January 6, 2014
word of the year

Communitas: The Word of 2014

We aren’t even close.

It doesn’t matter what report you read, what research you cite or what anecdote you dig up … the problems remain.

Our organizations are being crippled by a combination of gale force winds and tectonic plate drifting. The leadership floor in our organizations is full of useless friction — arguably akin to continental drift — while employees continue to be blowsplattern over by colossal gusts of organizational ineptness.

This has to stop.

The time has come for harmony in our workplace.

The time has come for Communitas.

But before Communitas — my Word for 2014 — we need to discuss ‘liminality’. Derived from Latin for “a threshold”, liminal stems from the work of Arnold van Gennep, a noted anthropologist from France. In 1909, while researching and penning his most famous book ‘The Rites of Passage‘, van Gennep argued rituals as part of any rite of passage were demarcated into three stages: preliminary, liminality and post-liminality. He wrote that the liminal stage was “a gap between the ordered worlds where almost anything could happen.” In plain English, liminal can be thought of as a transition from one state to another.

But that’s what I want to see in our organizations in 2014. I want to see “almost anything happen” and in particular I want leaders in today’s organizations to begin the shift of leading differently. I want leaders to enter the organizational culture equivalence of liminality. I want us to finally achieve a state of transition between today’s useless friction and leadership ineptness to one of organizational harmony and achievement. It doesn’t have to be (and won’t be) solved in 2014.

And the ‘it’ I refer to is the woeful state of the disengaged and/or not engaged employee.  Organizational engagement simply has to enter into a stage of transition. We might coin this stage “organizational leadership liminality”.

And that’s where we pick up the ‘Word of the Year‘ trail again by introducing Victor Turner.

A British anthropologist who applied his trade as a professor at the University of Chicago, Turner delved deep into van Gennep’s work on liminality. Spending legions of his time and testing his theories with the Ndembu tribe in Zambia, Turner believed the liminal stage was a separation from ‘normal social roles’ to contemplate, reinterpret and in fact embrace alternatives to the current status quo. Turner’s definition of liminality includes the following:

During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.

At its core, Turner argues that liminality represents the opportunity for a group to strip down existing structural status and customs to create new ones through both intellect and spirit. It reminds me of the “Hitachi Spirit”, something I wrote about in Flat Army.  The core values Hitachi developed at a point of organizational culture inflection were:

  • Wa (Harmony, Trust and Respect);
  • Makoto (Sincerity, Fairness, Honesty and Integrity); and
  • Kaitakusha-Seishin (Pioneering Spirit and Challenge).

But what does liminality have to do with Communitas — my 2014 Word of the Year?

Turner developed the notion of communitas as a way to define what happens to people when entering the stage of liminality. He believes a sense of solidarity emerges at the liminality stage, backed by feelings of equality, spirit, joy, belonging and overall well-being. These feelings — shared by all — lead to a better future. These feelings permit a shift to the status quo. These feelings dissolve any prior rigid obligations of the old world in favour of a new and authentic manner of behaviour in the new world. These feelings are social. These feelings are cooperative.

Communitas, for 2014 at least, will bring people together to bridge their differences into a singular, common organizational leadership framework. It demystifies hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy and reintroduces humanity into the shared values of one another and the organization. Whilst Turner argues communitas is spontaneous, I argue our organizations must enter into the liminality stage with a preordained might of those gale force winds, to eventually define and achieve a communitas state of organizational culture.

In 2014, our organizations can arrive at communitas such that the organization works as one to define how it can become more humane, more engaged, more soulful, more spirited and more productive. If it does work harmoniously as one to define the manner in which it should be operating, internal employee engagement should begin ticking upward throughout 2015 and beyond. (it might take all of 2014 to get to a state of communitas)

2014 is a transition year for the organization and leadership in general. Limanility is the stage our organizations should be entering. By doing so, we force ourselves to achieve communitas. With communitas, we act as one organization devoid of classes and hierarchies as we define a healthier way in which our organizations should be operating. It’s something Charles Handy would be proud of.

splatter2While German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies may have coined the term Gemeinschaft — where one’s social network is built by one’s own values, beliefs and role in society — communitas is something bigger. It is our chance to bridge the gap for those that either don’t believe in organizational engagement or who are ambivalent to such a concept.

Communitas is what we ought to strive for in 2014.

Communitas is my Word for 2014.

PS. You may be interested in prior Words of the Year:

5 Replies to “Communitas: The Word of 2014”

  1. Nice, Dan. Let’s hope individuals within organizations start the transition immediately…there’s a lot of value to be created.

    I wonder how others interpret your references to leadership. The way I think about it, leadership means anyone and everyone. Not just VPs, Directors, Managers, etc.–those with a given ‘leadership’ role. We do need those at the top to realize the potential currently wasted and change their behaviors, but they often make decisions that more effectively preserve the present than position for the future. I’m hoping the transition can continue to be catalyzed by all levels and all individuals…anyone can be a leader by setting the right tone in their day-to-day work environments and interactions.

  2. Great question @Matt … I love the fact you brought up “how others interpret your references to leadership”. For me (as you might expect) … leadership is for all. It doesn’t mean holacracy, but it means everyone is treated equally in terms of how they are defined as team members in an organization. We all have an opinion and intelligence, so why not utilize it? Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Hey, I did my senior thesis on Victor Turner’s ideas about liminality and communitas. It’s like a dream come true to see him so revered in business applications! I just have to ask: what’s liminal when everything is liminal? Do we really believe there’s a “new nomal” up ahead where things will finally stabilize? I suspect not. I wonder how we can learn to embrace change AS change, instead of as a chaotic hallway between two orderly rooms. That seems like false narrative.

    The Self Management Institute published some of my notes about Turner, fyi: https://www.google.com/#q=self+management+institute+12+step

  4. Hello @Elinor – fantastic to have you drop by. I read this piece of yours http://self-managementinstitute.org/blog/entry/outsider_wisdom_self_organization_and_12_step_recovery/ and also tweeted it. Really great.

    Although there may not be stability, let’s hope we’re at least progressing toward communitas in our organizations more so than what we experience today. Change is a constant — I’m not that naive to believe there is an end to change — but there are depths to change. Right now, it’s my opinion that we deep a very deep change in our organizations, with slight ‘tweaks’ to change thereafter.

    Always liminal, as you say.

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