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Baffled By All This Disruption? It’s Time You Learned About Liminality.

May 16, 2017


For those working in organizations and industries beset by continuous disruption and upheaval, it is difficult at times not to feel repeatedly victimized or violated by disruptions and upheavals that seem to be beyond one’s control. Constant exposure to work environments that are unstable or even chaotic can quickly undermine productivity and lead to excessive anxiety, low morale, scapegoating, and rapid burnout.

Such conditions can be especially difficult for those in positions of authority who, despite such recurrences, remain responsible for maintaining order and/or delivering according to set standards or timetables.

Under such conditions there are no quick fixes or easy answers. However, there is reason to believe that recurring patterns of instability and upheaval may actually be symptoms of broader deep systemic imbalances that, in turn, indicate a culture in the throes of deep transformative processes.

Granted, every upheaval or breakdown does not mean a system is in transition — after all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, in an increasing number of cases, awareness of a condition known as liminality may provide some, particularly leaders, with much-needed insight and context that can, in turn, help organizations feel more empowered, less reactive, and better able to sense what may lie ahead.

A Modern Phenomenon, With Roots In Ancient Rituals

While the experience of liminality has been occurring for thousands of years, the term itself — which means a “quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals” — was just coined in the early 20th century by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep.

Van Gennep often referred to liminality as an uncomfortable state of “betwixt and between.” During such a state a person’s sense of self, temporarily ripped away from a comfortable, familiar routines and identity, becomes deeply disoriented and in turmoil as it undergoes a life-changing passage into a more mature or sophisticated identity. Van Gennep used an example drawn from indigenous cultures and the harrowing rituals adolescent boys went through as they made the passage into manhood.

A Passage For Societies and Culture As Well

In the mid-20th century philosopher Karl Jaspers noted that liminal passages were not just something individuals experienced; liminality was something an entire civilizations could experience. In such cases, entire populations were thrown into turmoil as customs, values, and institutions that were well-suited to one cultural stage of development began to collapse as a new, not-yet-fully-formed cultural era began to emerge.

At such points, familiar customs and traditions begin to lose influence as long-standing social hierarchies started to lose their authority amongst those who now seemed to hold values that did not fit within the same old established structures. Eventually, new traditions and social structures emerged to better reflect the new order of things. But until that occurred, things would become quite rocky road for all concerned.

Also An Organizational Phenomenon

In recent years, several authors —including me and, most notably, Dave Gray — have begun to recognize liminality as process of growth and maturation that impacts organizations as well. And, if we think about, this notion of organizational liminality makes a lot of sense.

History tells us that, from time to time, the Earth’s population has gone through a number of large-scale paradigm shifts that have dramatically altered social structures, intellectual traditions, and the institutions that embody them. With the changes our planet is now experiencing, it seems reasonable to assume that today we are in midst of another liminal passage of planetary proportions.

Assuming that is indeed the case, it then makes sense that organizations designed to accommodate a particular order, would start to experience instability and breakdowns as society starts to experience the emergence of a new, more sophisticated order.

But What’s A Leader To Do?

That question has no easy answers. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that, if the values and social structures surrounding an organization are experiencing a process of evolution, organizations that begin to align with that evolution have a much better chance of surviving and thriving than those that insist on holding onto the old order.

For those in positions of leadership, the most important part of fostering this alignment is to begin learning how to listen in new way. Every day now new signals and patterns are emerging hold potential as valuable indicators of the new alignment we will be seeing in broader structures and institutions. In addition, new management mindsets, such the Anchors and Sails model I am now beginning to develop, offer one way of becoming more receptive to emerging patterns while still delivering on critical strategic outcomes.

But our awareness of what is unfolding is still in its infancy. In fact, there a lot emerging at this very moment will disrupt “business as usual” even further. The best thing any of us can do is to simply stay tuned.

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