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Going Liminal: Is COVID-19 the Great Leveller?

May 1, 2020 | #GoingLiminal Series,

I’ve never much cared for hierarchies. Respectful yes, of the need to create space for career development, for taking on increased responsibilities, and in understanding national cultural affinity for flat vs hierarchical management structures. But it’s the status hierarchies, the abuse of positional power or assumed value according to where you sit in the hierarchy, that irritates.

COVID-19 is in many ways a great status ‘leveller’. All video windows on my MS Teams or Zoom are the same size. There may be some competing for best background but for the most part, we are plunged into a place of egalitarianism. That feels like a positive, doesn’t it? But are we ready to re-evaluate hierarchy as a core structural component of most organisations? I’m betting that we all have examples of how we resort to using positional (status) power in our lives, at the same time as COVID-19 reveals to us the extremes of inequality within our social hierarchies.

This series is exploring ‘Liminal Space’, the time of accelerated transformational change between when one period ends and the next starts. It recognises the importance of the time the world refers to as ‘lockdown’, the need to dwell, appreciate and learn from this phase rather than being in survival mode as we wait for the ‘new norm’.

At Anthesis we are dependent on global connectivity. We have to deliver sustainability seamlessly across global value chains and all Anthesians have to be gateways to our global resources. We and our clients have no patience for siloed structures, tribal cultures and private fiefdoms. This gets in the way of good business and getting sustainability done. We think bureaucracy and over-reliance on top down control stifles performance. In all we do we seek to avoid bureaucracy. Instead we want to unleash potential through personal and company-wide empowerment, and entrepreneurial can-do mentality. This is founded on trust. If you don’t trust people you see them as a risk that needs to be managed. If you trust them then they become an opportunity to be released. Trust comes from relationships.

Two weeks ago some of our team members in the UK took the initiative. They developed an opt-in ‘buddy’ system based on some simple coding and an algorithm. Following a 1 minute registration, we are teamed up with a different colleague each week, somewhere in the world, with whom we have an informal chat. Hierarchy and positional power plays no role – the algorithm is ‘status blind’. Simple yes. But it’s probably done more for building relationships and sharing knowledge than many of the more carbon intensive face-to-face meetings that we have promoted over the years. It’s not that there’s a right or wrong. Just that this liminal space allows us to find new and better ways.

I’m hoping that this COVID-19 levelling of the playing field may give more space to our next generation leaders. That it will reassign respect according to value, rather than position. That this will be a critical success factor at the new frontier. I’m hoping for this as it will be at the digital and social frontiers where the battle for the decisive decade will be won or lost. This crisis is preparing us for the next. We are the first generation to have the climate impact facts at our fingertips and the last generation to be able to do anything about it. This is our opportunity to build back better.

We are in a time of accelerated change that is not transitory or irrevocable. This is where the fundamentals are being reset. The digital and social-era models are inherently more fast, agile, and flexible than the traditional hierarchical models that preceded them. ‘Going Liminal’ is where new systems will be revealed. ‘Going Liminal’ will require us to lead through influence rather than hierarchical positional power.

Perhaps we can shift the power dynamics from hierarchies of status power, to communities of passion, of purpose, of collaboration where we share a common interest and mission.

Stuart McLachlan

All opinion pieces were first shared on LinkedIn.

Going Liminal Series