The Midlife Crisis of Organizations


Didier Marlier

May 18, 2013

From Disruption to Engagement

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I recently read an excellent book on the “Midlife Crisis” which I warmly recommend. I was relieved to see confirmed that this critical moment of our lives, poorly understood and commented by so many, does not necessarily mean that one suddenly buys a Harley-Davidson and dates a man/woman 20 or 30 years younger…

Instead, its author, Murray Stein, describes accurately the three psychological stages that human beings go through, during that moment of transformation. For him, if many similar changes happen to us during our lives, the midlife one is nothing less than a “last chance”. This is a Moment of Truth when we still have the energy to challenge ourselves in depth, understand what our true self is and realize the part of ourselves which is the mask, the armor (see previous post). Refusing that invitation may have dramatic (psychiatric) or sad (depression) consequences for the rest of our lives.

Whilst reading this for my personal benefit, I could not stop drawing a parallel between the steps of change that Murray Stein describes for an individual and those we see when an organization, under the impulsion of Transformational Leaders, decides to re-invent itself:

  • Separation: is the “burial of a lost and grieved past image of identity and security” for Stein, who adds “The fundamental cause of this distress is […] a type of separation anxiety.” What makes this step particularly painful is the fact that “Terrified at the prospect of facing the future without a familiar […] identity, this man or woman invents the illusion that nothing is actually different!” In other terms the denial is a defense mechanism, used by human beings scared of throwing themselves in the Change Journey… Have you seen that before, in business? We call this first step the “Mourning Process”. It is the most unpleasant and the one for which most of us, university trained, highly rational and cognition rich leaders, are the least prepared… How do we deal with fear of separation, fear of the unknown, tears, threats, anger, nervous laughing, cynicism, criticism and over emotional people? Our default mode is to invite people to become rational again and it does not work at that stage… Yes but we do not want to collude and cry, badmouth and criticize with them… So what do we do? Listening with empathy, maintaining the course, showing understanding (not agreeing), paraphrasing to prove we understood, summarizing what they say at the rational but more important at the emotional levels are all we can do at that moment. Forget about the rationale… We are into “over-emotionalism” and trying to reason at this moment is “throwing pearls to swines”, it is insulting their right to be sad, upset, scared, anxious or angry… Skilled Transformational Leaders know how to go through that inferno and get out of it without too many burns. They display true respect, empathy and understanding.
  • Liminality: “The English liminality comes from the Latin limen meaning doorway or threshold” explains Stein who calls “Psychological liminality, a person’s sense of identity which is hung in suspension”. The impact of that identity loss is a “prevailing feeling of alienation, marginality and drift”. During that transition, “there is an unusual degree of vulnerability, […] highly charged images and thoughts and sudden losses of confidence” continues the author. Whereas the previous phase was dramatic and painful this one is highly uncomfortable because it is accompanied by doubts, uncertainty, questions and exploration. Even the leaders, deep inside themselves, may be subject to those unpleasant moments. In Business Transformation, we call this phase the Reactive Process. The previous step was so charged with unpleasant emotions that an overreaction is possible. People want to “get on with it”. “Give us the PowerPoint, tell us what the new organization is and let us go back as quickly as possible to “business as usual”… The bigger danger here is that the organization will use its force of inertia to minimize the change and bring it back, as much as possible to the 1.0 mode that it is comfortable with. Another danger is for the people to anxiously succumb to the “headless chicken syndrome” and exhaust themselves into projects that are meaningless. The boat was sinking but at least they were rowing… Accomplished Transformational Leaders work hard in that phase to co-create clarity, meaning and ownership around the Purpose of the change they want to see happening. They will connect, listen, explain, be didactical, be reachable and communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Reintegration: “The new state of consciousness that emerges from a prolonged experience of midlife liminality contains a dual sense of key limits and larger purposes and tasks” explains Stein about this third stage. He quotes Carl Jung explaining what he felt in that very moment or re-emerging: “It was then that I ceased to belong to myself alone, ceased to have the right to do so. From then on, my life belonged to the generality […] It was then that I dedicated myself to the service of the psyche. I loved it and hated it, but it was my greatest wealth”. The presence of a Higher Purpose is clearly felt here. A new Authenticity is also emerging. When we work with Transformational Leaders, we call this The Anchoring Process. If that step does not take place, the whole effort will be at risk soon or later. It is the time to “anchor” the changes solidly into a new Purpose. We must create new “emotional markers” to which people will be able to hang on when a new storm comes their way. At this stage, skilled leaders will know how to leverage on Pathos, the emotional agenda, through the use of four tools: Stories, metaphors, gestures and symbols. In a recent blog, I was mentioning the great mastery of Pope Francis in using those, with integrity and authenticity, which has projected the Catholic Church in a new forward looking dream instead of remaining into the self-defeating mode it had been locked in under his predecessor.

To all of you, C.E.O.s, Board members, executives and other “significant leaders” battling courageously to move your people and organizations forward, I hope this parallel between personal change and Business Transformation was useful…

Have a good week!


  1. Cris

    Gostei, vou ter que ler de novo para bem entender.
    Mas, muito racional a comparaçao. Na vida sentimental e no trabalho tem muitas similaridades mas emocoes diferentes.

    • Didier Marlier

      Obrigado Cris e sim, concordo com voce, as emoções estão diferentes. Bom que voce gosto!


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