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.
I was in San Francisco for work last weekend. It was great. San Francisco is the perfect city for people that hate being hot, hate being cold, and that love being angry all the time. That’s because of its microclimates. Due to hilly terrain and oceanic currents, weather conditions can vary dramatically between different pockets within the city.
Everyone wants to improve their brand. Hardly anyone wants to improve themselves.
I get it. I love to exercise, but will be the first to admit that buying workout clothes is more fun than actually getting myself to the gym. Writing about having difficult conversations is infinitely more enjoyable than actually having them. Talking about your great company culture is much simpler than figuring out how to make sure it lives up to your description every day.
I always loved the show Arrested Development. In fact, after the last US election I vowed to only comment on US politics on Facebook using gifs from the show, to avoid contributing to the vitriolic, overwhelming, and (in my opinion) futile, political debates going on in my feed (as a Canadian I’m truly just yelling into the void about this stuff). Turns out this Jason Bateman gif works for more recent events too.
Culture. It keeps coming up in the conversations I’m having with HR professionals about sexual harassment right now. After writing about sexual harassment last year and launching a related project for 2018, I’m having a lot of these conversations at the moment.
We should talk about culture when we talk about sexual harassment (which I would like us all to be doing right now, with a new humility and curiosity), as long as we’re doing so in ways that are actionable and specific. It’s far too easy for ‘culture’ to be used as shorthand for “I don’t know why, but that’s the way things are here”.
A major challenge of talking about something as complex as culture is that we have to be reductive to be succinct. Something as layered, nuanced, and invisible would take ages to accurately convey (if we could even put it into words), but often, we try to distill it into a soundbite. A few key words or phrases that we think make our organization distinct from the average company.
“Keep learning. Explore crazy ideas”
“The Customer is Not Always Right”
“Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude” (Note: Guys, I just found out these are actually Southwest Airlines’ values and I can’t even)
Although most organizations talk about their cultures as being unique and monolithic (that is, consistent throughout the organization, which is often an unstated assumption underlying the practice of hiring for ‘culture fit’), this is rarely the case.
This week an old post of mine, HR’s Sloppy Thinking About Culture, was shared on LinkedIn and then Twitter (thank you very much Simon Jones and Rob Briner). Once I got over the initial shock that five years have passed since I wrote it, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the topic of organizational culture.
A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.
Note: This post was my contribution to the crowd-sourced ebook This Time It’s Personnel: Humane Resourced 2. The brainchild of David D’Souza, HR pro, fellow contrarian, and spectacular blogger at 101 Half Connected Things, all proceeds from the sale of this ebook go to charities collectively selected by the many talented and creative authors. I am massively enjoying reading the varied viewpoints it contains, and have had more than a few great ideas while absorbing my fellow authors’ wisdom – I very much recommend it (and it’s less than $5).
HR: Organizational Cheerleader or Agony Aunt?
If an Anthropologist were trying to conduct ethnographic research on the tribe known as ‘HR professionals’, HR blogs would offer a rich source of data. I imagine them hunched over a laptop reading, their notebooks filled with scribbles:
“Members of the tribe seem preoccupied with questions of collective purpose and meaning, resulting in a plurality of contradictory identities.”
There are few experiences as humbling as starting a new job. Overnight, you are transformed from a fully competent contributor to an unproven rookie. You enter a new world, where the language, customs and culture are unfamiliar. The mental ‘maps’ you’ve used to navigate your past environment are of limited help; in fact, they may lead you astray. Though certain practices, interactions or cues you encounter might look like ones you’ve experienced before, in this new landscape they may carry a very different meaning than what you assume.
In this respect, entering a new organization is profoundly similar to moving to a foreign country. I should know. When I was 13 years old, one of many moves with my family led us to Saudi Arabia, where we lived for 5 years. Even now, I can play the scenes of our arrival and first days in my head like a video recording. The chaotic airport, the oppressively hot night air, the strange smells and staccato Arabic enveloping us, the desolate nothingness of the desert highway at night, and the gecko perched near our new front door as if to welcome us. Whether a new organization, or a new country, the complete immersion into a different culture feels a lot like waking up in a Picasso painting. Read more