The strange in-between
I’ve been engaging with the notion of liminality as a concept for a while now, especially since Dave Snowden introduced his liminal version of the Cynefin framework. Now it has become my lived reality. It feels like I have been dumped (rather unceremoniously) into a strange in-between state. It is a place filled with tensions, opposites and paradox. I know the world has irrevocably changed, but in my local context, everything still seems strangely (and alarmingly) normal. I am aware of the enormous transformative potential of this moment, like a collective cocooning process that we shouldn’t waste. But I also know that any birthing process, the cocoon (and the womb) is not only transformative and filled with potential but also painful and scary.
I am constantly bombarded with terrifying stories about what is happening in Italy and other countries where COVID19 has wreaked havoc. On the other hand, we see images of nature regenerating amid all the human suffering — cleaner air, bird song returning to cities.
In South Africa, we have just started the seeming inevitable journey up the exponential COVID19 curve. For a while the number of cases hovered below 50, now they are doubling every day. We are practising social distancing, working from home and venturing to the shops now and again to buy groceries and something that we forgot about that we suddenly realise we can’t do without if we go into lockdown. Things are eerily different, yet the same. Some shelves are empty, others full. I see full restaurants and immediately judge the ignorance and complacency, while at the same time feeling thankful that my favourite places are still there. I am terrifyingly aware of how vulnerable our people are and how unprepared our health system is. We have so many poor people dealing with diseases like TB, HIV and others. They live in shacks and travel on over-crowded public transport. They don’t have the luxury of self-isolating, and those who can aren’t willing to. I struggle to deal with the emotions that all of this evokes in me. I am learning how to deal with the escalating levels of anxiety created by the knowledge of what is probably coming.
My work over the last two decades has been to help others become more effective in making sense of uncertainty; to accept that the world is complex and unpredictable, that certainty and order are fragile. In a way, I have been preparing for this moment for most of my career. To a degree, it gives me a scaffolding to hang onto, but it does not make me an expert in any shape or form. While I have been exploring this field, thinking about it various frameworks and helping others make sense, we are all in uncharted territory together. I am thankful now that I have chosen to be a thinking partner, not a consultant or coach who professes to have answers. I have deep empathy now with leaders who are expected by others to have answers. No-one has been here before; answers are transient at best. Questions matter now.
A key question we all need to reflect on is: what do you do when you don’t (or can’t) know what to do?
Uncertainty is more manageable when we know that it is temporary; a little like the pain we feel when we exercise — if I know I only have five repetitions left, I can tolerate “the burn”. If I don’t know when it will end, the burn becomes unbearable. It is hard to make sense of perpetual uncertainty. It is easier to accept a two-week lockdown than indeterminate isolation.
Many of us are finding ourselves trapped by busyness. I’m not sure if this is a defence mechanism we are choosing, or if we are caught up in the anxiety responses of others.
Most of the colleagues and clients I am engaging with complain about excessive busyness. When we chose (or were told to) stay home, there was an unspoken assumption, an illusion that we would have more time. The reality is very different; most of us are struggling to maintain boundaries. In the absence of our regular routines, work is bleeding into all the free spaces in our lives. Virtual meetings, across multiple time zones, consume all my hours, and because of the nature of my work, the demand is extreme. The danger is that busyness becomes a defence against the anxiety we are all feeling in the face of an entirely new, invisible threat.
One thing to guard against is busyness as a distraction, a pretence that we are actually doing something. In many client organisations, leaders are putting off essential decisions while spending hours discussing things like what kind of leave their staff needs to take. Is it sick leave, vacation leave, unpaid leave? All of this while people are still coming to the office every day, potentially exposing others but too scared to stay home. All of this while experts are screaming at us to take action soon enough and not make the same mistakes as other countries. We avoid important decisions while dithering on details.
One thing we cannot afford now is paralysis. Waiting and seeing, moving deck chairs around on the titanic is the worst thing we can do. We need decisive action, even when we don’t have sufficient information to guide our actions. But this is easier said than done.
A couple of tips:
- Let go of the need to “be right”; if we want to make the right decision, we will inevitably be paralysed. Rather than correctness, ask: with what I know right now, what is the next wise action I can take. And once you’ve taken that step, don’t get attached, keep monitoring the situation, make sure you have feedback loops in place and if necessary pivot. The most important thing now is to keep moving, don’t get stuck.
- Be very intentional about self-care and setting firm time boundaries. Now, more than ever, we need time to think — time to take a step back to rejuvenate and get perspective. A metaphor I like to borrow from Heifetz & Linski’s book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership — get off the dance floor now and then and get a balcony view. It might feel like we are in chaos, but more often, we are in a confused, disordered state. We need to make time for sense-making and pattern discernment to get out of our confused state. If we don’t, we may get stuck in illegitimate, perpetual confusion, and that will end up dumping us into chaos.
- Above all, have grace with yourself. Acknowledge your anxiety, don’t suppress or deny it. Find ways to work with it: for some exercise helps; for others journaling or creative practices help. Don’t be scared of asking for help, see a therapist if you need to. If we can contain our anxiety, it can become a source of creative energy, not a paralysing trap.
Just to be clear, the above tips are as much for me as for anyone reading this. I am in a way preaching to myself :).
One of the ways I deal with my own need to reflect and process is to write. I plan to create more time to do that over the coming weeks.
If there is anything, in particular, you would like me to explore, feel free to put your requests and suggestions in the comments.