A reflexive tool:  School leaders managing high velocity events

A leader creates human/social alternities by telling a compelling story about what is about will be, about what should be or about what should (or could) be done, about one or the other’(p.259)… It is the leader’s stories that mediate for all those who would follow, an alternative way of being, doing, knowing, having or saying in the world (Thayer, 1988, p. 260)

This reflexive tool draws on the possible stories you have told or your observations of other leaders in helping communities come to terms with complex situations. The purpose of this reflexive tool is to enable school leaders and aspirant leaders to reflect upon an event, experience or episode that holds, or has held, contradictions or complexities. Salicru (2018) describes events such as these as high velocity. This is an event or episode that holds ambiguity or contradictions, where your normal, routine approaches no longer work. Below are a set of questions with several theoretical platforms: sensemaking (Weick, 1995), sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991) and the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991). Reflecting on these questions could help the leader make sense of and make decisions about how to move forward in response to the event. Click on the conceptual link at the end of each question. The link leads you to the theoretical premise of the concept.

Q1: Describe the event/episode or experience you wish to explore (keep it brief, I suggest no more than 50 words).

Questions 2 – 8 refer to the strategies leaders use to make sense of events for themselves. They are cognitive acts (sensemaking).

Q2: What support from the groups in your school community would you have/or did have in your anticipated response(s) to the event(s)/experience(s)? How relevant are the responses/ will the responses be for the community? (Social context)

Q3: What enhancements or threats could there be to your own sense of self as a leader in the event(s)/experience(s)? (Personal identity)

Q4: How has/have your past experience(s) influenced you in making sense of the current event(s)/experience(s)? (Retrospect)

Q5. What cues could help/helped you shore up your initial hunch(es)? Were there any contradictions or confusions from the cues as events unfolded on in the event(s)/experience(s)? (Salient cues)

Q6: How would it be/was it possible to place some boundaries around the event(s)/experience(s) to keep pace with the flow? If not, what may have prevented you from doing so? (Ongoing projects).

Q7: What stories or metaphors would help/ have helped you explain the event(s)/experience(s)? (Plausibility)

Q8: What kind of statements or declarations could you make or have made to ‘test the waters’ to see if your explanations of the event(s)/experience(s) were suitable? (Enactment)

Questions 9 – 11 ask about the strategies leaders adopt when enacting their sensemaking, called sensegiving.

Q9: After you have made sense of (envisioning) what is/was happening for yourself, how do/did you convey this sense with the community? Story telling? Using metaphors? Allegories? Drawing on the past? Persuasive acts, i.e. mantras “We’ve got this!”‘ (Signalling)

Q10: In response to the your signalling what signs were the community members giving to demonstrate they were engaging in their own sensemaking?? (Re-Visioning)

Q11: Did you incorporate or adjust the community member’s sensgving inot your own sensemaking? If so what did you do? did you articualte this th the community? If so what was you understanding in how the community responses to this last phase? (Energising)

Questions 12 -14 are based on the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991), with Question 15 being an invitation to action.

Q12: In your judgments, how favourable (or unfavourable) are your possible actions? You may wish to write down the possible actions and notate which ones would be favourable to you and which ones would not (Attitude)

Q13: Whom will you consider or need to consider when deciding to act? (Subjective norm)

Q14: With what ease or difficulty do you perceive your abilities to carry out your desired action? What past experiences influence your intentions? What are your anticipated challenges will influence your intentions? (Perceived behavioural control)

Q15: Review your responses. Enter into a reflexive mode of cognition.

Step 1: What feelings or thoughts come to mind about your responses (observing your own observing).

Step 2: You are invited to construct a model/framework that maps how you would act or how you acted as a leader in this situation. If this was a past event, ask yourself, what would you do differently now knowing the impact of these three processes? What declarations could you make as a leader for future complex or contradictory situations?


Ajzen, I. (1991). The Theory of Planned Behavior. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211.

Gioia, D. A., & Chittipeddi, K. (1991). Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change initiation. Strategic Management Journal, 12(6), 433-448.

Thayer, L. (1988). Leadership/communication: A critical review and a modest proposal. In G. M. Goldhaber & G. A. Barnett (Eds.), Handbook of organizational communication, (pp. 231–263). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Salicru, S. (2018). Storytelling as a leadership practice for sensemaking to drive change in times of turbulence and high velocity. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 15(2).

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

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.