As we enter a new phase of the pandemic and think more concretely about what lies ahead, organizations are reflecting on their culture and new ways of working, and considering change with a degree of intention not previously imagined. Laura Empson and Jennifer Howard-Grenville reflect on this shift using a concept from anthropology, the notion of “liminality”—a phrase used to denote a rite of passage, time away from day-to-day life in society that allows members of a culture to make an important change. Empson and Howard-Grenville suggest looking at the pandemic from that perspective—as “a prolonged time of trial”—in order to use this transitional time to think about change and consider how to make the most of the disruption we have collectively experienced.
A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal about a bond manager at PIMCO and the organization’s attempts to change its culture struck a similar note. PIMCO is a California-based investment management firm, handling more than 2 trillion dollars in investments. Its previous success began to wane just as cultural issues also rose to the surface.
The writers describe how PIMCO’s “cutthroat” culture began following a change in leadership and significant organizational discord. The cultural challenges were significant and not surprising given the industry—with a hard-driving, competitive culture known for stretching its people and tolerating toxic behaviors in a tradeoff for significant financial rewards.
While the authors note that PIMCO has seen cultural improvements—observable in positive shifts in leadership behaviors, hiring, and transparency—they also express some skepticism about these changes, citing an anonymous employee’s letter claiming, “Many of the cultural challenges that afflicted the firm before September 2014 are still very much there.” Culture change is hard and takes time!
I am most interested, not in PIMCO or its cultural challenges, but rather in the larger shift the article itself represents, that the Journal chose to feature a piece on organizational culture so prominently. The broader set of forces driving change—generational differences in expectations and quality of work, increased awareness of toxic behaviors and accountability, and the pull from outside forces, including customers, to create a more inclusive culture and brand identity—are “unignorable,” even for the Wall Street Journal.
I find this case instructive and encouraging in its own right, and also want to link this story to the notion of liminality and to the kind of potential that real cultural change can have, particularly at this moment in time. As the Journal piece notes, “… the challenges confronting PIMCO are playing out across many American corporations as a generational shift forces a reckoning over workplace conditions.” It is the potential of this larger shift that I want to call our attention to: we all can take this as a moment to reflect on and rethink our organizational futures. If we have perhaps felt isolated and glued to our home office desks in the past year, perhaps we can reframe that experience and see the collective opportunity to pause and consider—our liminal time away.
We have the opportunity to think more generatively about the places we want to work in and shape, the kinds of organizations we want to invest our time and ourselves into—the opportunity, not to return to the way things were, but to find our way to a new place, the way things could be.
The novelist Arundhati Roy wrote a moving piece early in COVID about seeing the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”—a similar framing of the “liminal” moment (thanks to Lehigh University’s Alan Snyder for bringing this piece to my attention!). Roy encouraged us to forge through this moment unburdened by the past: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
I am hopeful that we can set aside our luggage and create a future that’s worthy of our imagination.
 Empson, Laura and Jennifer Howard-Grenville. “How Has the Past Year Changed You and Your Organization?” Harvard Business Review, March 10, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/03/how-has-the-past-year-changed-you-and-your-organization
 Dornfeld, Barry and Malachi O’Connor. The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future: How Culture Drives Strategic Change. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.
 Baer, Justin. “Bond Giant Pimco Attempts to Change Its Culture.” The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/bond-giant-pimco-attempts-to-change-its-culture-11618651802.
 Roy, Arundhati. “Arundhati Roy: ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.