Cerys explores ways in which leaders can help individuals and organisations embrace this unique moment of liminality as we transition to new realities.

A year ago, HBR shared an article on our opportunity to use the “prolonged time of trial” represented by the pandemic as a liminal experience as a way to embed significant organisational change. In anthropology, a liminal experience describes a rite of passage – where an individual is tested to their limits as preparation for the transition to adulthood, for example.

Characterised by three core elements, a liminal experience is:

  • forced, prolonged separation from normal ways of being & doing;
  • experiences that are both disturbingly different & confusingly similar mixed together in a jarring way; and,
  • when it ends, those that survive return transformed.

All of this seems to apply quite well to our current situation, as we enter year three of the COVID pandemic. On top of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine also reminds us that there is a layering of world-changing events going on. The combinatorial effect of which adds to the low-level, constant anxiety we are all experiencing.

Within the workplace, how can leaders and managers help us to process this liminal experience to ensure its long-term impact has some positives – or at least to help us cope? The temptation to knuckle-down and tough it out – to survive above all else – is overwhelming at times. Enabling our own personal goblin-mode might seem like an attractive option, but we are going to need a better strategy if our organisations are to thrive.

Start with yourself

As leaders, we always have to start by doing some work on ourselves – not only can it help us handle our emotions better in difficult situations, but also develop some empathy. For what people will go through as they process these liminal experiences – learning & growing outside of our comfort zone – can be a messy business. Self-leadership, defined as “developing and managing your individual energy to initiate, motivate and perform at a high level, improving and sustaining your organization’s leadership philosophy at an individual level” isn’t just for those with a corner office, but instead allows all of us to take responsibility and accountability in the pursuit of excellence, balance and building a high-performing organisation. Ground-up leadership development is powerful, within your gift and a perfect opportunity to develop the basic tools emerging leaders need to succeed – raising your own self-awareness, learning basic coaching skills and connecting your passion to the future of the organisation are good first steps.

Make bold moves

Once you’ve addressed some of your own needs, it is time to decide where to act for those you lead. Do you have the ability to make big decisions about the future of how your organisation works? Maybe you have the power and authority to advocate for a switch to a four-day week, like the experiment at Buffer? Maybe it needs to be something smaller, ensuring that your team know that it is ok to be unavailable out of hours or on the weekend. But the changes can’t feel like a recycled effort at new ways of working or a classic re-organisation – they must be purposeful, and address real, not perceived, issues. Employees need to feel that they’re experiencing the emergence of the future of work, one in which their emerging needs are acknowledged and leaders make an effort at dialogue, understanding and evolution.

Some systems of work organisation that have emerged during the pandemic and the immediate aftermath of the return to the office need addressing – they have become overly complex or are no longer fit-for-purpose. When looking for case studies or advice from those most able to fix some of the flaws in the system, advice from those who piloted part-time telecommuting 50 years ago offers some longer-term perspective and can help leaders ensure they are not creating more problems than they are solving!

Embrace a learning mindset to stay positive

Finally, all teams need to be given permission, time and access to allow for continuous learning. Our skills always need to be evolving, but particularly now, our mindsets need a shake up and we need new perspectives on building the future of our organisations. Not sure where to start? This latest report from LinkedIn on future skills might give you some good ideas.