Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 274
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

What Does It Mean?

Research explores the effect of sensemaking on action.

Cartoonists have a problem. It�s difficult for them to depict a business leader in a normal business setting in just one panel. They can�t dress the leader in a snappy uniform, and they can�t show people standing at attention as the leader inspects them, so cartoonists are inevitably forced to place their leaders at the head of conference tables with ominous looking charts behind them, and the reader knows immediately what is going on. The leader is revealing bad news and giving instructions.

Without really intending to do it, these cartoonists have depicted two classic leadership functions. Giving instructions is a behavior within the executive function, and revealing bad news is a behavior within the sensemaking function.

Sally Maitlis, from the University of British Columbia, recently completed a 2-year study exploring the relationship between these two functions. She was especially interested in the different forms that sensemaking would take and how these differing forms influenced action. She found some justification for the common stereotypes we have of leadership, but she also found a surprise or two.

Sensemaking occurs when people confront events, issues, and actions that are somehow surprising or confusing to them and then create retrospective sense of what has occurred. They do this by creating accounts or explanations that describe the causes for the events. These accounts also contain hints for remedial action, and all too often, these actions, once they are carried out, generate more surprises and more confusion, thereby creating the need for further sensemaking.

Sensemaking is a social activity. It only occurs when a group of people come to agreement about the meaning of past events. These are shared understandings that enable coordinated actions.

Maitlis found three typical forms that leaders follow in accomplishing sensemaking. The first she named restricted. Restricted sensemaking is what cartoonists depict: leaders making sense of events, issues, or actions and then announcing their understanding to interested people who sit passively and accept the explanations the leader offers.

The second form she named guided. With guided sensemaking, leaders develop a shared meaning over a period of time, and during this time, they meet with a wide variety of interested persons. Typically, they meet individually with people, and this enables them to get a full contribution from everyone they meet. It also allows them to state their own views and to guide the discussion toward a consensus with others who are not present.

The third form she named fragmented. With fragmented sensemaking, leaders distance themselves from the issue and allow interested persons to hash out sensemaking accounts without help. With fragmented sensemaking, interested people arrive at many understandings of the issues or events, and often these understanding reflect their own particular views. Further, the actions that are generated from these widely varying accounts are always uncoordinated and often contradictory.

In reviewing her findings, Ms. Maitlis noticed one problem right away. When urgent and confusing conditions warrant a prompt and coherent response, leaders sometimes attempt to carry out their sensemaking function by calling a big meeting. Their reasoning follows this rationale: get all the important players together at one place and time and a common understanding of the problem will emerge. Armed with this shared understanding, an agreed upon course of action will follow. However, there�s a problem with this approach, and Ms. Maitlis believes it�s unlikely this hoped-for outcome will occur.

Maitlis explains that a large meeting, where interested people independently and simultaneously engage in sensemaking, most closely resembles a fragmented form of sensemaking since the leader can�t guide the process and influence each important person independently. Fragmented sensemaking results in multiple accounts that explain the issue from many perspectives, and these varied accounts lead to many actions, some of which are contradictory. Big meetings may be the worst thing to do. Guided sensemaking will be more successful in these situations, she says.

Guided sensemaking will usually be best when a rich understanding of the problem will lead many people to independently take actions that reflect their agreed-upon understandings. Restricted sensemaking will be best when quick, decisive action must be taken. Finally, fragmented sensemaking can be helpful when wide-ranging experimentation is needed to quickly generate alternative solutions.

Reference: Maitlis, Sally (2005) The Social Processes of Organizational Sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 21-49.

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