For organizations and individuals, the pandemic has represented a period of prolonged trial – what cultural anthropologists call a liminal experience. The term was originally used to describe a cultural rite of passage: the young members of a tribe were put to the test, both physically and mentally, to prepare them for the transition to adulthood. It is a concept that can also be applied to important transitions in our organizational lives, including those brought about by the current pandemic.
A liminal experience has three basic characteristics.
First, it involves a forced and prolonged separation from normal ways of being and doing – a physically and emotionally difficult dislocation from familiar roles and structures. Many of us have experienced this during the pandemic.
Second, while a liminal experience involves a prolonged break with the familiar, it does not replace it completely. He is both strangely different and confusingly similar. During the pandemic, organizations and their employees have proven that they can continue to provide “normal service,” while using radically different ways to collaborate and deliver. At the same time, the boundaries between the work and personal lives of employees have been virtually erased.
Third, when the liminal experience ends, those who survived come back transformed. When we finally come out of our trial period, we will have been changed in lasting ways that we may not yet fully understand. The big question is: how do we make the most of these changes, both for ourselves and for our organizations?
Liminal experiences are disturbing and disruptive, but they also represent powerful opportunities for reflection, discovery, and even reinvention. To make the most of these opportunities, we must first confront the various ways in which people have been shaken by their liminal experiences.
The pandemic has been an introductory experience for all of us, and on some level we have been through it collectively. But our individual paths have been markedly different, of course – much more difficult for some than for others.
Consider how this trial period went differently among the following professionals at the same firm.
The CEO. When the lockdown arrived, Kurt abandoned his corner office, with its city view, and moved into his weekend cottage, with its sea view. The first month of confinement paid off. . With adrenaline-pumping confidence in himself and his company, he led his colleagues through a remarkable transition: they maintained their world-class customer service without interruption. But as the pandemic dragged on, Kurt felt unusually uncertain – about the future, his business, and even himself.
Before the pandemic, Kurt’s mental health had always been as strong as his physical health. But months after the start of the pandemic, feeling isolated from his colleagues and alone in his cabin, Kurt admitted he was struggling. Meanwhile, his partners and staff looked to him for reassurance.
He started writing a weekly blog for his colleagues. At first it was very pragmatic, but over time its tone started to change. Then one week he wrote an article about how he was really feeling. As soon as he hit send he regretted it, but within minutes his inbox filled with messages from friends, colleagues and strangers in the company, everyone. levels, all over the world. They offered their support and some shared their own stories. Kurt had left them a glimpse behind his professional mask, and, to his amazement, many seemed to like what they saw. Maybe his coworkers were changing – or maybe they just felt more vulnerable right now.
The partner. Cheryl was the youngest of her cohort to become a partner. Kurt had framed her well, and she had always been able to achieve exceptionally high billable hours. Life had taught him that anything was possible if you plan well and work hard. She had a strong team, a successful marriage, two wonderful children and a large house in the suburbs. When coworkers said that she fit the classic “insecure overachiever” profile of the company, she laughed and said, “Who isn’t sure? “
But Covid was something she hadn’t foreseen and couldn’t control. Shortly after the pandemic, her au pair returned 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, looking after her home, home schooling her children. Then his father fell ill with the Covid and died. Cheryl felt she had lost her anchor.
She responded by working even harder. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed with exhaustion and stress, she began to wonder how long she could go on, or if she should even try.
The Analyst. Ajay joined the cabinet during lockdown. He was proud and delighted to have won a prestigious end-of-studies internship. Normally, he would have started working in one of the firm’s prestigious offices, surrounded by his cohort of interns. Instead, he found himself stuck working alone in his studio in town. He tried to figure out how he should behave in his interactions with his colleagues on Zoom, but feared missing important unspoken messages. He knew he couldn’t make any mistakes – the competition within his cohort was fierce. Cheryl was her boss, but her attempts to empathize with him just sounded like she was reading a script written by the human resources department.
Ajay felt himself grow disillusioned and disengage. To prevent that from happening, he started making suggestions on how his team could work better in the digital environment, and Cheryl not only embraced some of his ideas, but asked for more. Ajay’s confidence grew and he realized he appreciated the freedom to work independently.
Liminality is an “in-between” period, when perspectives change, old certainties are challenged, and new ideas emerge. Kurt, Cheryl, and Ajay all question aspects of their professional life and organization that they previously took for granted. They are challenged and changed in ways they may not have fully addressed. And because culture is created by individuals working together, as they change, their culture will begin to change as well.
Staff will become organizational.
When Kurt returns to his large corner office, what kind of culture will he want to foster in his business? Will he try to start a post-pandemic race for revenue growth, believing that partners will be pushed to outdo each other and themselves, as they always have? Or will he choose to think about growth – his own and that of his colleagues – on a deeper and personal level, and consider the new opportunities that this may present for the organization?
Cheryl may be anxious to get back to the office, relieved to avoid the complications in her personal life – and she may come out of it even more focused and determined to succeed. Or she can still use work to give meaning and purpose to her life, but no longer allows others to define what that purpose is. She may question the cultural norms and values of her business, which she had previously been socialized to accept without questioning.
When Ajay finally meets his colleagues face to face, will they be able to cope with his pent-up energy and creativity, independent thought and reluctance to be controlled? Or will Ajay be forced to conform to the culture that previous cohorts of interns have accepted as the price to pay for success in the company?
In the post-Covid world, leaders should not try to recreate their pre-Covid cultures. As the stories above illustrate, people will come back with unanswered questions and potentially conflicting expectations. Leaders need to recognize this and think about how to respond to it.
Culture comprises the repertoire of practices and values that balance a company’s goals with the skills of its people, while orienting itself to the needs of those it serves. So when any one of them – or indeed all of them – changes, the directory needs to be refreshed.
Here are the steps leaders can take now to prepare their organizations and cultures to emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world.
Gradually emerge: Some will want to return to “normal”, re-energized and with renewed concentration. Others may be exhausted and confused, needing time to process what they’ve been through. Some may wonder if they should come back. Coming out of a deeply disruptive experience takes time. Employees need opportunities to integrate and reflect as they begin to adjust their work practices after the pandemic. After all, unlike a young adult who returns to the tribe after a period of trial, there is no “normal” culture to return to. It will have to be rebuilt collectively.
Identify what to keep and what to throw away. It will be important to keep some long-established cultural practices and beliefs, institutionalize others developed in response to the crisis, and discard those that are no longer appropriate. We must therefore identify who is what. Take this little example. Using the chat feature in online meetings has made it much easier for previously silent people to voice their opinions. However, its informal character and relative anonymity have also given rise to incivility and “heckling”, while the normal rules of engagement have collapsed. How to conserve the energy and inclusiveness of the chat function while returning to more measured and moderate face-to-face interactions?
Don’t completely lose liminal. The social and economic toll of the pandemic will be immense and lasting. Amidst the destruction, however, people and organizations have discovered unexpected strengths and opportunities. Liminality is like that. When the familiar and the comfortable are no longer accessible, experimentation and reflection can take over. Liminal experiences are incredibly powerful for cultural reinvention. When we all come back to more typical ways of working, we must remember that it is possible to create temporary introductory experiences within our organizations that allow us to take a step back, reflect and play with the possibilities.
If there is one lasting lesson we all share from our liminal experiences, it is that disruption and ambiguity can teach valuable lessons, both personally and organizationally, and that we are capable of much more. high adaptability than we would have imagined before. The pandemic therefore represents an opportunity to build revitalized organizational cultures and to emerge collectively stronger from our period of trial.