Bob was funny too, especially when making important points. He was about 40 when I took classes with him, and he'd enter the classroom wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. He'd toss down his backpack, stroke his beard, and say provocative things like, "What are the roots of racism? Is it driven by evolution or culture?" Then he'd stop and let us think for a full minute before asking students to raise their hands.
After 10 minutes of our lame efforts to answer the big, hairy question, Bob would shrug his shoulders and walk over to the board. I remember him writing the word "melanin." He'd turn to us and repeat the word before explaining. "melanin creates skin color, and it's a pigment that protects human skin from the sun's dangerous UV rays." He'd stop and let us absorb the words. "So what we call "race" is nothing more than protection from the sun, and it's highly dependent on "clinal zones," the places on the planet where certain gene pools developed over time."
Racism, then, Bob told us a million times afterwards "was merely an irrational, fear-based discrimination against individuals because of their melanin levels." I'd never seen a stronger, more scientifically-based and sense-making attack on racism in my life, then or now.
Bob Paynter also explained the meaning of culture, which I'd previously associated with some vague blending of Shakespeare, the opera, and Pablo Picasso. "It's just a system of beliefs shared by a group," Bob told us often. He pointed to the class, all of us watching him intently with pens in hand and notebooks open, saying "the job of anthropologists is to simply observe behavior and seek to understand the beliefs that drive human behavior."
Bob taught me that culture was everywhere, in every group, and he taught us how cultures were created. Culture is always a contested, evolving thing. Bob also told us that culture isn't just what people say it is, but includes the underlying beliefs and assumptions of cultural groups.
Whenever I read corporate mission statements or hear CEOs discuss their corporate cultures, I often think back to Bob Paynter's lessons. A piece of paper or a web page with some pretty words on it is NOT a culture, nor is what the CEO says it is. Culture is the lived experiences and beliefs of the people within the culture, and the CEO is just a part of the culture. Business writers often write about "gaps" in a company culture, the spaces between the "official" or "aspirational" company culture (i.e., the slogans on the walls) and the way employees actually behave.
As Bob Paynter taught me, and as I remind myself every day, there is no such things as an "aspirational" culture. Culture is already there as a living, collective thing to be observed every single day. Culture is real, actualized by behaviors and beliefs that create it. The are no gaps in a culture, only a culture.
Culture is what actually happens, not what leaders say happens. When I watch an Xfinity commercial on TV saying how much the company culture is built around giving their customers a consistently great experience, I always chuckle. I've had several interactions with Xfinity and have never once had a good customer experience. In fact, I've found the customer service providers, at least the ones on the phone, are generally hostile or utterly indifferent blame-shifters who refuse to be held accountable for Xfinity's many technical failures. They seem to like the company less than I do, which makes sense since they work there.
What's the culture of Xfinity? I have a lot of adjectives to offer, many of them not "safe for work," but the Xfinity culture is not centered around meeting or exceeding customer expectations. They take my money and don't really care about service -- if I were an amateur anthropologist (and I am) that would be my description of their culture. If you believed in helping customers, as individuals and as a company, then you would actually help customers, not try to blame them for problems.
Organizations build culture and build trust when they are congruent -- when they do what they say they'll do. Anthropology taught me to observe behavior first, and not rely on fancy words about culture. Your culture is more about what you do than what you say. When the words and deeds are in opposite directions, I focus on behavior, so does everyone. Behavior is the outward manifestation of culture.
Right now we have a crisis of employee engagement in the United States, and we've had it for years. Gallup surveys consistently show that less than a third of all U.S. employees are engaged in their work. I'd love to see what that number is for Xfinity. People are disappointed at work, searching for meaning and belonging and dignity -- all of which are in scarce supply. Most working people are not bringing their whole selves into work, and this costs companies hundreds of billions of dollars a year. They don't like the culture of their organizations, and they opt-out from giving their best.
Culture is about people -- their beliefs and behaviors. Unless you can positively impact those, you can't "improve" a company culture. Culture is inside-out, not outside-in. I can see a company's culture every time I interact with its employee -- indeed, those interactions are both expressions of culture, and creators of culture.
I'm still studying topics like racism and culture, and will likely never stop doing so. They are maddeningly complex areas, but they make us deeply human. Part of what I learned most from Bob Paynter, and the greatest gift he gave me, was a deep curiosity to understand what makes me and others fully human. He taught me to be a better observer of human behavior, to ask big questions and carefully seek out answers, and refrain from judging others. These lessons don't just work in anthropology, but in life too.