The Participant – Observer Spectrum

One of the first things Dr. Lester Stephens, the chair of my thesis committee, asked me to do was to take the walk across Jackson Street from LeConte Hall (where the History Department lives) to the Anthropology department in Baldwin Hall. Once there, I was to ask Dr. Charles Hudson, the leading anthropologist studying the Southeastern Indians, to serve on my committee.

Mind you, this was before the era of “interdisciplinary studies.” You would have thought that my crossing Jackson Street to visit “those crazy anthropologists” was akin to crossing the DMZ into North Korea from the way some of my colleagues reacted. It just wasn’t done.

Once there, I encountered a man who perfectly combined the archetypes of Professor and Santa Claus with a touch of Hells Angel. He also turned out to be one of my most fondly remembered, and supportive mentors.

One of the most important things Dr. Hudson taught me (among many important things) was the Participant – Observer spectrum and how Anthropologists use this spectrum to learn about the culture they are studying. The history of Anthropology is a history of researchers trying to navigate this spectrum between being a participant and being an observer.

On one end of the spectrum is the Enthusiastic Insider – such as the anthropologist who moves to Ecuador to study the Jivaro shamans and decides to become one. This particular extreme was in vogue in the mid-20th century (especially the 60s and 70s) and can still be found today.

On the other end of the spectrum is the seemingly “objective” observer who inflicts his or her judgments and beliefs upon the culture being studied. An extreme version of this spectrum can be found in the papers of European explorers in North America. This perspective pervaded anthropology until well into the 20th century.

Most anthropologists try to find a place in the middle ground between these two extremes – recognizing their own biases while trying to respect the internal logic of a culture’s beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. They try to juggle participation with observation – with varying results.

An advantage of being an outsider is that you can better see trends and assumptions. If you have exposure to other cultures, you have points of comparison and contrast. A disadvantage is that it is easy to miss the nuances of culture as experienced by the insiders. Furthermore, you are contending with the “observer effect” – observation is likely going to impact the behavior of the observed. Being an outsider also requires the observer to get very clear on the biases they are bringing to the observation. More easily said than done.

An advantage of being an insider is that you get a more accurate picture of the perspective of the culture and access to information that an outsider doesn’t get. There is also the advantage of “lived experience.” Unfortunately, the insider does not have a broader picture and is likely to make judgments that bias their inside status. It is also easy to mistake thinking you are an insider vs. actually being one. The observer-participant may still be shielded from important information and experiences.

Often, as one starts getting to know people, I have found that the position on the observer-participant spectrum changes. Early on, you start as an outsider. As you adopt the assumptions and behavioral norms of the culture, you start to shift to participant status.

For many of us, this shift occurs unconsciously. We adjust our behavior and beliefs to better fit into our environment. This is a natural thing to do and is an important part of human development. Humans crave belonging.

What if you could make this shift more consciously? Some of the best anthropologists work to maintain a conscious shift from outsider to insider as they gain knowledge and trust. They attempt to maintain a perspective slightly outside the culture they are studying and keep touch-points for comparison as they dive further into the community. They also work to deeply engage in the beliefs and assumptions of the culture.

It’s a sensitive balancing act. As a consultant, it’s easier for me to maintain an observer perspective – moving from a detached perspective into a more participatory perspective while still maintaining a level of detachment. The detachment is easier because I know my time is limited.

As an employee, it’s trickier. With time, and without being conscious of it, we adopt the beliefs and norms of our environment. We want to belong. Even management falls into this unless they have strong supports elsewhere – often outside the company, but ideally within the company too. At a certain point, if there are no supports within the company, the company shakes off the interloper.

Knowing that there is a Participant-Observer spectrum can help as you begin to evaluate your current environment and determine whether you have the supports you need to make the change you wish to see.


Dr. Charles Hudson – The Southeastern Indians (Amazon affiliate link) – If you are interested in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks, and Seminoles, this is a comprehensive anthropological overview of these cultures. From here, I would then move to insider authors within these traditions and do a comparative study.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – book) – One scientist’s attempt to navigate the participant-observer spectrum, to much criticism. Wes Craven’s movie The Serpent and the Rainbow (Amazon affiliate link – movie) was based on this work. This is one of the few horror movies I managed to sit through because the ethnobotany was interesting.

The Cosmic Serpent (Amazon affiliate link) – This book is a case study for the hazards of the participant-observer spectrum – especially once hallucinogenics get involved. In this case, the anthropologist found himself on a quest to prove the link between the shamanic experience and DNA. A fascinating read requiring some discernment – most critics have noted the occasional leaps of logic Jeremy Narby had to take to prove his argument.

The Way of the Shaman (Amazon affiliate link) – Michael Harner’s 1980 work, in my opinion, is a better example of balancing the participant-observer spectrum. Much of this work is a comparison of shamanic practices across cultures with an emphasis on South American practices. Harner’s later work tipped further into the participant side of the spectrum and there is significant criticism around his decision to develop workshops teaching shamanic practices. Another interesting read.

Why Stability is Important

In the discussions around “digital transformation” and “innovation” and “agility” and our “VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world” – we forget that safety and security is a significant human need.

Instead, the discussion centers around how we all need to be more innovative, agile, flexible, and better able to cope with chaos.

I think we are missing the mark.

I also think that we can’t currently rely on organizations, of any sort, to provide any sort of stability.

They are too busy being “digitally transformed,” “disrupted,” “agile,” “innovative,” etc.

The only place we can establish stability is in our individual centers.

The best gift we can give is to help each other develop their individual centers.

Stability can be found within our selves and through the development of healthy relationships.

From there, we can pivot and flex to adapt to environmental demands.

We can also mindfully choose which demands we intend to address.

“Stability” has gotten a bad rap of late. And I would agree that leaning too far in that direction is not helpful.

However, we may have swung the conversation, and our actions, too far in the other direction.

We have a much better chance of being agile, innovative, and flexible if we have a solid platform to work from.


HBR: If You Want Engaged Employees – Offer Them Stability (freemium article) – Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Development specialist. She argues that providing employees with a sense of stability will improve performance and culture.

Human Capital Institute: How Leaders Can Manage Organizational Stability to Inspire Loyalty (article) – This article includes some interesting questions around the ROI for the employee and being clear on whether loyalty is an important value for your company – or not.

Forbes: What It Means to Have a Culture of Stability – A more traditional perspective on “stability” and its benefits and hazards.

Those Who Wish to See You Fail

There is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails.

Peter Bregman and Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Harvard Business Review

I wish this maxim wasn’t true.

In my experience, it’s often who you least expect.

Something about your project or change effort threatens them.

To your face, they may tell you all of the right things.

How they will support you.

What they will do to help.

The proof is in their actions.

Are they doing what they said they were going to do?

Or are you hearing rumors and back-talk from third parties?

It gets stickier when the saboteur is a key stakeholder.

It’s at this point I start questioning whether I am in the correct environment.

Is there any sort of hook that I can use that will help?

Can I clearly articulate how it will help them in a way they understand?

Do I know what the threats to them (real OR perceived) are?

Can I avoid the stakeholder while the idea is still nascent and fragile?

Are there any other supports in the environment that I can leverage while I create quick wins for this change?

Or is my timing bad? Or am I in the wrong environment?

Do I need to abandon the change or walk away from the environment or get away from that person?

None of this is easy.

Yet, having a key stakeholder play saboteur is one of the biggest risks we have to any project.

What are you going to do to mitigate that risk?

Can you?

Do you have the supports you need to deal with it?

I’ve been reflecting recently on dealing with executive saboteurs.

I’ll admit, I don’t have a great answer.

At a high-enough level and in a conservative-enough organization, the only option is to attempt to find supporters with that person’s ear OR who are high-enough that the saboteur is almost forced to listen.

We have to recognize that there are some people who just won’t listen because we don’t have the right title or we don’t look “right” (sexism, ageism, racism, other-ism all rear their ugly heads here). We are the wrong messenger.

We also have to recognize that there are some people so focused on their own agendas and power issues that no amount of logic, sales skills, or empathy will help.

Prioritization, fundamentally, has to be a team sport.

You can’t just ask a fall-guy to do the dirty work for you.

And you can’t take sole responsibility – especially if you are working at lower-levels in a traditionally hierarchical environment and have been told that you are “empowered” to make decisions with no (or limited) evidence that those decisions will be abided by upper management.

If you are placed in a position of having to say “no” to a high-level executive that won’t take “no” as an answer, make sure you are clear on the impact of saying “yes” and start recruiting allies.

You are going to learn how strong your support structure is very quickly.


Mark Goulson: Talking to Crazy (Amazon Affiliate Link) The best book I can think of for this scenario. That and recruiting help + air cover.

Are Your Leaders Supported?

What does the support system for your organization’s leadership look like?

Who is their “boss?”

  • Activist shareholders who are trying to make their 10x investment and get out in the next year?
  • A University Board of Directors wishing to put their college in US News and World Reports Top College and University rankings? Or just survive?
  • A long-tenured senior executive counting the days to retirement?
  • A new boss who is trying to “make a mark on the organization?”

During my time spent among organizational designers, particularly the Responsive Conference and Conscious Business communities, culture change can only happen with the support of the leadership.

Those who try to change the culture bottom-up will eventually hit a ceiling.

At its worst, traction towards a positive change in culture among the line staff and line manager can be squashed quickly by a senior executive or two if there is no support above and among them – demoralizing the line staff and managers for the long-term and harming future efforts.

Furthermore, if you are ASKING your line staff and line managers to change the culture, you need to make sure you are in a position to provide “air cover.”

All it takes is one senior executive to challenge your line staff and you caving in for that culture change initiative to fall apart. And for those who have been trying to create a positive culture to start heading for the exits.

If you have a change you wish to see in the culture, and you want your line staff and line managers to implement that change, what supports do YOU have when they (and you) are challenged by your peers and above.

  • Do you have a strong mentor and/or coach to lean on?
  • Are you clear on your vision and the advantages to your peers and boss if they support you in this change?
  • Are there other areas of the organization and peers that have already planted the seeds of the change you wish to see?
  • Is it clear that the “powers that be” understand the value of the long-game?

In organizations with strong traditional hierarchies, you can be certain that as you, your employees, and your allies try to create positive culture change – a noisemaker is going to escalate up the chain and work to sabotage your efforts.

In a strong traditional hierarchy, asking your line staff to take bullets without PROVEN support from YOU is asking for failure, and for the disappearance of your line staff.

You need to make sure that you have the support YOU need to support those who are helping you with your culture change effort.


Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism (Article)

HBR: Culture Change that Sticks (Article)

HBR: Changing Corporate Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate (Article)

The King’s Indian: Why Corporate Culture Change Fails, and How to Succeed (Medium Post)

Michelle McQuaid: Can You Create Change From the Bottom-Up? (Blog Post)

The Step Before the System

Perks are great, but they are detached from the day-to-day.

Often, perks are a way to “shield” managers and executives from the sticky task of creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable day-to-day environment.

“We have a wellness program, what’s your problem?”

What if you have me on so many disparate projects that I don’t have time for your “wellness” program?

There is a need for a deeper conversation about work, what an organization is and its role in our world, how we decide what activities to pursue, and the relationship between customer, employee, and organization.

We have wellness programs – yet the disengagement, burnout, anxiety, and depression statistics are frightening.

We have wellness programs – yet only 1/5 – 2/5 of employees use them, even with incentives and punishments.

I’m not saying that wellness programs are bad. Not at all.

They are a tool in the toolkit and evidence that the organization is at least thinking about the importance of employee health and its importance in achieving organizational goals.

I am just asking for a deeper conversation.

One where we stop talking about workplace wellness as something separate and apart from the work itself.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in my opinion, an issue of prioritization and trying to do too much at once.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in many people’s opinion (most notably Gallup), an issue of management and leadership (or lack thereof).

The wellness programs are helpful.

But if your employees have no time to use your wellness program resources, or, even if they ARE able to use those resources, they work in an environment that doesn’t reinforce their attempts at self-care, the wellness program becomes a shiny, expensive pink elephant.


Harvard Business Review – What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers (Article). This article got me thinking further about the workplace and why working conditions for knowledge workers seem to be deteriorating even though we have tons of research and writing about employee engagement, employee health, and the importance of both for creativity and innovation.

World Health Organization – Stress at Work (Article). When workplace stress and burnout catches the attention of the World Health Organization, you know it’s bad.

Personal Observations on Burnout (Blog Posts) – As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. We can do better.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

Back in 2009, Dr. Tony Karrer predicted that Workplace Learning Professionals would morph into “management consultants”.

At the time, my reaction was “I dunno – that term seems so charged.” 

I think of the overpriced “consultants” that have invaded more than one of my corporate environments because decision-makers won’t listen to people from within the organization. (It means more if they are spending thousands of dollars for the same advice.) 

I think of the management gurus who tell us how to play nice with others, climb the corporate ladder, and win friends and influence people.

Dr. Karrer talked about how the definition of “management” will change.

11 years later, much of what Dr. Karrer wrote about is still true.

We’re still grappling with push vs. pull.

We’re still grappling with the notion that learning is always happening, not just in the classroom.

For those of us with time in the Workplace Learning trenches, our bread-and-butter is making change stick. Or…it should be.

It is NOT the development of courses – classroom, blended, online, or any combination of such.

It’s not even in the implementation ceremonies that mark projects.

11 years later, I find myself as a Change Management consultant.

It doesn’t feel like a very dramatic change – That’s what we (Workplace Learning experts) should have been doing this entire time. Behavior change.

Our jobs are changing and it is becoming progressively clearer that we are becoming “knowledge gardeners” and change managers.

Thinking about the tools I’m building and the programs I’m developing today – 11 years later, this is how my career has evolved.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in all of the places I’ve worked the training department(s) have been in the unusual position of being able to touch and connect across all departments in an organization. As a result, training departments are in a great position to connect people, synthesize disparate processes and share information.

We talk about creating learning environments.

We talk about breaking down organizational barriers.

Maybe that’s where we need to focus our energies. Creating and cultivating learning environments. Not just tools – LMS, tutorials, courseware, etc. The material remains of information. The “activities” of learning.

We also need to help create a cultural environment. All of our materials are (supposedly) built with attitude and behavior shift in mind – why not direct those skills towards broader cultural purposes?

I’m still helping people get the information they need. Encouraging people within any organization or group I work with to talk to each other and share what they know. Facilitating learning when they need and want it (preferably in much smaller chunks than they are getting now). 

Those things have not changed over the years.

Those of us in the trenches of change – the project managers, developers, designers, business analysts, and trainers – need to gain familiarity with all of the tools that will help make change stick, not just the ones specific to our specialties.

We’re being asked to enlarge our toolkits – and determine wise and best use of our tools.

We’re being asked to combine what works across specializations to find what most effectively creates the results we want in the context we are in.

Using whatever our favorite tool is across all problems can only take us so far.

I don’t have any prediction for how my career will change over the next 10 years. I’m somewhat shocked (and partially dismayed) that much of what Dr. Karrer and I wrote 11 years ago has proven to be so evergreen.

What I do know is that today’s environment requires me to learn personal agility, discernment, and vision-setting. I need to learn and practice relationship building and safe space creation.

I need to continue being a catalyst for change.

What about you?

Fast Zebras

Almost 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “Fast Zebras.”

A fast zebra is someone who is singularly focused on achieving performance results, knows how the organization can both hinder and help, and charts their course accordingly. In particular, they are wise about when to use the formal and rational elements of organization (such as hierarchy, processes, and monetary rewards) and when to use the informal and emotional elements (including values, networks, and feelings about the work).

Jon Katzenbach, How “Fast Zebras” Navigate Informal Networks

I’m somewhat surprised that the idea of “fast zebras” didn’t get more traction.

My suspicion is that “Fast Zebras” threaten organizational hierarchies and, ultimately, leave hostile environments.

Environments often have effective antibodies to rogue elements like “Fast Zebras.”

The concept was also marketed towards organizational leaders. In my experience, most “Fast Zebras” can be found lurking within your line staff.

The project managers, organizational trainers, senior engineers, and business analysts who have worked on many projects, have cultivated strong relationships throughout the organization, and know where the bodies are stashed.

People in hierarchical positions of power, particularly in deeply conservative organizations, often need to maintain the hierarchy. Middle and senior managers are often hamstrung by having to “keep appearances” among their peers and seniors. These individuals are quickly reminded about their “place” and attempts to go around the formal hierarchy are ruthlessly punished. The punishment is often covert and long-lasting.

Individual contributors have a great oppotunity.

We are not entirely beholden to the structure.

We are beholden to results and getting the job done.

In many instances, we need to work around the structure to get work done.

As one of my project management colleagues not-so-gently reminded the Mucky Muck as he wrongly chided the line staff about not working across silos, “If I don’t work across silos, I can’t get anything done.”

Every other line staffer in the room nodded in agreement.

One of the engineers chimed in – “Your problem with silos is with the management. We work together all the time. Heck, half the time we don’t even talk to our managers because then we’d have to wait for the silos to work.”

The project manager and engineer are the “Fast Zebras.”

Are you?

How Our Attention Gets Hijacked

We are easily manipulated into compliance with someone else’s demands.

Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six principles that, when used deftly, can cause an individual to say “yes” to a request:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Think about the number of people taking up residence in your inbox right now. Take out the people you know – co-workers, clients, potential clients, and people contacting you for help. 

If your inbox is anything like mine, what is left is a collection of people who asked for my email in exchange for information – a PDF, or video access, maybe even a book (Reciprocation).

They then use this email to send me more email – sometimes multiple times a day (Consistency).

Occasionally, they will send a testimonial about their work and how awesome they are (Social Proof).

Most of them write in a friendly, conversational tone (Liking).

Many of them will have letters behind their names or may have held important jobs at prestigious organizations.  Barring that, they will share brand-name organizations and important individuals they have worked with (Authority).

These emails contain a call to action that expires at a random time to encourage me … strongly … to ACT NOW!!!! (Scarcity).

This dynamic occurs regularly in daily life.

  • Have you ever performed a favor that you don’t want to do to Reciprocate for something they did for you in the past?
  • Did you ever do a task because the requestor Consistently hounded you about it?
  • Have you ever found yourself chanting at a sporting event, rally, or all-hands meeting (Social Proof)?
  • Have you ever done something for someone simply because they asked, and you like them (Likability)?
  • Do you have a boss that leverages Authority to get you to participate in a project you have no interest in? 
  • Have you ever scrambled to get a report done because a client set a tight deadline (Scarcity), then that same person didn’t even look at your deliverable until 2 weeks later (if at all)?

Cialdini observed that these techniques tend to trigger automatic behavior patterns in people. These patterns, Cialdini noted, “tend to be learned rather than inborn, more flexible than the lock-step patterns of the lower animals, and responsive to a larger number of triggers.”[1]

We have these automatic patterns because we are looking for the shortcut. 

“You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we NEED shortcuts (emphasis his). We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb, to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond without thinking when one or another of these trigger features is present.”[2] 

Robert Cialdini, On Influence

Others who are clear on their intention can leverage this to their own benefit. The amount of information noise we grapple with makes us less likely to have both the desire and the ability to analyze information or requests very carefully.[3] 

Skillful manipulators know that we are working in an environment of information overload, and often help to CREATE that overload. That overload reduces our desire and ability to discern what is important to us and whether what is being asked of us is in our best interest.

The best way to fight back is to define for ourselves our values and vision.

[1] (Influence, Kindle loc 295)

[2] (Influence, Kindle loc 362-368)

[3] (citation: Epley, N. and Gilovich,T, (2006), The anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic: Why adjustments are insufficient, Psychological Science, 17, 311-318; Petty & Wegener, (1999), The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual process theories in social psychology, pp 41-72. New York: Guilford.  As cited in Influence)

What Are You Amplifying?

What are you amplifying?

All that is “wrong” with the world?

All that is “right”?

All that you want?

All that you don’t?

Oneness or separation?

Love or hatred?

Joy or sorrow?

It’s become clear, to me at least, that it’s time to become mindful and careful about what we are amplifying.

We have been seeing it in the conversations around Facebook, “fake news” and “deep fakes.”

We see it in our Amazon experience.

We see it in the ads that are served to us as we surf the Net.

Each time you click something, buy something, watch something, pause on something – you are amplifying.

Artificial intelligence and quantum computing algorithms begin to shape your world based on what you are paying attention to.

Complicating matters, we are hard-wired to focus on the dangerous and negative. Marketers and those who wish to spread their message know this and act accordingly.

We’re easily manipulated, even when we are doing our best to be mindful.

Think about a time that was traumatic and dramatic.

Now try to remember a time where all was well in your world and everything was peaceful.

How quickly did you remember the trauma and the drama?

How hard was it to remember a peaceful time?

Think about the news? How much of it is trauma and drama?

How much of it is positive?

So much is competing for our attention and doing so in ways that are noisy and negative. Our brains like that.

We are going to keep being fed the noisy and negative – because that is what we are amplifying.

What do you want to do to break the cycle? Change what gets amplified?

What we pay attention to is going to shape our world.

What world do you want to live in?


I find that when a topic begins to cross my path repeatedly, it’s time to pay attention. Quantum computing, recently, has been that topic.

What makes Quantum Computing so interesting, and scary, is that it potentially takes information and either amplifies or cancels it. We are seeing this work in current AI algorithms using binary (classical) programming and current technologies.

Introduction to Quantum Computing ( – non-affiliate link, 60 minutes) This is the tutorial that got me thinking about Amplification. Mid-way through, one of the experts mentioned waves, troughs, and how they amplify and cancel each other. She mentioned that this concept is being leveraged in Quantum Computing and AI applications.

The Grand Challenge and Promise of Quantum Computing (GoTo 2019, 45 minutes) A clear explanation of what quantum computing is and potential applications.

Tristan Harris – How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds (Medium article) Tristan Harris was a technology ethicist at Google. He describes the “behind the scenes” of how technologies are being leveraged to take over our attention.