The Process of Sensemaking in the Organizational Structure: It Helps to Understand the Meaning by Extracting Clues from the Environment

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There is considerable new literature on sensemaking following the initial work done by Weick. Maitlis and Christianson examined the history and current state of the knowledge pertaining to sensemaking (Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). They note “Sensemaking—the process through which individuals work to understand novel, unexpected, or confusing events—has become a critically important topic in the study of organizations”. They concluded that “Sensemaking is thus a central activity in organizations, and one that lies at the very core of organizing”.

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Sensemaking literature in recent years has mainly focused on the social processes through which sensemaking is accomplished. For instance, the role of narrative was examined by several researchers (Dunford & Jones, 2000; Brown & Humphreys, 2003; Patriotta, 2003; Sonenshein, 2010). Others examined the importance of discursive practices (Balogun & Johnson, 2004, 2005; Rouleau & Balogun, 2011) and language (Cornelissen, 2012).

Sensemaking is most relied upon when an organization encounter moments of crises, and they seek to understand meaning by extracting cues from their environment. These are usually the basis for a plausible account that provides order and “makes sense” of what has occurred, through which they continue to enact the environment (Brown, 2000; Maitlis, 2005; Weick, 1995; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005).

Some scholars have used sensemaking to explain crises situations that organisations face (Weick 1993, Gephart 1993). A few scholars have examined the cultural aspects of sensemaking. For instance, Fisher argued that the process involving selection of scripts reflects individuals’ cultural values and history (Fisher & Hutchings 2013). Cardon et al examined how entrepreneurs and communities make sense of venture failures (Cardon, Stevens, & Potter, 2011). Clark discussed the political aspects of sensemaking with reference to the role of powerful social actors in constructing the relationship between multinational enterprises and their local contexts (Clark & Geppert, 2011).

The role of environment is important to examine how actors make sense not only of the event itself but also the broader organizational field (Nigam & Ocasio, 2010). Several scholars have examined the ecological aspects of sensemaking. For instance, Whiteman discussed how the actors notice and bracket ecologically material cues from a stream of experience and build connections and casual networks between various cues with past enacted environments (Whiteman & Cooper, 2011). Wrzesniewski discussed the role of interpersonal cues from others in helping employees make meaning of their jobs, roles and themselves (Wrzesniewski, Dutton and Debebe 2003).

Maitlis and Christianson have argued that two main themes of sensemaking have gained traction: sensegiving and sensebreaking. Sensegiving refers to “the process of attempting to influence the sensemaking and meaning construction of others toward a preferred redefinition of organizational reality” (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). Sensegiving is referred in the context of how leaders strategically shape the sensemaking of other employees through the use of symbols, images, and other influence techniques (Maitlis & Lawrence, 2007; Rouleau, 2005). However; sensegiving is not a simple top-down process. The recipients have their own interpretations of the situation and usually resist efforts from leaders. In addition, sensemaking need not only be limited to top leadership, employees at any level can engage with others.

Sensebreaking is defined as “the destruction or breaking down of meaning” (Pratt, 2000). Pratt further argues that it is often a prelude to sensegiving, in which managers try to fill the void created through sensebreaking. It is usually interpreted to re-consider the sense that people have made and question the assumptions (Lawrence & Maitlis, 2014).

The above discussion leads to the thought that organisational managers resort to sensemaking directed by available, ambient cues where there is uncertainty about outcomes and meanings in their environment. This could be because of various events, and situations. Maitlis argues that sensemaking is usually triggered by four main cues: environmental jolts, organisational crises, organisational identity and planned organisational changes (Maitlis and Christianson, 2014).

The environmental jolts usually refer to significant exogenous changes. For instance, drastic changes in regulatory and policy environment, and disruptive technological change often leave the existing organisational structure unable to manage the change (Bogner and Barr, 2000). Sometimes severe competition changes the industry structure and alters the way a company should engage with the customers.

Organisational crises provide very powerful triggers for sensemaking since it shatters the very foundation of the organisation. In such situations, the managers’ resort to sensemaking either during the unfolding crisis or during the course of public investigations after the crisis is over (Christianson, 2009). The latter option is to understand the adequacy and effectiveness of the response to the crisis and investigate any corruption or malpractices in the organisations (Brown, 2000, 2005). In case of government, the purpose of sensemaking is often to fix responsibility and blame so as to often legitimize the organizations.

Identity threat refers to a situation which challenges the self-constructed models that meet human needs for self – enhancement, and self-efficacy (Erez & Earley, 1993). When there is a perceived failure to confirm to one’s self, people attempt to engage in sensemaking to understand the nature and sources of threat so as to restore their identity. In a work place, people identify the work closely with their own individual identity. However, there might be a change in an individual’s identity (for instance, a new job or a change of role in existing job). Such situations lead to sensemaking to understand the new situation (Petriglieri 2011).

One example is that of a specialists (such as physicians) being asked to perform “menial” administrative tasks (Pratt 2006). Other examples include injury or ageing preventing a professional from carrying out an activity, which is associated with the individual identity such as a musician or dancer (Wainwright and Turner, 2004; Maitlis 2009). At the corporate level, there are major events that challenge the image and external perception of the industry. For instance, Hoffman discussed the impact of the Exxon oil spill which led to sensemaking in the chemical industry and public pressure for holding the company accountable (Hoffman and Ocasio 2001).

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