Leaders’ Sensegiving through Signalling

While sense-giving strategies are cognitive acts made by an individual, the sense-giving phases are acts of translation made between individuals (Maitlis & Lawrence , 2007). The intentionality of a sense-giving act is to influence another individual’s thinking to the point of accepting it as their own, or collective (Gioia and Chittpedi, 1991). Phase 1 of sensegiving proposed by Gioia and Chittpedi (1991) is Envisioning. This phase resembles the leader making sense of the events for themselves. Phase 2 termed Signalling, is where the leader’s forms their schema into communicative acts of sensegiving. Such acts are diverse; they could range from storytelling to analogies of past events. These sensegiving acts may inject ambiguity or ‘stir the setting’ in stable environments (Neumann, 1995). It is viewed as a translation act. The leader reminds (signals) the community about their sensemaking.

Metaphorically speaking

Metaphorically speaking

Metaphors are powerful conductors for internal change. Even though and expected, sensemaking is different among educational leaders, their ‘giving sense’ to others is witnessed as though they are ‘becoming’ their metaphors (Grove & Panzer, 1989). It is argued that if a leader becomes their metaphor their oral and written narratives will reflect that metaphor. In other words, ‘language itself leads us. Not words as such, but the meaning we have come to attribute to them, the concepts they embody, the mental artefacts they invoke or conjure’ (Thayer, 1988, p. 259). Barry, a school leader, embodies his metaphor in the concept of ‘buffer’. The mental artefacts aim to appeal to the staff: ‘I am the human shield between the [School System and the teachers]—the buffer. . My job is to be the human shield that protects teachers from the excesses of regulators’ [Principal]. If a school leader’s metaphor illuminates who they are, the leader’s narrative explaining their metaphor may provide a window to understand more fully their ‘leader self’, or others.

‘Dipping One’s Toes In’ – the Gambit

The leader considers what they are “up against, tries a negotiating gambit, makes a declaration to determine what reaction’ they pull, or examines the factors to observe reactions (Weick, 1995, p. 463). The old adages of “testing the waters” or “dipping one’s toes in” might describe this strategy. Loosening the grasp occurs when the leader does not probe or no declarations are made.

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

School Leaders Need Plausible Stories

This sensemaking strategy is about school leaders developing coherent stories for the school community to understand. The leader articulates ‘how events hang together’. Leaders give a sense of reason and credibility in explaining the event. The other six properties influence this property. Plausible sense takes place through agreements with others, consistency with one’s own stake in events, the recent past, visible clues, projects that are demonstrably underway, familiar scenarios, and measures that have tangible effects. Loosening happens when “one of these sources of grounding disappears” (Weick, 1995, p. 462).

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

Wise Leaders are Boundary Riders

‘Experience is a continuous flow’. When interruption occurs, it is sensible when the school leader can place boundaries on some portion of the flow. The school leader loosens their grasp when they a. have diminished abilities in placing constraints on the ongoing events; b. cannot keep pace with the flow, limiting an update of their actions, interpretations and; c. limit their focus on the interrupting conditions’ (Weick, 1995, p. 462).

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

School Leaders Shore Up Hunches from Tiny Indicators

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 (Weick, 1995).

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

School leaders’ sensemaking – social anchors

Others influence the strategies that a school leader employs to make sense of an event. The presence of ‘others’ could be real, implied or even assumed. In a school context, different social groups may influence the school leader, such as parents, students, the school board, their regulators. The sensible meanings that a school leader conjures are likely to be those for which there is “social support, consensual validation, and shared relevance” (Weick, 2001, p. 461). These sensible meanings can also be influenced in ways school leaders enact their role, such as how much consensual validation and shared relevance the school leader seeks. This depends on the school leader’s own beliefs and capabilities about leadership. Weick provides a term for sensible meanings as ‘social anchors’. If the social anchors appear absent, that is the school leader has a diminished sense of being able to gain support from others, where consensus seems nigh or being hindered in being able to shore up any sense of relevance for others, then ‘loosening’ occurs. The leader then may feel isolated or distant from social groups and may lose a grasp of what is happening. When social anchors appear absent or disappear for the individual, the leader may feel isolated from others. The individual’s grasp of what is happening loosens.

When ambiguous and contradictory events occur in the school community, members expect their school leaders to make sense, at least with assistance and oversight of such events. Following Weick’s proposals that sensible meanings are founded on social support, relevance and validation, the school leader needs to know and understand the needs of their community members. Added into this mix is the state of existing relationships. School leaders who hold mutually positive and trusting relationships with their social groups, then sensible meanings are likely to be supportive, directional, and provide a sense of calm and hope to the community through such events.

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

Personal identity, a school leader’s essential sensemaking construct

In a leadership context, this sensemaking strategy describes a school leader’s sense of who they are, recognising their threats or enhancements in their school community. Loosening occurs when their ‘identity is threatened or diffused’ (Weick, 1995, p. 461), such as in the early stages of their leadership position or their position being downgraded without warning (p. 461).

There are numerous research studies regarding a school leader’s identity construction in preformative cultures. You are invited to make comments on those you have found appealing or pertinent to school leadership.

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

Thread: Ethical Responsiveness in Accountability Contexts

In the Norris study (2017) participating principals’ beliefs and practices of their accountability expectations were misaligned with school system expectations. It is not unusual that variations and inconsistencies about the ways messages of the external expectations are received by senior leaders. Studies such as Seashore Louis, Knapp, and Feldman (2012) and Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer (2002) also found that implementers did not necessarily decode the policy message accurately, that is, the intent of the policy makers. A misaligned priority in the Norris study, centred on student learning; most participating principals encouraged diverse learning experiences for students, and discouraged the drive for performance results. Yet School System advisors’ expectations considered that performance results indicated the ‘health’ of the school. Such variations in these leaders’ sensemaking pose an argument that there was no single line of authority or message being conveyed by school systems’ authorities.

However, this argument is not strong. School System authorities in the Norris study were confident that their accountability expectations were clear to their principals. These priority misalignments raise the question about what is happening for educational leaders in not being able to absorb and integrate demands as intended. For system authorities, the misalignment raises the question about what it takes to make the expectations clearer to leaders. One strong possibility is that irrespective of how clear the expectation is made educational leaders will make choices that align with their beliefs. Some would say this is ethical responsiveness!


Norris, J. (2017). From metaphors to mantras – Principals making sense of and integrating accountability expectations: A grounded theoretical model. (Doctor of Education). Australian Catholic University, Sydney. Retrieved from https://researchbank.acu.edu.au/theses/661

Seashore Louis, K., Knapp, M. S., & Feldman, S. B. (2012). Managing the intersection of internal and external accountability: Challenge for urban school leadership in the United States. Journal of Educational Administration, 50(5), 666-694.

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