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At the Threshold – Liminality and New Roles

I began a new role at a new organization a few weeks ago, and I’m once again appreciating the unique and precious experience of being in a liminal space.

The concept of liminality comes from anthropology, and refers to a finite period in which we stand with one foot in a new literal or metaphorical place and identity, and one foot out in our old place and identity. We are still an outsider, but are in the process of deliberately becoming an insider. This is a special, fluid, and confusing time, one in which our understanding is incomplete, and our new role is still solidifying. In a liminal period, we still lack much of the context that insiders have, which means our understanding of the new is incomplete. But this lack of shared history with other insiders (and often the assumptions that shared history creates) can sometimes help us briefly see with greater clarity than the insiders.

From Wikipedia:

“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rites, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the rite establishes.”

I have a fair bit of experience navigating the liminal. Growing up, we moved every 3-4 years. Before I began University, I’d lived in 4 countries and a handful of cities in Canada. Each move returned me to the role of outsider, often in a very different culture, to begin the journey to insider all over again.

Whether it’s a new organization, or a new country, the liminal state is a convergence point for a few different sources of ambiguity:

  1. We are making sense of a new environment and culture. Where are we, and what does everything mean?
  2. We are making sense of who we want to be in that culture and environment. Who am I in this new place? (Future self), and;
  3. We have the opportunity to remake the sense we have of ourselves in relation to this new reality. Who was I in the place(s) I am leaving behind? (Past self).

Sense-making in a New Environment

Liminality is an inherently disorientating state. The mental models we’ve developed to help us navigate past environments can fail us, or (even more dangerous) seem to fit our new environment…until they abruptly don’t.

I wrote about this (and my move to Saudi Arabia in my teens) in a post in 2013 titled ‘Organizational Immigration’:

“Accurately interpreting and assigning meaning to cultural features is really difficult. When we are outsiders to a culture, by necessity we view its features through our own cultural lens.  This can lead to painful missteps and misinterpretations. We can sense differences but can’t yet understand their significance or the underlying assumptions that drive them. By contrast, once we have fully assimilated into a culture, we have difficulty objectively assessing how it differs from other cultures, or pinpointing what underlying cultural assumptions we have come to accept as our own.”

We know this intuitively – most of us will have extended or received an invitation that sounds something like: “If you see something that doesn’t make sense, please say so. We value fresh eyes.” The sincerity of the person extending this invitation may vary, but the logic is sound.

That is to say that as insiders we don’t know what’s unusual about our culture until we leave it, or an outsider points it out to us. Our culture is made up of the unremarkable. We assume that everyone does it our way, until we encounter someone who says “Why are you doing it that way?”.

As we sense our way into our new role in a company, mostly by observing how others act and how they seem to expect us to act, we are briefly in the position to notice some of the shared assumptions they have about work, about each other, and about us. Things like how people should make decisions, how they view time, who is admired and why, and what is taboo to talk about.

Assuming Our New Identity

Joining a new organization has parallels to the anthropological view of liminality in rite-taking. Both involve assuming a new role characterized by certain culturally-determined expectations.

Just as a small-scale society might use a rite to bestow clearly prescribed responsibilities and duties onto a member of their culture who is being anointed an adult, an organization assigns a newly hired manager a range of responsibilities, some listed in a job description, and others assumed based on their shared definition of a leader.

For a brief time, in looking at the insiders around us, we can see a version of the person we are on our way to becoming and make some conscious decisions about the type of insider we want to be. Which of their shared assumptions might we want to warn our future selves to be skeptical of? Which things seem weird right now, but probably won’t in 6 months? Best to make note before you become an insider, and lose this liminal vision.

Re-casting Our Old Identity

No, this does not mean taking the opportunity to invent an impressive new history for yourself.  Eventually someone will figure out that you were not a champion fly-fisherman, did not single-handedly keep your previous employers in business, and definitely did not get pulled onstage at Bruce Springsteen concert.

Rather, entering a liminal space provides a natural point to re-evaluate what aspects of our existing identity will serve us as we move into a new place and role, and which we should lay to rest.

From In Discussion with Liminal Leader Kenneth Mikkelsen:

“Privately, we all have an inner monologue. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and that guide our self-perception. On a personal level, we tell other stories when we’re with family members, friends or attend social events. Lastly, there are the professional stories that we use in a work-related context. These are the stories we use when we talk to colleagues or clients and how we introduce ourselves when we attend a conference. We all have a repository of stories that we use in those three spheres but we often use they unconsciously and without attaching a deeper meaning to them. They shape our beliefs, personalities and influence our well-being and opportunities.

By surfacing these stories you can work with them and start using them more constructively to reflect your values and what you stand for. When people go through transitions in their lives this becomes even more important. Some stories have an expiry date. At turning points in our lives, we need new stories to set a fresh course and influence where we want to go next.”

Using Liminality

Recognizing and embracing liminal states can offer us and the organizations we join insights and benefits, but it can also help outsiders.

Few people choose to be outsiders. Even those who do, often find community on the outside (think of counter-cultures like punks, hippies, or even monks who choose to live outside the dominant culture). There are some elements of paradox here; these outsiders go on to create their own ‘inside’.

But there are people who are outsiders against their wishes, often denied the opportunity to be insiders based on their ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or other factors. My experiences of liminality have always been safe, finite, and at worst temporarily uncomfortable. But these experiences do offer a tiny taste of the turmoil that being an outsider can create.

These moments of discomfort offer me an opportunity to have empathy for outsiders who don’t have the privilege I do. It’s also a very practical chance to pause and notice the most obvious barriers that those seeking to be insiders will encounter along the way. That is, we can use liminality to examine and question who is most likely to hold the roles of outsider and insider within our industry and company, be more aware of obstacles, and strive for more deliberate inclusion.

Recommended Reading

Last week was Thanksgiving here in Canada, and while I have a whole lot to be thankful for, I’m also filled with anger at what’s happening in the world right now.

And I’m not alone. Rage is in the air. And all over social media. And on my nightstand. And filling my inbox, and my text messages, and virtually every conversation I’m having with women in my life right now (and plenty of men too).

And it feels absolutely right to be angry. Things are not okay.

So, while a lot of people are prescribing civility, extra self-care, and disconnecting from the news and social media, I’m leaning in. I say, stay plugged in and angry. If you’re on board, allow me to recommend the following:

Book: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister

Article: Sexual Harassment Still Shrouded in Mystery at Big Companies by Jessica David Pluss

Article: We women can be anything. But can we be angry? by Ijeoma Oluo

Newsletter: Quartzy: The Rage Edition by Jessanne Collins

Podcast: Call Your Girlfriend: A Woman’s Anger, with Rebecca Traister

Video: Watch this absolute fireball of a speech from Natalie Portman


Photo by Martin Cehelsky on Unsplash

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. stoweboyd #

    Happy limens! I hope you make a swift transition!

    October 15, 2018
  2. stoweboyd #

    PS Have you seen Dave Gray’s book on Limnality?

    October 15, 2018
  3. Haven’t read it. Is it excellent? My backlog is so long right now that I am only accepting excellent suggestions!! 😉

    October 15, 2018
  4. stoweboyd #

    He’s excellent. I only read parts.

    October 15, 2018

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