Learning from Liminality

The Importance of Purpose During Organizational Change

Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten, the start of a new job, puberty, or retirement, change – even when it is welcomed – tends to be challenging to cope with. It’s no wonder that organizational change is typically considered a painful experience. While complex constellations of factors underpin any organizational transformation, the anthropological notion of liminality offers an interesting perspective on the human experience of organizational change.

Anthropologists use the term “liminality” to describe the sense of chaos and ambiguity that a social group endures during a time of transition. Coined by Arnold van Gennep in 1909, and then taken up by Victor Turner in 1967, the term is used to understand the point that occurs during a rite of passage when we are no longer what we were, but not yet what we will be. Liminality is that point in a transformation when we are “betwixt and between”; the structures that maintain social order fall away, and new forms of organization emerge once the transformation is complete. During the liminal phase of a rite of passage, members of the social group experience a strong sense of social solidarity, known as communitas. This feeling of social connection is a key part of a successful transformation.

Ceremonial rites of passage are able to bring about effective transitions because they represent change that is underpinned by shared culture and beliefs. Everyone knows the outcome of the transformation before it happens, so liminality is largely performative in ceremonial contexts. The transformation is catalyzed through the strong leadership of a ceremonial master, and the ambiguity and chaos is temporary because people share a belief that the outcome is a necessary part of life. In other words, rites of passage turn out well because culture underpins the change with a sense of purpose.

So What? Applying Liminality to Organizational Change

Organizational transformation is like a rite of passage. Whether it’s about embedding new capabilities, integrating an acquisition, or introducing new technologies, organizational structures, or KPIs, during any organizational transformation there will be a liminal period in which the organization is no longer what it was, but not yet what it will be.

In the context of ritual rites of passage, the outcomes are well known; the sense of ambiguity has an end because the purpose of the transition is an objective that is known and shared by all members of the community. But what happens when the outcomes of a transition are not understood or shared by those undergoing the change? What happens when a transformation isn’t underpinned by a shared sense
of purpose?

Betwixt and between old and new structures, functions, and roles, the social underpinnings of work can become unmoored from the work itself. When employees are aligned to a common goal, the stress of change can bring people together through solidarity and communitas. In this scenario, employees are engaged in the delivery of shared outcomes. However, when outcomes are not clearly defined, the suspension of the existing order can work to transform solidarity and communitas into a toxic territoriality, where employees vie for positions and focus more on personal power than on achieving a common goal. When the ambiguity of change impacts the experience of work for employees, business outcomes can suffer.

Applying the theory of liminality to the human experience of organizational change offers new ways of thinking about business transformation:

/ Beyond what is changing and how the change is being activated, do leaders
and team members share an understanding of the deeper purpose of why change is happening and how organizational life will differ when it’s done?

/ Successful rites of passage are catalyzed by a ceremonial master who leads participants through the period of liminality. Who is emceeing the transformation in the organization and making sure all participants know what comes next?

/ Ritual rites of passage are underpinned by shared cultural beliefs and practices. What are the cultural beliefs and practices within the organization that will either help or hinder the change the business is trying to achieve?

/ The ritual experience of liminality is mediated by a shared understanding of what change means. What is the narrative around change in the organization, and how can this story be used to motivate and support the experiences of employees?

/ During liminal periods, the social order is suspended. Similarly, during a corporate transformation, roles and responsibilities will likely be changed. What actions can be taken by leadership and management
to ensure that the experience of change is characterized by a sense of solidarity and communitas, rather than resentment or envy?

/ Does the organization have the appropriate communications structure, channels, resources, and content to support employees as they move through the liminal phase of organizational change?

/ How might design thinking be applied to the employee experience of change to help embed purpose into the transformation and drive better outcomes?

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.