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Rite of passage

Organisations can learn from anthropology in using the pandemic as a “liminal” experience or time of trial, says Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville.

Woman wearing protective mask, looking at the city from the window during coronavirus qurantine in Barcelona. Nice sunset with the sun shining in the sky.

Organisations can learn from cultural anthropology in using the coronavirus pandemic as a “liminal” experience or time of trial in order to emerge stronger, says a new Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Jennifer Howard-Grenville.
Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville

The crisis has resembled the cultural rite of passage for young members of a tribe studied by anthropologists, and such a concept “can also be applied to significant transitions in our organisational lives, including  those brought about by the current pandemic,” says the article entitled “How Has the Past Year Changed You and Your Organization?”

A liminal experience has three core characteristics: a forced separation from normal ways; a prolonged break from the familiar; and a transformation for those who have survived when the experience comes to an end.

“Liminal experiences are disturbing and disruptive, but they also represent potent opportunities for reflection, discovery, and even reinvention,” say co-authors by Laura Empson, Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London, and Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“If there is one enduring lesson that we all share from our liminal experiences, it is that disruption and ambiguity can yield valuable lessons, both personally and organisationally, and that we are capable of far greater adaptability than we may previously have imagined,” the article concludes. “The pandemic therefore represents an opportunity to build revitalised organisational cultures, and to emerge collectively stronger from our time of trial.”