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The OCR Glossary

Sensemaking Theory

Joshua M. Bentley

Sensemaking is a process people use to give meaning to their actions and experiences. Although people tend to assume that they are acting according to plans or decisions they made previously, a sensemaking perspective suggests that people often interpret and explain what they do retroactively. Organizational scholars have used this insight to help explain how organizations develop and change. This entry summarizes the sensemaking process and discusses its relationship to corporate reputation.

The Sensemaking Process

While there is no single theory of sensemaking, many researchers use the concept to study how people understand (i.e., make sense of) what happens in organizational settings. The leading scholar in this area has been Karl Weick, who began writing about sensemaking in the late 1960s. In several books and articles, Weick has used a phrase, borrowed from novelist E. M. Forster, to suggest the somewhat counterintuitive nature of sensemaking: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” People use sensemaking to give meaning to their own actions as well as the actions of others.

For Weick, the purpose of an organization is to reduce equivocality. Often, people face situations that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and this is especially true in situations involving more than one person. People may wonder what goals to set, what actions to take, or what other people mean by their words and behaviors. By helping people answer these questions, sensemaking creates and shapes organizations.

Weick describes the basic sensemaking process as enactmentselection, and retention. The enactment stage refers to the actions people take (both what they do and what is done to them). The selection stage involves looking back at an action, choosing which aspects to focus on, and assigning meaning to it based on how one sees oneself and one’s environment. The retention stage involves remembering the assigned meaning and using that meaning as a guide for future actions in similar situations. Thus, the sensemaking process is ongoing. When people interpret selected enactments as beneficial, they will tend to retain that interpretation and enact those behaviors again. However, when people interpret enactments negatively, they will tend to avoid or change them in the future.

Sensemaking is a social process. Sometimes, members of an organization work together to make sense of complex situations, as in the case of a new start-up business or a corporate crisis. At other times, sensemaking is performed at an individual level, but it is still affected by other people’s words and behaviors. For example, a new employee may privately interpret her boss’s actions more negatively if her coworkers often complain about the boss.

When people are determining how to interpret a situation, sensemaking guides them to plausible, but not necessarily accurate, interpretations. For instance, a manager may interpret his employee’s poor performance as a sign of laziness and enact strict new rules, even though the employee actually just needs better training. Sensemaking is essentially the process of crafting a story to explain a situation, and to the extent that such a story becomes accepted, it will guide future actions and shape future reality.

Sensegiving and Sensebreaking

Much of the time, sensemaking happens organically and unconsciously. However, in some situations, people and organizations want to manage the sensemaking process actively. Sensegiving occurs when someone tries to offer or reinforce a particular interpretation of a situation. A school administrator who talks about the important work of educating young minds is likely trying to give teachers a sense of pride in their work. A CEO who frames a failed product launch as a temporary setback may be trying to give stockholders a sense that the company’s future is still bright.

In some circumstances, sensemaking leads to patterns of interpretation that undermine an organization’s goals. For example, members of a nonprofit organization might tell themselves that because they have limited financial resources, they will always be mediocre. Changing this kind of situation may require sensebreaking. Sensebreaking involves questioning or challenging old interpretations so that new meanings can be developed and enacted. Leaders may ask members of an organization to rethink the way they do things or to imagine new possibilities.

Sensemaking and Corporate Reputation

Sensemaking is related to corporate reputation in multiple ways. First, the way in which members of an organization make sense of what they do will affect the public image they create for the organization. When a company’s employees understand and embrace the company’s mission, they will tend to do their jobs more effectively, make better products, or provide better services—all of which enhances the company’s reputation.

Second, the way in which an organization is perceived by outsiders may influence the way members of the organization come to see themselves. If people sense that the company they work for has a bad reputation, they may feel demoralized or unmotivated to excel.

Third, organizations that understand the sensemaking process can actively manage their reputations both internally and externally. For external stakeholders, companies can use marketing and public relations campaigns to perform sensegiving or sensebreaking functions. A grocery store chain might try to make customers think of it as the first place to turn for fresh produce (i.e., sensegiving), or an auto manufacturer might try to challenge the public perception that its cars are unreliable (i.e., sensebreaking). For internal stakeholders, leaders can use sensegiving to unify members around common goals or establish best practices. They can also use sensebreaking to challenge destructive patterns.

Instead of assuming that human activity is always highly rational and planned, the sensemaking perspective highlights how often people simply do the best they can to find meaning in uncertain situations. From this perspective, organizations are already the product of sensemaking, and only by recognizing sensemaking’s power can organizations guide this meaning-making process in ways that will enhance corporate reputations.

Aula, P., & Mantere, S. (2013). Making and breaking sense: An inquiry into the reputation change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 26(2), 340–352.

Maitlis, S., & Christianson, M. (2014). Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 57–125.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weick, K. E. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421.

See Also

Framing Theory; Organizational Culture; Social Construction of Reality

See Also

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