:01:08] Good morning to you.

John Sumser: [00:01:09] Good morning. So I assume you’re in solitary confinement like everybody else ? How’s it going?

Martha Bird: [00:01:15] You know, I have to say that one of the things that I’m finding as an upside of this is that we’ve let commuting and more time to myself.

I’m actually able to focus on intention more than I normally would, and I think that’s probably what’s going on with a lot of people. I’m well, and I feel relieved about that. And of course I think about those who are in different circumstances than I am.
[00:01:36] I am. Yeah.

John Sumser: [00:01:37] It’s such an amazing time. The opportunities are extraordinary if you can get just a little bit of reprieve from the terror.

Martha Bird: [00:01:46] Right.

John Sumser: [00:01:47] So I gave a loose version of your story. Tell me a little bit more about how you evolved and what turns
Martha Bird: [00:01:52] you on.

[00:01:53] Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I think is interesting is that my parents didn’t even know what an anthropologist, yeah. This is after I graduated, um, you know, moved to Silicon Valley.

[00:02:04] And so, you know, I thought to myself, how can I actually give people an understanding of what a cultural anthropologist is and how they would be useful in a business setting? So one way that I look at this is I, I basically say, you know, and apologists are interested in trying to understand and what people think, what they believe.

[00:02:22] How they come together in groups. They determine what it’s going to be normative and what’s not normative. And so, you know, when you think about those broad interest, you can imagine the usefulness of that one. Developing digital solutions, which is where I work technology. About how people actually use the tools that are being designed.

[00:02:44] And you know, my main thing has always been about, puts the user at the two minutes of center and, and understand what they need and look at the gaps in what they currently use. And then, you know, go back and say, Hey, we may think that they need this, but this is what I observed as I was watching them go about their interactions with the things in their life.

[00:03:06] So it’s really about, for me, what has always attracted me is it’s always been about looking out of the corner of your eye, listening with respect, and generally honoring the reality of people who may not have the same reality that you do.

ohn Sumser: [00:03:20] Oh boy. That sounds like fun. Have you noticed, I’ve noticed this thing of it’s challenging.
[00:03:24] I don’t think there’s a good word for this thing that I’ve noticed it. It’s when I get on zoom with somebody who I know and spend an hour with them on zoom, I find that I have a longing to be with them by this short of sin flickering of pixels that is supposed to be emblematic of the relationship. But there’s, there’s, there’s all of this fidelity that’s lost in the translation between being next to you and being sort of an observer for peeking into the world that you, that you live in.

[00:04:01] Do you have a way in which to talk about that sieving of experience that happens when you move away from a certain of a centrally located workplace into remote work?

Martha Bird: [00:04:13] Yeah. You know, it’s really interesting and I think you raised a points that is definitely worth focusing on. And that’s this idea that the work that we do, and a lot of our interactions are what they call it, embodied work or bodywork.

[00:04:25] Which means that often, and I think right now more because as you described, you’re removed from that and is it of it. But you know, when you’re working with a team or you’re, you go to the office, you actually have an opportunity for a kind of visceral or physical issue, you know, really relating. These are very subtle things.

[00:04:46] It could be, you know, putting your hand on the shoulder of a colleague or walking together to go get coffee. Or, um, you know, or, um, you know, shaking some pants, um, giving them a hug. So I think that, you know, there’s a lot that goes on that we don’t really, um, take, um, take account of. Uh, that is related to this physicality, um, this body of work.

[00:05:12] And I think, you know, one of the things that is very interesting is when you have a, a breakdown, meaning when you, when something that was once very familiar and taken for granted becomes strange. I. E. you being on the zoo or the colleague that you’re usually spending time with in a physical space, we become more aware of that longing for.

[00:05:33] And actually not on that plane. And I think if anything, that’s a, I think a positive awareness.

John Sumser: [00:05:40] So you’re a student of organizational culture. For my money, this is the root of organizational culture. The, the number that dwelling on is 5% of the activity of our brains. Just the stuff that we tell ourselves that our brains are doing, the conscious stuff.

[00:05:59] And 95% is we don’t know what it is. That give that 95% I’m sure this aggressive experiment of isolation is kind of basically clever, but I’m sure that part of that 95% it was work that happens even more subliminally than taking a walk or having a handshake. Yeah. It is person to person communication that is almost chemical.

[00:06:26] It’s nature, but that fundamental building block, my relationship with you is what cultures are made though. And I wonder if you would mind talking a little bit about what you say to organizational culture is, and what do you think happens when you make it much less physical.

Martha Bird: [00:06:45] Yeah. Well, one of the things that I think that the anthropologists talk about a lot is that there is really no such thing as culture with a capital C.

[00:06:53] you know, we, we hear a lot about the culture of acts with the culture of why is, um, we are, you know, collaborative. We are changing the future. I mean, there’s these sort of like mission statements. I mean, uh, you know, these values, statements and purposes. And those are all really good things. But for me, when I look at the so called organizational culture, I’m actually more interested in how teams function within that larger framework, but also how it within those teams, that would be different sort of subcultures.

[00:07:24] For me, organizational culture is actually a collection of subcultures. And that’s not a bad thing. And then you can offer the complicated or make it, you know, it becomes much more complex when you think about co located teams, people working in different geographies. You know, there’s all sorts of different that makes up these teams.

[00:07:46] But I think if each of these subcultures has a very clear understanding of the overarching mission of a, uh, of an organization, then that becomes, they become part of the, the generators or the supporters of of an overarching, you know, a mission statement. But they don’t actually, we don’t, we can’t just simply say, Oh, the culture of the, of this company is, you know, a collaboration.

[00:08:09] You know, any of a number of things that you see written on the walls of corporate spaces, that has to be a lived experience and an embodied experience that I believe occurs at the level of the team.

John Sumser: [00:08:23] Well, that’s interesting. They have a different form. I probably would want to take you to task on the idea that there’s no such thing as an overall culture, but I’ll agree with you that the nonsense that goes on, the billboards around the culture of the proclaimed values that may not be practice our culture, their propaganda or something like that.

[00:08:42] But there is this thing that you can, you can see the board level conflict in an organization by studying the reception area. Yes. You call this element of culture is like a hologram. How many eights are we saying? It’s not everything, but it is. It is. It’s kind of like a liquid that the fish women and then you have schools of fish, the little subcultures, but I do imagine that there is an overarching thing.

Martha Bird: [00:09:13] Right. I, you know, I, I get, I get that. And I, and one of the things that I think is super interesting and perhaps at another time we can explore this. It’s sort of the audit of faces of these so-called cultures. Because, you know, semiotics is really the study of scientists. And this was very interesting work done on understanding an organizational culture.

[00:09:34] By observing and participating in the spaces, the actual physical spaces and arrangement of those cultures. And I think that interesting. And it goes to, I think your, your analogy with the water and the fish. And you know, one of the things that is used often to describe anthropology is it’s sort of the story of, of the, um, you know, the fish were swimming.

[00:09:57] And, and then, uh, another, a third fish comes along and says, uh, you know, how, how is, how’s the water? And then the two other fish look at each other’s sites. What’s water? So yeah, it’s about being so imbued in the medium. And, uh, and, and really that’s where I think the anthropologist try to unpack. It’s taken for granted the taking for granted water.
[00:10:26] John Sumser: [00:10:26] We’re getting to a point where you can start to measure the water.

[00:10:32] You measure the water. The fish out of the water is,

[00:10:39] is no longer difficult to a marriage. Taking an analysis that starts with which functions are resourced in which way, and how long does it take for an application, for additional resources, for a project to be approved, right? Those are, those are power distribution variables that tell you exactly. Because money and then people are, the way that cultural values are actually expressed, you can look at, you can look at how that happens is start to understand the fundamental power grid.

[00:11:20] And you might imagine that culture is the expression that emerges from that power grid rather than. Sure.

Martha Bird: [00:11:34] Yeah. No, I think that’s, I think, I think that’s right. I think what happens is, is that we often presume that culture is sort of a top down scenario. When actually culture actually is created at local levels and is propagated as supported in certain ways. So, you know, I think of often have thought of this, but you know, when I want to actually get something done, who do I go to?

[00:11:56] It’s likely not the C suite, but it might be the admin, right? Because that is a person who is able to navigate the systems that are in place. So. That’s about how, um, influence and power flows. And I think it’s, you know, it’s multiple directions. It’s mostly directional, but I think, I think that goes to your point, you can really understand and it culture by really looking at those different variables of culture based, how people speak with one another, you know, how aligned is their interactions with, what is this culture?

[00:12:31] So I think about, you know, you can be in a place where they say our culture is highly collaborative. Okay. The managers have their doors closed now that is not, you know, that’s not creating, um, of a holistic sense of what culture is, but it does reveal some things. Right. And so those are the kinds of points I think that an anthropologist who’s thinking about providing perspective on can aluminate for those who are, you know, caretaking for our organizational culture.

John Sumser: [00:13:02] So the manager with the, with the office, dark clothes. That’s such a great, that’s such a great segue to the next question, which is the role of conflict cultures. I think this is something that you care about, you know, in an HR world. There’s this temptation to believe that what you want to deal with conflict is get rid of it.

[00:13:25] But getting rid of culture looks a lot like shutting your door when you’re a manager. It’s not necessarily the healthiest thing for the organization. So tell me about your view on conflict and confrontation.

[00:13:40] Martha Bird: [00:13:40] Well, first of all, I point out that if your culture is not proporting to be collaborative and managers are closing the door, then you may be aligning by having that action.

[00:13:50] But one would presume that’s not entirely productive. So for me, I think conflict has been given sort of a bad rap. I think of conflict, not necessarily as a negative thing. I think of it as something that highlight, you know, how people are actually interacting in a, in a shared space. We could also call it complexity because it is about different people coming together.

[00:14:13] They are operating around what, you know, one would presume is somewhat a set of shared norms. And within that you’ll have people that are corrupt outside the norms or inside the norms. And then because of the, what I was referring to earlier is the subculture. I think for instance, of, uh, situations in hospitals where you have nurses and doctors and, and other staff and the nurses have their own way of doing things.

[00:14:36] Doctors have their own way of doing things. The physical plant people have their own way of doing things. These are departments or subcultures within the larger hospital setting. Now. One would hope that the hospital has a overarching way of doing things. We need to provide the best care. We’ve, we, we provide the best care for our patients.

[00:14:58] Let’s say that’s the overarching, um, mission statement. And even if the nurses and the doctors and the physical plant, people are doing things differently, they speak differently. They wear different uniforms and they have different responsibilities. One would presume and hope that each of them, each of these groups actually is also dedicated to that same goal.

[00:15:20] You could have conflict between the nurses and the doctors and the empty physical plant people, but that’s okay. As long as there’s a sense that everyone is aspiring to provide the best medical care for their patients. So, you know, for me, conflict is more of an opportunity to understand, you know, to understand where there might be gaps and things need to be looked at.

[00:15:42] But it’s also, I think we need to avoid this go-to idea about smoothing things out, about creating a sense of like seamlessness within organizations, because I think that lacks kind of friction that’s required to accept and leverage diversity to think differently than just someone who’s like you. I think it just creates a, a much richer space for ultimately what would be innovative thinking.

[00:16:06] So, yeah, I’m a big, um, you know, I’m a big fan of productive conflict.

John Sumser: [00:16:12] So in a world where work is sort of hierarchical and centralized, I understand exactly how that can play out. But in a world where work is distributed and remote, it seems to me that there’s a kind of an embedded bias towards passive aggressive behavior with everybody is separate.

[00:16:35] And I wonder if you think that that. The utility of conflict varies based on whether or not the work is distributed or centralized. And if conflict is important and it’s somehow inhibited by being, by work being distributed, how do you give it okay for it to be in the center of things.

Martha Bird: [00:16:57] Hmm. Well, I mean, first of all, I think, um, you know, and, and we can take this historical moment that we’re now in with all of the challenges that it points to that being able to see somebody, and I agree with you, there’s a sort of slimming down, um, of the experience of community when you’re doing something on a video conference.

[00:17:19] But I do think there’s ways of actually connecting with people in, in those mediums. You know, for me, it’s always about can we, can we retrofit something that’s not working? Something that may be negatively conflictual? Can we retrofit and fix that in a digital medium? And I don’t think that’s the case. I think these things have to, you know, there has to be something in

[00:17:42] Um, from which to go for it. If you left your office two months ago and there was, you know, a toxic environment there, you’re not going to have your manager, you know, calling you on a video conference and making this, moving all of this out. I don’t think that’s how it works, but I think if you, you know, have a, a healthy environment, then I, I, you know, then I, then I think that there’s ways of those ways of using the tools that we have available to us too.
[00:18:10] You know, too, to address them in an intentional, you know, honest, intentional, and respectful way. It’s

[00:18:18] John Sumser: [00:18:18] been a long time since I worked, worked through the numbers a very long time. But I remember working in an environment where everybody was part of the shame, um, agenda. And when you went to get a cup of coffee or go to get some lunch or whatever.

[00:18:35] You passed by the people who were also involved in the endeavor, or in complicated or distributed versions of it. You’ve managed to how ways to get together in order to allow people to be in proximity with each other. And so the question is, how much. How much does proximity matter and do you think that there is a way of understanding what the operable mix of proximity and distance is for your organization?

[00:19:08] Martha Bird: [00:19:08] Yeah. No, I think that’s a great question. In I, you know, I think of really discrete examples from my own work life. So I’m on a team and an innovation team that has centers in other geographies, particularly Brazil, and. Uh, India, and, you know, we’re not, you know, we have team meetings twice a week at the beginning of the week and the end of the week.

[00:19:32] And so, you know, there’s, there’s updates on what’s going on with development. There’s, you know, uh, you know, looking through the roadmap and seeing what needs to be done. And so that’s a shared group activity and it happens. Regardless of this event, I mean, with the people in India and Brazil, uh, they’re, they’re calling in.

[00:19:51] So there is sense that we’re a team of, we know individuals, but to your question, every couple of months, there’ll be a group that will come from Brazil or, or from India and be with us in our office in the U S and, you know, that adds a, you know, that adds a really, um, wonderful dimension. So. Typically we’ll all go to dinner, we’ll have a little, this is great that we’re, we’re together.

[00:20:16] And you know, having that additional approximate variance with a person, I think is super idol. And thinking about your question, I think what’s interesting to me is this sort of a hybrid proposal, which is, you know, you can have teams that are working remotely. But it is nice to actually meet somebody in person so everyone has a budget around how they can do that.

[00:20:36] But in my experience, it’s been super important that you get to see your co located teammates every couple of times a year. So I wonder

[00:20:46] John Sumser: [00:20:46] what are the things that’s been puzzling me about this new sort of instantly installed remote work is whether or not the supervisor needs to use it. Workers in their homes and in a, you know, in the old world where you could get people together, right.

[00:21:06] Having them all get on airplanes. We’ve been, we’ve been, I’d be doing that for a number of years. And so the question is, is it okay for the supervisor to visit the worker at home? And what’s the protocol? Right? Because this is, this is, it’s nice to talk about the theory of blended work and regular life, but that’s a crazy thing.
[00:21:31] Are you supposed to clean the house when the supervisor comes to visit? You know, are the kids allowed to be around right.

[00:21:40] Martha Bird: [00:21:40] Yeah. I think you, I think you’re actually thinking like an anthropologist, which is really private to raise like a a scenario. And then, and try to understand how that plays out. So for me, um, my opinion of, of, uh, uh, of, uh, supervisor visiting someone in their home, like actual physical visit, obviously in our current moment, that wouldn’t be a wise plan and I would not be a proponent of that.

[00:22:05] So for various reasons, but predominantly for reasons around, you know, around protecting other people and protecting yourself. So yeah, and that scenario up my, my answer is pretty straight forward. Now, if, let’s think of another scenario. We don’t have the historical moment. We don’t have the current health challenge that we do.

[00:22:24] And you know, people decide we’re going to work from home and it’s remote work’s going to occur, you know? And I think specifically we need to be clear about. That scenario was really applicable to knowledge, knowledge workers. So let’s say that that’s the case. And how does that pan out? You know, I think it’s not necessarily about, you know, it’s not about the manage going to the person’s home, but it’s really about what I’ve just described earlier, which is about committing to actually getting together as a team, as a group in a shared physical.

[00:22:56] So, you know, I don’t have a really elaborate response to a lot the manager visiting a person during this time, because my opinion of that would be no, I’m

John Sumser: [00:23:06] having this hysterical picture of the manager being the one because it’s their job to keep things because of being the one who’s required to make trips.
[00:23:17] Having them show up at your door in a hazmat suit.

[00:23:25] You know, that would sort of put a wrinkle in the idea that management is some sort of Imperial flash.

[00:23:36] So that’s interesting. So, so we’re at the end of our half hour and there’s so much we could have talked about it. That would be a good way to go

Martha Bird: [00:23:47] Well, I mean, I think for me, you know, there’s this piece around human connection that I think is really significant and I think if we come away with a greater visibility as individuals and as group that we are all connected as humans, we’re biologically connected.

[00:24:03] We see that through the spread of disease, we’re economically connected. We see that through working by chains and those that aren’t working particularly well. And we see that culturally through how we’re trying to create sociality through our online experiences. So for me, I think some mindful reflection on the connection of humanity is, would be a really great learning from that.

John Sumser: [00:24:25] All right.

Martha Bird: [00:24:31] Well, John, I think we’ve just scratched the surface, so thank you.

John Sumser: [00:24:34] Yeah, well, let’s scratch some more. We’ve been talking with Martha Bird who is ADP’s business anthropologist, and it’s been a delightful conversation. If somebody wanted to get ahold of you more, how would they do that?

Martha Bird: [00:24:47] I’m available on LinkedIn, and that’s always a good way to connect with me, and I will respond.

John Sumser: [00:24:55] Fantastic. So you’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. We’ve been talking with Martha Bird. Thanks for tuning in. We will see you back here next week. Bye bye now.

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