A couple of years ago, I wrote about liminality as a useful perspective in managing change and transformation. It’s a deceptively simple idea, with a lot of power behind it. Transitions are never easy. Understanding that those transitions have boundaries and conditions—and ultimately that there are ways through to the other side—can be incredibly helpful.
“Liminal” as an idea has its roots in anthropology. The term comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold. That is fundamentally what liminality means: being on a threshold between one state and another. It is the place of in-between. It was originally applied to the study and explanation of rites of passage, the process where communities helped individuals through stages of growth and change.
My goal in writing those early posts was to illustrate a framework that could help individuals, teams and organizations manage change. It not only explains how change works, but also highlights how change is experienced viscerally. It underscores the tensions we encounter in committing to change, and the uncertainty and fuzziness that dominates the actual experience.
All of that still holds true. But here’s the thing about how liminality is supposed to work: there are people in the middle of change, others who have gone through it and still more who have yet to transition (but may do so at some time). In other words, there are some people on the inside, and others on the outside.
Today we find ourselves collectively in one giant liminal space. The Covid 19 pandemic has thrust us unexpectedly—and largely unwillingly—into a massive process of change. While each of us experiences it differently, and faces different circumstances (based in part on geography and the part of the world we find ourselves in) we are all in it together. I struggle to think of another example in recent history where this is true.
What’s more, we’re all at various stages in this particular liminal journey. We’re all collectively thrashing about in the same swimming pool: some are clinging to the ladder, others are in the shallow end and a vast many are flailing about in the deep end, feeling that circumstances are well above our heads. No one is on the sidelines, and just dipping a toe in to test the waters isn’t an option. We are genuinely all in this together. Much going forward depends on what we do collectively do, which in turn depends upon how we individually respond.
To explore why this is relevant, how it is unprecedented and the ways in which things might unfold, it is probably useful to go back to a basic exploration of what liminality is and how it works.
The essence of liminality is simple. It looks like a straightforward process, where there is a before, an after and an in-between during. That’s a deceptively simple representation, as with all efforts to represent complexity with simple boxes and lines. The before part is easy enough; it’s where we all start. And the end part is conceptually straightforward; it’s where we get to once all this is over.
Where this gets complicated is that we have a choice of ends. There is no single simple place we can all get to. In fact, while we’ve been collectively dumped into the liminal swimming pool together at roughly the same time, defining where, when and how we get out—and where we wind up as a result—is likely to be different for each of us.
What makes that different is what happens—and what we do—in the in-between period. The liminal space itself is where the magic lies—if we can call it that—and where outcomes are ultimately determined. That’s principally because liminality is not a state of being, it is a space of becoming. There is no stasis there; there is movement and action and intention, and the job of the liminal space is to let us wrestle with that in our own unique way in order to become the person we want to be on the other side.
To illustrate what I’m talking about here, let’s go back to the example of life stages where liminality started. One of the earliest illustrations was the transition from youth to adulthood that occurred in tribes. Youth would be taken away from the tribe in a ritual manner; as this happened, they lost their status as children. The were also not yet adults. They were in-between. The rite of passage involved going off into the wilderness and discovering who they were, and what they were capable of. Not easy, not certain, and arguably not for the faint of heart.
How you manage in these circumstances is telling. You could hide close to the village. Steal food from the fire. Stay in sight of where you were, listening on the outside, waiting for a time where it is safe to come back to the community again. There’s no transition here, there is only deception. It’s the easy path, and because of that it is a tempting path. But it is also easy to see that this would be a path with no growth and ultimately much regret.
Alternatively, you accept the ritual as what it is: a challenge to be endured and experienced. You set off for the tribe to fend for yourself. You figure out food. You search for shelter. You embark on a physical and mental journey where you are challenged to survive and come out on the other side. You learn your strengths, and you confront your weaknesses, and you come back to the tribe knowing who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing.
Both examples start in the same place. But the journey is very different, and so is the result. Growth and understanding is arrived at for one. A feeling of distance and inadequacy is the result for the other. The outcome as well as the experience will shape who each person becomes as they continue to live their lives. Put simply, the choices we make in the liminal determine where we get to in the end.
A couple of features that we haven’t addressed in the idea of liminality that it is important to acknowledge, through, is that leaving where we were is a choice. Part of the transition is the result of letting go of who we were, not yet knowing who we are going to become. We can’t head for the other shore (or the other side of the swimming pool, to push that analogy about as far as we can) without first letting go of where we are. We need to commit to the journey without actually knowing the outcome.
The second part that is fundamental to liminality as originally conceived was that it was guided. There were knowledgeable elders watching over the transition, even from afar. While the journey might be personal, external influence might be necessary to nudge it in a particular direction. At the very least, those experiencing the journey have—sometimes unknowingly—someone watching out for them and making sure that they don’t truly come to harm.
That is where ritual ends and real-life begins. In the context of our collective current liminal state, we didn’t actively choose this. Viruses don’t discriminate, they simply seek the next host. We have all seen examples of people denying the outbreak, downplaying it, pretending things are better than they are and wishing them away. There is, somewhat understandably, a desire to stay where we are—where we have been—or at least to get back to what used to be normal as quickly as possible.
There is no going back, though. The world post-Covid 19 is not going to be the same one before it. Even as cures are found and vaccines are developed, how we operate as people, communities and societies will in some ways be changed. Clinging to perceived normalcy is understandable, but it doesn’t help in preparing for and transitioning to what comes next.
The other challenge is that there is minimal guidance in how to navigate this. We live in a world where selfish and self-interested politicians have deliberately and progressively undermined confidence in journalism and in science. We need truth—and we need science—more than ever, which means that we need a rapid lurch back in the direction of trust. That creates expectations for us, and obligations for scientists and journalists. We are still all in this together.
Most significantly, the solutions to our current reality are not only found in medicine. Yes, we need vaccines (and people need to take them). We need primary healthcare for those experiencing the illness. That means more beds, more ventilators, more care and more time. These are challenges of manufacturing, of supply chains, of logistics and of politics. They are challenges of decision making and collaboration for the public good, not the personal interest. That is not a mindset that comes naturally to some.
The challenge of more time is one that we all play a role in, though. The whole point of flattening the curve is reducing demand for scarce medical resources, of allowing our healthcare system to not reach a state of overwhelm. There are places in the world that we well beyond that. And there are countries that have navigated surprisingly well (with varying techniques, some praiseworthy and some questionable). We have the capacity to learn. And every one of us has the capacity to stay home, to minimize contact and to slow the spread of what is an insidious disease. We just have to want to.
We are all on a liminal journey. That journey is one that we are sort of taking together, in that we are all experiencing it at the same time. It is also one that we are—and are supposed to be—taking apart. Adapting requires recognizing that the world has changed, that we can’t simply go back to the way it was, and we need to act—and become—different people going forward.
This situation also represents opportunity. The world for many has had to slow down. The routines have changed. The priorities today are very different than they were last week, and miles from what they were even two weeks before. We have more choice of how we want to spend our time, where we want to focus and what we want to do. Even for those who are still working remotely, homeschooling children and taking care of family, there is space and opportunity, if we choose to take it.
We are all liminal now. We didn’t choose that happening. But we have choice in responding. We have choice for ourselves in what we imagine to be our next end-point. We have choice for others, in managing how we interact. We have choice as citizens, in bearing witness and responding appropriately to the actions of our politicians. We have choices for our colleagues, our teams and our organizations, in defining how we show up and what we do next.
Nancy Batty says
Thanks, Mark. Good blog. I’ve seen lots of people musing about how we will come out of this, what will have changed for us when the pandemic is over. Most people I’ve read believe that there has to be political and economic change—it’s a lesson that we’re learning, painfully, right now. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that those changes we understand to be beneficial or necessary are actually going to happen. In fact, there is the potential for many possible futures, some of which are downright scary (increased populism, demagoguery, repression, nativism, etc.).
As a change management specialist, can you advise about how we, as a society—individuals and groups—might mobilize to shape the future, rather than wait and wonder what might that future might look like? Tall order, eh? I know you’re not a political scientist, but can you come at this from a process perspective?
Mark Mullaly says
Thank for the feedback, Nance. And no… That’s not a tall order at all! You’re right, I’m not a political scientist, but the question of what future we get, and how we might shape that, is an interesting and important one. And I do have some thoughts on that, at least from an individual and organizational perspective… if not necessarily from a societal one. But the lessons on the micro may be applicable at a more macro level, too. So yes. Stay tuned. Might be a multi-parter to answer, but I’ll do my best!
Nancy Batty says
Looking forward to hearing more from you, Mark. Thanks.