Clumsy but likeable

Rites of passage

Could you compare the way that organisations handle the corona pandemic to a ‘rite of passage’ towards adulthood ?

According to some organisational experts, the answer is “yes!”.

They point out fireproof signs that anthropologists consider essential in any rite of passage :

  • The familiar is disrupted. You loose a number of certainties. What you have done so far no longer works. Much of what you took for granted a good year ago now seems further away than ever.
  • You are put to the test and you live in uncertainty. You need to organise your work from home, learn to use digital tools and find new ways to keep in touch with colleagues.
  • When you have completed the rite, you have changed. You are an "adult" or an "initiate" and you are accepted into a new circle. Already  it is predicted that we will never work the way we used to. Organisations will have to reinvent themselves and adapt both their office space and their personnel policy.

If you look at it that way, this pandemic is indeed comparable to the trials children of tribes in the Brazilian rainforest must undergo before they are accepted as adults.

An uncertain transition

Yet there is a difference. In a rite of passage you do not know whether you will succeed, but you do know what you want to transition to: you become an adult, you are selected for an Olympic team, you can go to a boot camp for “high potentials”. But we can’t predict what the world will look like after covid-19, what will remain and what will change.

That is quite annoying. By nature we like to control things and we love to move step by step towards a specific goal. That’s why we try to shorten the transition from an old to a new situation as much as possible. Ideally, a change process should not take too long, because "our customers expect clarity." A cultural change preferably takes place along a well-defined process because to reign in the insecurities of employees.

A time to shine ? Nah : let’s fumble around !

It is only human to flip out when facing seemingly uncontrollable situations (a pandemic comes to mind).  In moments like these, the realisations that we all mess up can bring us a little solace.  In fact, fumbling around becomes a daily occurrence and I think we should be proud hat not more goes wrong.

As long as we can fall back on a trusted routine, we manage to get most things done. But when the unexpected happens, and especially in a crisis situation, routine is of no help.  In those moments, all we can do is try and do what we think is best.  Sometimes that’s not too bad, and sometimes we’re royally missing the target. As much as we’d hate to admit it, we take way less decisions based on rational thinking than we can even imagine.

Organisations  are well aware that we are only muddling on and to encourage us we get the assurance that it’s ok to make mistakes - as long as we learn from them. They’re just kidding. We all know that when we made a mistake with serious consequences, ‘lessons learned’ won’t save our skin.

Let’s give it up for kindness !

In reality, we don't want to make any mistakes at all, and if we do, we prefer not to admit it, let alone learn a lot from it. Just consider how difficult it is to openly admit that you have done something wrong. Or better yet : try to count how many successes we owe to the “lessons learned” sessions after closing a project…

If only we would start by recognising that we are all fumbling around, albeit with the best of intentions and in the hope that something beautiful will come out of our tinkering. That would lead to a kinder attitude: yes, a lot is going wrong, but most people do their best.

Is that an excuse to keep on doing stupid things? Of course not. After all, you remain responsible for your own actions and the impact you have on others. Nor is it a license to lower the bar, “as long as you do your best”. Don’t stop 'complaining' about what you see wrong and don’t cease to try to do something about it. You can judge results sharply and at the same time judge people mildly.

Kindness is the balance between being strict enough while still showing enough affection. It is the mindset with which many parents raise their children knowing that they are also trying to make the most of it, or with which teachers win the lifelong appreciation of their students.
And that leaves some room for messing up.

Sometimes, mistakes are the source of wonderful inventions. By daring to call yourself “ clumsy” you admit that  as a human being, your brain capacity and your possibilities are limited. Only when you are able to recognise your limitations can you try to overcome them.

Therefore, if after the pandemic we all show a little more kindness towards others and towards ourselves, then this period was indeed a beautiful "rite of passage”


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