March 15, 2021
For organizations and individuals, the pandemic has represented a prolonged time of trial — what cultural anthropologists call a liminal experience. The term was originally used to describe a cultural rite of passage: Young members of a tribe were tested to their limits, both physically and mentally, to prepare them for the transition to adulthood. It’s a concept that can also be applied to significant transitions in our organizational lives, including those brought about by the current pandemic.
A liminal experience has three core characteristics.
First, it involves a forced and prolonged separation from normal ways of being and doing — a physically and emotionally challenging dislocation from familiar roles and structures. So many of us have experienced this during the pandemic.
Second, although a liminal experience involves a prolonged break from the familiar, it does not fully replace it. It is both disturbingly different and confusingly similar. In the pandemic, organizations and their people proved that they could continue to provide “normal service,” while using radically different means to collaborate and deliver. At the same time, boundaries between employees’ work and personal lives were all but erased.
Third, when the liminal experience comes to an end, those who have survived return transformed. When we finally emerge from our time of trial, we will have been changed in lasting ways we may not yet fully understand. The big question is: How can we make the most of those changes, both for ourselves and our organizations?
Liminal experiences are disturbing and disruptive, but they also represent potent opportunities for reflection, discovery, and even reinvention. To make the most of these opportunities, we must first confront the diverse ways people will have been buffeted by their liminal experiences.
The pandemic has been a liminal experience for all of us, and at one level we’ve journeyed through it collectively. But our individual paths have been markedly different, of course — much rougher for some than others.
Consider how this time of trial has played out differently among the following professionals in the same firm.
The CEO. When lockdown came, Kurt abandoned his corner office, with its views of the city, and moved to his weekend cottage, with its views of the sea. The first month of lockdown played to his strengths. With adrenaline-fueled confidence in himself and his firm, he led his colleagues through a remarkable transition: They maintained their world-class client service without interruption. But as the pandemic dragged on, Kurt found himself feeling uncharacteristically uncertain — about the future, his firm, and even himself.
Before the pandemic, Kurt’s mental health had always been as robust as his physical health. But months into the pandemic, feeling isolated from colleagues and alone in his cottage, Kurt recognized he was struggling. Meanwhile, his partners and staff were looking to him for reassurance.
He started writing a weekly blog for colleagues. Initially, it was very businesslike, but as time went on his tone began to change. Then one week he wrote a post about how he was really feeling. As soon as he pressed “send,” he regretted it, but within minutes his inbox filled with messages from friends, colleagues, and strangers in the firm, at all levels, all over the world. They were offering support and some were sharing their own stories. Kurt had allowed them a glimpse behind his professional mask, and, to his astonishment, many seemed to like what they saw. Maybe his colleagues were changing — or maybe they were just feeling more vulnerable at the moment.
The Partner. Cheryl was the youngest in her cohort to make partner. Kurt had mentored her well, and she had always been able to achieve exceptionally high billable hours. Life had taught her that anything was possible as long as you planned carefully and worked hard. She had a high-performing team, a successful marriage, two wonderful children, and a big house in the suburbs. When colleagues said she fitted the firm’s classic “insecure overachiever” profile, she laughed and said, “Who’s insecure?”
But Covid was something she hadn’t planned for and couldn’t control. Not long after the pandemic hit, her au pair flew home. Then her husband lost his job and fell into a depression. To cope, Cheryl worked harder than ever, maintaining billable hours for herself and her team, taking care of her house, home-schooling her children. Then her father fell ill with Covid and died. Cheryl felt she had lost her anchor.
She responded by working even harder. Feeling at times overwhelmed by exhaustion and stress, she began to wonder how much longer she could carry on, or whether she should even be trying to.
The Analyst. Ajay joined the firm during lockdown. He was proud and excited to have won a prestigious graduate traineeship. In normal times, he would have begun work in one of the firm’s prestigious offices, surrounded by his cohort of fellow trainees. Instead he found himself stuck working alone in his studio apartment in the city. He tried to understand how he should behave in his interactions with colleagues on Zoom but worried he was missing out on important unspoken messages. He knew he couldn’t make any mistakes — the competition within his cohort was ferocious. Cheryl was his boss, but her attempts to be empathetic with him simply sounded as though she was reading from a script written by the HR department.
Ajay felt himself becoming disillusioned and disengaging. To stop this happening, he started to make suggestions about how his team could work better in the digital environment, and Cheryl not only adopted some of his ideas but asked for more. Ajay’s confidence grew, and he realized that he enjoyed the freedom of working independently.
Questions from Liminality
Liminality is an “in-between” time, when perspectives shift, old certainties are challenged, and new ideas emerge. Kurt, Cheryl, and Ajay are all questioning aspects of their working lives and their organization that they previously took for granted. They are being challenged and changed in ways they may have not fully processed. And because culture is created by individuals working together, as they change, their culture will also start to change.
The personal will become organizational.
When Kurt returns to his big corner office, what kind of culture will he want to encourage in his firm? Will he try to initiate a post-pandemic dash for revenue growth, believing partners will be driven to out-perform one another and themselves, just as they have always done? Or will he choose to think about growth — his own and his colleagues’ — at a more profound and personal level, and consider the new opportunities this may present to the organization?
Cheryl may be eager to return to the office, relieved to shut out the complications of her personal life — and she may emerge even more focused and determined to succeed. Or she may still use work to give her life meaning and purpose but no longer allow others to define what that purpose is. She may challenge her firm’s cultural norms and values, which she had previously been socialized to accept unquestioningly.
When Ajay finally meets his colleagues face-to-face, will they be able to cope with his pent-up energy and creativity, his independent thinking, and his reluctance to be controlled? Or will Ajay be pressured to conform to the culture which previous cohorts of trainees have accepted as the price they need to pay to achieve success within the firm?
In the post-Covid world, leaders should not try to recreate their pre-Covid cultures. As the stories above illustrate, people will return with unanswered questions and potentially incompatible expectations. Leaders need to recognize this and consider how to respond.
Culture is comprised of the repertoire of practices and values that balance the goals of a business with the skills of its people, as it orients to the needs of those it serves. So when any of these — or indeed all — change, the repertoire must be refreshed.
Here are steps that leaders can take right now to prepare their organizations and their cultures to emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world.
Emerge gradually: Some will want to return to “normal,” reenergized and with renewed focus. Others may be exhausted and confused, needing time to process what they have experienced. Some may wonder if they should return at all. Emerging from a profoundly disruptive experience takes time. Employees need opportunities to integrate and reflect as they begin to adjust their work practices post-pandemic. After all, unlike a young adult returning to the tribe after a time of trial, there is no “normal” culture to return to. It will need to be rebuilt collectively.
Identify what to retain and what to discard. It will be important to retain some long-established cultural practices and beliefs, institutionalize others developed in response to the crisis, and discard those no longer fit for purpose. So you need to identify which is which. Take this one small example. The use of the chat function in on-line meetings has made it much easier for the previously silent to express their opinions. Yet its informality and relative anonymity has also given rise to incivility and “heckling,” as normal rules of engagement have broken down. How can we retain the energy and inclusivity of the chat function while returning to more measured and moderated face-to-face interactions?
Don’t lose the liminal altogether. The pandemic’s social and economic toll will be immense and long-lasting. Amid the destruction, however, people and organizations have discovered unexpected strengths and opportunities. Liminality is like that. When the familiar and comfortable are no longer accessible, experimentation and reflection can come to the fore. Liminal experiences are incredibly potent for cultural reinvention. When we all return to more typical ways of working, we should remember that it’s possible to create temporary liminal experiences within our organizations that enable us to step away, reflect, and play with possibility.
If there is one enduring lesson that we all share from our liminal experiences, it is that disruption and ambiguity can yield valuable lessons, both personally and organizationally, and that we are capable of far greater adaptability than we may previously have imagined. The pandemic therefore represents an opportunity to build revitalized organizational cultures, and to emerge collectively stronger from our time of trial.
Laura Empson is the Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London. Her most recent book is Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas (2017), published by Oxford University Press. Jennifer Howard-Grenville is the Diageo Professor of Organization Studies, at the Cambridge Judge Business School.
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