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Liminal Living

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” ~ Blaise Pascal (17th century French mathematician, inventor, writer, philosopher)

Ever told yourself “I wish I could just press the pause button”?

Prior to COVID, it was a phrase I often heard, and said, in relation to the hamster wheel we were on. Whilst the pandemic brought with it a cloud of uncertainty and fear-driven restricted freedoms, it also helped to refocus our vision on the things that really matter. We made quality decisions that otherwise may not have been considered.

And yet, that vision is blurring as we transition again. Although this time, we have new eyes. We cannot unsee what we have seen and we can make informed choices about how to approach this transition, unlike when we were thrust into home working under mandated lockdowns. But to do so, we need to embrace the liminal benefits of it.

The space between

But what is even meant by liminal? It is often the point we feel some kind of physiological or psychological effect. (Perhaps there is a feeling coming up for you now, wondering what this article is really about?!) The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen meaning threshold. Imagine being on the cusp of something. Whilst in this space we often feel unsettled or some blend of nervous and excited. It is when we want to “get on with it” and become the new thing we are moving towards. After all, our brains have evolved to be hard-wired for safety, and liminal space feels anything but safe. Learning from the beautiful butterfly though, the caterpillar that moves into a chrysalis needs to wait it out before the metamorphosis can take place. The transitional waiting is a key stage in the process.

Granted, transitions can be difficult, especially when the certainty of becoming a beautiful butterfly is not there. Whilst we accept that change is something that inevitably happens, we forget that transitions are what help or hinder the change. They represent some period of surrender to a new way of doing things that may range from vaguely familiar to completely unknown. And in the realm of organisational life, we are currently standing on that threshold.

For the executive teams desperate to get people back into the office, it can’t happen quick enough. Yet for some employees re-evaluating their lives, things seem to be reverting back in many cases to pre-pandemic habits, despite the continued risks and confusing messaging. Despite 18 months of relating to each other in arguably more “real” ways, the relational disconnect between employer and employee seems to be widening, with many expressing concern about the pressure to push through the uncomfortable liminal space and simply “go back” to what’s “known” (@McKQuarterly Sept 2021). It is this relational gap that warrants some attention if organisations are to transition effectively to a post-pandemic brave new world of work.

But if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Going back to a familiar way of living, relating, or working means going back to automatic decision-making (think System 1 in @kahneman_daniel Thinking Fast and Slow). It provides the illusion of control after a prolonged period of helplessness, so it feels natural to gravitate back. Many are tired of wondering about going on holiday or a business trip again without the fear of a red list upon return. What is the mask etiquette in the shop when popping in for a pint of milk? Is it appropriate to hug or shake hands with someone after a long hiatus? Even remembering someone’s name as they walk towards you takes effort! Simple familiar moments are taking a lot more mental energy to navigate, making it much harder to just “go back.”

Delighting in “I don’t know”

What if we could reward rather than condemn "I don't know"? This liminal space is definitely not straightforward, and yet admitting we don't have the answers allows us to be curious and seek them. After all, the additional energy required to make sense of things, to notice all those nonverbal body cues of communication can also be recharged if willing to learn anew. It feels uplifting to be in a different space bumping into people, feeling the intuitive trust that comes with a handshake. Closer proximity makes being creative, learning and iterating together much easier, not to mention essential for competing effectively. None of this can happen though unless we are willing to ask naive questions and be vulnerable as opposed to prove our worth and productivity with screen/face time showing how/what we know.

If not defaulting to what is known, what things need to be unlearnt to seize this so-called opportunity? Start with beliefs. If one accepts that “decisions are bets on the future,” says professional poker player @AnnieDuke, one also acknowledges that these bets are based on experiences and beliefs that may have/ are changing and require constant testing and reflecting upon. If leaders are not tuned into the beliefs that are driving decisions, the relational gap widens and performance suffers. Duke argues that quality decision-making processes are driven by calibrating among all the shades of grey, rather than falling into the trap of black and white thinking, reflective of one’s long-held beliefs. She cautions against sitting in the darkness of automatic thinking and reminds us to shed light on beliefs which drive decisions.

This is a great time to stop and think together in your teams to explore very different experiences of this transition before jumping into the task list of the day. If COVID taught us anything, it is that to survive prolonged periods of uncertainty - characteristic of the current zeitgeist - we have no real choice but to embrace our capacity for not knowing and course-correct accordingly. This requires curiosity and acceptance that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in the exodus from “the great pause.”

To take advantage of the once in a generation opportunity that has been afforded to us through the crisis means making the most of liminal living right now. This takes courage and withstanding discomfort, but it will be worth it.

A few ways to apply this:

  1. Don’t rush it - Often over the past 18 months, I heard many CEOs remind us that this is a marathon not a sprint. Let’s not sprint now through the liminality. Take time and honour what you’ve learnt about how to thrive through adverse moments.

  2. Write down lessons learnt - Have discussions in teams to see, hear and understand what kind of value-creating work can and should be done together and in person, rather than blindly assigning an in/out of office pattern. Learning from each other helps us cope, builds resilience and inclusive cultures.

  3. Consciously experiment - You may have made a decision that office-based employment is no longer your bag, or vice versa, but try it on first. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As any scientist can attest, it is through experimentation that we test our hypotheses and find new answers to the same old questions. Give yourself a period of time and ask why? And what if?

  4. Document the progress you ARE making - We are programmed for survival and so the neural connections for that which is negative tend to be stronger than those for positive. Whilst you may not yet have hit your quarterly targets, note what you are doing and how that is affecting the shift you seek. You may otherwise lose sight of the good stuff amidst the fog.

  5. Be curious - Take the time to connect with others when you are in the office. Wander around, ask questions, huddle around a familiar problem and bring new people into the conversation. Another perspective can breathe new life to a challenge.

And please feel free to leave me some feedback in the comments. There is so much I don't know about this topic and would love to hear your thoughts!

For further thoughts:

‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours, McKinsey Quarterly, Sept 2021.

Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman, 2021 Thanks @AdamMGrant for this one!

Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke, 2018

Think Again, Adam Grant, 2021

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