A Tale of Tears: Manager as Ethnographer

What are tears? What produces them? What is their function? These questions may be answered in two ways. First, we could regard tears as physical/chemical phenomena. In this sense, the answer could be as straight forward as saying that tears are made up of water, mineral salts, antibodies, and lysozyme. They may be produced by irritation or emotions, and they serve a protective function for the eye. 

The second way of answering these questions involves an interpretive or “thick” description[1] of what tears mean. They’re an expressive act. They can express intense, situation-specific emotions: intense joy at the birth of a child; great sadness at the death of one’s spouse; or feelings of total exhaustion and relief after surviving a harrowing escape from the destructive force of a tornado. This meaning is felt.  

The chemical composition of tears represents “thin” description and reductionistic meaning. It’s merely factual description of thing-like features. A thin description might treat the rapid movement of the eye lid as a blink. But if we perceive mischievous intent along with this eye movement, we might interpret it as a conspiratorial wink, i.e., thick description embedded in a complex context of cultural meaning.  

Beyond Tears

The insights from our discussion of tears and thick and thin meaning can apply elsewhere to interpersonal and organizational contexts. Consider how we can be surprised at the strong reactions of others to situations we view matter-of-factly as rather benign. A simple example may be how the thin factual data on an accounts receivable report don’t tell the full story of management’s concerns about a critical business issue.  

An account executive has a large customer whose receivables are now 90 days past due, but she says there are major new sales opportunities with this customer. Her boss and the general manager of the division express intense frustration and demand action on the receivables. The thick meaning of this issue for the two parties is quite different. Interpretations differ, consequential meaning is missed.  

Is management right, or is the account executive seeing something they’re missing that could solve management’s problem? Only more information and insight will answer that question. But even that may not be sufficient to resolve the disconnect in their perceptions and actions. Dialogue that aims at creating mutual understanding is needed, dialogue that ends with more than coercive action.  

Engagement is the Answer

In personal relationships, dignity and respect for the person are to be expected. Intimacy, trust, and love depend upon this recognition of one another’s personhood. But it’s really not altogether different at work when you think about it. When we take an interest in others and value their experience and what they have to say, they feel more engaged. As a result, we’re more likely to operate from shared value commitments.  

Thin description and reductionistic meaning are useful and often sufficient as a means of informing one another of key measures of performance. Indeed, the thicker meaning and significance of these data must be assumed to be implicitly understood much of the time. But this assumption becomes riskier as we let the time grow between the deeper, alignment-checking conversations that produce thick meaning.

Clifford Geertz introduced these terms (thick and thin description) to characterize what we must do in order to adequately analyze and understand a culture (i.e., ethnography). Well, leaders and executives must not only understand their culture, they are responsible for building a healthy, adaptive culture. So perhaps they need to practice a bit of ethnography too.


[1] American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes the use of thick description in Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture (1973).