Leaders’ sensemaking

Sensemaking is a cognitive activity. It ‘is an everyday occurrence that happens inside an individual’s head when s/he ‘makes sense’ of something’ (Giuliani, 2016, p.4)

As an act of cognition sensemaking is a common event, yet from a theoretical perspective sensemaking, according to Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005) it is more complex. It includes sensemaking at the relational group and societal levels of meaning. Some of the popularity of the literature about sensemaking is because its application makes sense! Weick’s (1995) theoretical proposition of sensemaking has given scholars the opportunity to examine groups of sensemaking practices within a range of contexts, from organisations (Johnson et al., 2013) to literary texts (Hunt, 2020). This includes the ways that leaders (and particularly educational leaders) make meaning of imposed policies or external stimuli (Spillane, Diamond, et al., 2002; Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002; Werts & Brewer, 2014) and integrate, in various adaptations, such impositions within their school environments and organisations (Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson, & Mumford, 2012; Werts et al., 2013). Combining sensemaking literature with ethical decision-making frameworks demonstrates the importance of sensemaking strategies in the daily work of educational leaders, especially when making ethical decisions (Bagdasarov et al., 2015; Thiel et al., 2012).

The process of sensemaking enables individuals to work out the possible causes of the situation, the likely outcome of the situation and how they as individuals may influence the progression of the situation (Weick, 1995). Weick et al. (2005) explain that sensemaking starts when an individual realises that a foreign experience/event is happening and the sensemaking finishes when the individual comprehends the experience enough to allow them to make a decision to ‘act, monitor, or ignore’ the situation (Caughron et al., 2011, p. 353). In an organisational setting, when people are talking about sensemaking they discuss at least seven properties that have an effect on their efforts to ‘size up what they face’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461).

Notably, part of the active sensemaking process is that the individual places constraints around the external stimuli (Weick, 1995, 2001). Weick presents a minimalist form in his development of his ideas about sensemaking, calling on the reader to rely on their ‘common-sense understanding of the terms employed’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461). Weick explains his ideas about sensemaking through a scaffold of seven properties. Each of the properties of sensemaking is defined briefly below, followed by the implications when the strategy ‘loosens’. Loosening occurs when the sensemaking is threatened or weakened, such as contradictory stimuli (Weick, 2001). The properties are drawn from Weick’s 2001 publication Making Sense of the Organization, rather than Weick’s landmark volume (Weick, 1995), because of the 2001 refinements and being cited more often in the sensemaking literatures (Allen & Penuel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2012).

  1. Social context: Strategies in making sense of an event are influenced by the ‘actual, implied, or imagined presence of others. Sensible meanings tend to be those for which there is social support, consensual validation, and shared relevance’ (Weick, 2001, p. 461).Weick names these sensible meanings as ‘social anchors. When social anchors seem to be absent or disappear for the individual, who then starts to feel isolated from others, the individual’s grasp of what is happening loosens.
  2. Personal identity: This sensemaking property describes an individual’s sense of who they are, recognising their threats or enhancements in a setting. Loosening occurs when the ‘identity is threatened or diffused’ (p. 461), such as in the early stages of a position within the group or losing ‘a job without warning’ (p. 461).
  3. Retrospect: An individual is influenced by what they have noticed ‘in elapsed events, how far back they look, and how well they remember what they were doing’ (p. 462). Loosening occurs when individuals do not appreciate or recall the past or ‘use it casually, where they put their faith in anticipation’ (p. 462).
  4. Salient cues: The individual uses their resourcefulness to elaborate on tiny indicators into full-blown stories, often shoring up an initial hunch. Loosening occurs when the cues become contradictory or unstable, the individual’s preferences change, or because the situation is dynamic.
  5. Ongoing projects: ‘Experience is a continuous flow’. It is made a sensible event when the individual can place boundaries on some portion of the flow or when some interruption occurs. The individual loosens their grasp when they ‘lose their ability to bound ongoing events, to keep pace with them by means of continuous updating actions and interpretations, or to focus on interrupting conditions’ (p. 462).
  6. Plausibility: Thissensemaking property is about individuals developing coherent stories, ‘how events hang together’, a sense of reasoning and credibility to explain the event. This property is influenced by the other six properties. Plausible sense ‘is constrained by agreements with others, consistency with one’s own stake in events, the recent past, visible cues, projects that are demonstrably under way, scenarios that are familiar, and actions that have tangible effects. Loosening occurs when ‘one of more of these sources of grounding disappears’ (p. 462).
  7. Enactment: The individual sees what they are ‘up against, tries a negotiating gambit, makes a declaration to see what response it pulls or probes something to see how it reacts’ (p. 463). The old adages of ‘testing the waters’ or ‘dipping one’s toes in’ possibly describe this property. Loosening the grasp occurs when no probing actions occur, or no declarations are made.


Allen, C. D., & Penuel, W. R. (2015). Studying teachers’ sensemaking to investigate teachers’ responses to professional development focused on new standards. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 136-149.

Bagdasarov, Z., Johnson, J. F., MacDougall, A. E., Steele, L. M., Connelly, S., & Mumford, M. D. (2015). Mental models and ethical decision making: The mediating role of sensemaking. Journal of Business Ethics, 1-12.

Caughron, J. J., Antes, A. L., Stenmark, C. K., Thiel, C. E., Wang, X., & Mumford, M. D. (2011). Sensemaking strategies for ethical decision making. Ethics & Behavior, 21(5), 351-366.

Giuliani, M. (2016). Sensemaking, sensegiving and sensebreaking. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 17(2), 218-237. doi:10.1108/jic-04-2015-0039

Hunt, E. K. (2020). The Last Discourse: Jesus and Sensegiving in the Gospel of John. Regent University,

Johnson, J. F., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L. N., MacDougall, A. E., Connelly, S., Devenport, L. D., & Mumford, M. D. (2013). The Effects of Note-Taking and Review on Sensemaking and Ethical Decision Making. Ethics & Behavior, 23(4), 299-323. doi:10.1080/10508422.2013.774275

Spillane, J. P., Diamond, J. B., Burch, P., Hallett, T., Jita, L., & Zoltners, J. (2002). Managing in the Middle: School Leaders and the Enactment of Accountability Policy. Educational Policy, 16(5), 731-762. doi:10.1177/089590402237311

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy Implementation and Cognition: Reframing and Refocusing Implementation Research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387-431. doi:10.3102/00346543072003387

Thiel, C., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L., Johnson, J. F., & Mumford, M. (2012). Leader Ethical Decision-Making in Organizations: Strategies for Sensemaking. Journal of Business Ethics, 107, 49-64. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1299-1

Weick, K. (1995). Sense-making in Organizations. California: SAGE Publications Inc.

Weick, K. (2001). Making Sense of the Organization. Maiden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Weick, K., Sutcliffe, K., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409-421.

Werts, A. B., & Brewer, C. A. (2014). Reframing the Study of Policy Implementation: Lived Experience as Politics. Educational Policy. doi:10.1177/0895904814559247

Werts, A. B., Della Sala, M., Lindle, J., Horace, J. M., Brewer, C., & Knoeppel, R. (2013). Education Stakeholders’ Translation and Sense-Making of Accountability Policies. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 397-419.

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