Leaders’ sensegiving

Theoretical Premises of Sensegiving

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Educational leaders’ capabilities in sensegiving may make or break the success of a school change or be instrumental in the school community coming to terms with critical events. As such, effective sensegiving leadership practices are fundamental to a school leader’s effectiveness in mobilising and/or influencing members of the school community. Sensegiving practices are ‘the symbolic constructions used to create meaning for others (i.e. to give sense)’(Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 448). The purpose of theorising about sensegiving is that it offers a feasible explanation of a different actuality. Importantly the intentionality of a sensegiving act is to influence another individual’s thinking to accept it as their own or the collective (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). It stands to reason that sensegiving literatures often are embedded in the field of management and leadership; the term provides an opportunity to be more explicit about the leader’s role, or more inclusively the ‘leadership activity’ in the sensemaking process (Catasús, Mårtensson, & Skoog, 2009). If sensemaking is explaining and justifying, then a leader’s sensegiving is the act of diffusing such explanations and justifications within the organisation (Green Jr, 2004). Sensegiving while normalising and legitimising certain realities and delegitimising others (Gioia & Thomas, 1996), also shuts down or constrains different interpretive meanings of reality (Voronov, 2008).[1]

In relation to others’ sensemaking, a leader’s sensegiving is the attempt to affect an employee’s sensemaking (Kraft, Sparr, & Peus, 2018). For some, this attempt is seen to be ‘a sender-centric view’ of sensemaking. Corvellec and Risberg (2007) contest ‘it is non-sensical to speak of sense without referring to interpretation and, thus, to a living audience’ (p. 322). This bypasses the sender’s evaluation of where the audience accepts the meaning or not (Corvellic & Risberg, 2007). In its place they reason that sensegiving acts are the activities of persuading audiences in a desirable direction of a preferred reality. Corvellec’s and Risberg’s point of the interactive nature of sensegiving. the Sensegiving is not simply ‘done’ to the other with blind acceptance; this interactive nature sheds light on the likely processes between schools leaders and teachers. The living audience in the school context is the teacher. The leadership ‘activity’ involves a ‘leader’s’ sensegiving act(s) to persuade teachers in their sensemaking with the hope that their sensegiving will influence teachers to act (teaching practices) in particular ways.

Applying this process of school leaders giving sense and teachers making sense about that sensegiving is what Gioia and Chittipeddi theorise as Phase 1 of sensegiving. Gioia & Chittipeddi (1991) organise the relationship between sensemaking and sensegiving into four phases (see Figure 1). The first phase as introduced in the previous paragraph is the Envisioning phase. The leader seeks to make sense of an event, this could be their own schema, shoring up a story or connecting to a previous event. Phase two is where the leader’s schema is formed into communicative acts of sensegiving, called Signalling. Such acts are diverse; they could range from storytelling to analogies of past events. These sensegiving acts may inject ambiguity or may ‘stir the setting’ in stable environments (Neumann, 1995). Such ambiguity calls for employees to make sense of what change is being promoted; this third phase of Re-Visioning may hold many different sensemaking properties, from plausible stories to identity fusion. These enacted sensemaking responses are fodder for further sensegiving, where the leader moves to the fourth phase of Energising, and similar to Signalling it is an influencing action. However, this Energising phase has more sway than the first Signalling because it includes modifications, adjustments to include the target audience’s own sensemaking—or in the school context to include the teaching team’s own sensemaking of the change or event.

Figure 1. Processes involved in the initiation of a strategic change

Educational Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices in Context

Educational leaders need to be credible, hold influence and persuasion in their relationships with their teaching teams, especially in challenging contexts of change or disruption. High velocity environments are those which become ‘hypercompetitive’ resulting from fast and continual changing expectations (Salicru, 2018, p. 130). The new context for educational leaders, during and post COVID-19 is complex, turbulent with disrupted social and economic realities. Sensegiving, in this new context, depends on educational leaders’ capabilities to make sense of events for others in their communities and in giving sense they are communicating their sensemaking.

The Envisioning phase is where the educational leaders make sense of the event which involves understanding, a form of cognition. Once the event is understood by leaders, their sensegiving acts aim to influence and motion actions in teaching teams; this Signalling phase involves action. Gioia and Chittipeddi propose that at this point leaders seek to understand (a cognitive function) the impact of their influence with teachers (gaining information from teachers) and ‘re-sensemake’; moving to the Re-Visioning phase. In an ideal collaborative school environment, the more leaders seek to adapt or adopt teachers’ own sensemaking, the less likelihood of rejection or resistance from teachers, and a greater likelihood of a strong Energising phase. The worst-case scenario is if the Re-Visioning phase is omitted. The influence by leaders may be diminished and the energising direction weakened or misapplied, or ‘loosing sense’.

An educational leaders’ sensemaking is as much influenced by their own ‘leader self’ as the school system regulators’, teachers’, students’ or parents’ sensegiving activities (Cornelissen, Holt, & Zundel, 2011; Kraft et al., 2018). As a sensegiving interpretive process individuals will exert mutual influence to affect others (Kraft et al., 2018) with a groundswell in a particular direction. Hence, sensegiving, unlike sensemaking, ideally is reflected in multiple mutual relationships. Figure 2 illustrates sensegiving processes in a school context.

Figure 2: Sensegiving in a school context

Successful sensegiving acts result in a shared interpretation of an event (Balogun, Jacobs, Jarzabkowski, Mantere, & Vaara, 2014), which organise themselves in ongoing cycles of influence between sensemaking and sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). While the spheres of influence may not always be attributed the designated leader’s practices, generally those in formal positions call or dictate their role in sensegiving due to their hierarchical position (Ravasi & Schultz, 2006). In a school context, educational leaders perceive they are obligated to give sense to others because of their compelling responsibilities. In spite of the hierarchical positions of ‘principal’, ‘deputy’, ‘assistant principal’ or ‘faculty head’, they do not dictate a leader’s success or failures in influencing teachers’ practices. There are many moderators of such successes. For example, a leader’s communicative acts may determine their levels of influence.

Communicative acts are sensegiving practices (Huzzard, Hellström, & Lifvergren, 2014) employed by leaders to influence change with the community/organisation. In turn, these acts prompt the community members to ‘sensemake’, that is remaking sense either individually or ideally as a shared remaking in mutual relationships. School leadership teams consistently face the challenge in changing and disruptive contexts of organising, and reorganising after teachers’ sensemaking responses, resulting in the school leader reforming their sensegiving acts to maximise impact with their communities (Kraft et al., 2018; Stensaker, Falkenberg, & Grønhaug, 2008).

Yet, it needs to be considered that the educational leader’s sensegiving may not be aligned with teachers’ sensemaking. It most likely will not be. In a study on organisational change Bartunek, Krim, Necochea, and Humphries (1999) found that the recipients’ sensemaking was not the same as leaders’ sensegiving. There were multiple and at times conflicting understandings of a change event, where understandings were evolving continually. In a school environment it is a complex process in coming to an understanding of a shared vision or direction for the school. Yet organisations such as schools can achieve high levels of sensemaking and reduce ‘cognitive complexity when leaders connect sequentially with’ their communities ‘in dyadic sensegiving examples’ (Maitlis, 2005, p. 47). Devices and linguistic acts are ideal companions for leaders in realising such dyadic sensegiving.

Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices: Devices and Linguistic Acts

Some devices used by individuals in their sensegiving acts include metaphors, mantras and storytelling. The use of metaphors by entrepreneurs has a long history of anchoring their sensegiving (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995). Mantras and storytelling (Salicru, 2018) are other sensegiving acts which translate events into plausible scenarios and images to persuade and influence others to take action (Salicru, 2018). The oral-aural traditions of school environments lend themselves for educational leaders to give sense, in particular through storytelling, and more generally, through linguistic acts.[2]

Other devices fall into the realm of linguistic acts of appeal. These communicative acts, which Weick (1995) would call enacted sensemaking, pertain to persuasive appeal. Bartunek et al. (1999) drew upon Johnston’s (1994) theoretical language of sensegiving with persuasion, suggesting four tactics: a. discharging linguistic acts that demonstrate logic and reason—consistent with Maitlis’s (2005) findings that stakeholders’ sensemaking increases when leaders behave in a procedurally fair manner; b. employing praise and encouragement; c. acts which appeal to the members’ own values and norms (acts which identify with the in-group) and; d. building up a credibility story about the sender—being reasonable, ethical and for the common good. The original body of work on sensegiving by Gioia and Chittipeddi (1991) as described at the beginning of this section, is substantial. Their work has been a springboard for other research and models which further explain the relationships between sensemaking and sensegiving. For example, the body of work by Maitlis and Lawrence (2007) found that the trigger for leaders’ sensegiving practices occurs when issues are ambiguous and involve multiple relationships. Leaders in their study were enabled to give sense when they thought they themselves had the appropriate knowledge and skill. In turn the enablers for the organisational members were also their knowledge and skill and in contrast, their trigger for sensegiving was when they thought the event was important to them. This finding about leaders having a knowledge and skill base is an important point about leaders and sheds lights on Norris’ findings.

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Sensegiving and Legitimate Power

While power is often viewed as a negative concept in school education, the addition of legitimacy improves its legitimacy! A moderating factor in the effectiveness of leadership practices (Kraft et al., 2015 and drawn from the power taxonomy by French and Raven, 1959) is legitimate power. When providing examples from the school context the term legitimacy is adopted here, instead of power.

Some may think that legitimacy stems the formal authority beset by an educational leader’s position in the school community, and anchored in policies, rules and laws. This thinking suggests that the leader’s sensegiving practices will be accepted without question. In reality this is not the common experience for educational leaders. Historically, early to mid-20th century, teachers’ work was relatively autonomous and carried out in isolation. Current practices encourage collaborative and subsidiarity decision making. Yet a leader’s level of legitimate power is found to moderate both the choice of strategies and language in their sensegiving practices. Four studies identified by Kraft et al., (2015) demonstrated the moderating effect of legitimate power where managers with positional power more often employed confrontation strategies. Yet, leaders with low or without positional power more often relied on strategies in the ‘what and how’ to communicate to increase receptiveness. As such leaders with low legitimate power were more aware of differing perceptions among their employees (Leonardi, Neeley, & Gerber, 2012). These leaders are more likely to seek real time feedback to ensure their sensegiving acts are acceptable (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 316). They were more likely to engage ‘team members in the interpretation process’ (Leonardi et al., 2012, p. 98). Given teachers hold high levels of autonomy as they go about their work, it is logical that the moderating effect of legitimate power may mirror those leaders’ strategies such us seeking real time feedback and to seek teachers’ understandings on events (interpretation processes). Kraft et al.’s (2015) first proposition relating to legitimate power is thus:

‘The level of legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: Leaders are likely to use indirect, multilateral sensegiving strategies if their level of legitimate power is low’ (p. 316).

Levels of legitimate power moderate leaders’ selection of sensegiving strategies along with their communicative acts, in several ways. One, leaders with low levels of legitimate power are likely to employ more hard fact justifications (for example, school enrolments will be jeopardised if results are poor) than leaders with high levels of legitimate power (Sonenshein, 2006). Those with high levels of legitimate power adopted more familiar language of their employees.

Moreover, the level of power and the accompanying differences in the abstractness of information processing also influences leaders’ choices in their sensegiving language. High levels of distance (cognitive or psychological) results in a leader’s ‘experienced abstractness’ which in turn becomes an abstract communicative act (Magee, Milliken, & Lurie, 2009 as cited in Kraft et al., 2015) and suggests the likelihood of overlooking negative aspects (Magee et al., 2009). That is, if the educational leader is far removed from knowing and understanding the work of teachers and students the more likely their communicative acts of sensegiving will be abstract and hence the less likely the sensegiving acts will hold strength or meaning for teachers.

The second proposition regarding legitimate power:

‘Legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: (a) Leaders are more likely to use abstract, positive and normative language if their level of legitimate power is high. (b) Leaders are more likely to use concrete, negative and rational language if their level of legitimate power is low’ (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 317).

In a school context if an educational leader’s legitimacy is high, they are likely to hold positive discursive abilities with abstract and normative communication. The educational leader who employs factual, negative and rational language is likely to have less legitimacy. The question this proposition raises is who determines the levels of legitimacy– the educational leader’s self-perception, their perception of the community’s perceptions or simply the community’s perception of the leader’s sensegiving acts?


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Kraft, A., Sparr, J. L., & Peus, C. (2018). Giving and Making Sense About Change: The Back and Forth Between Leaders and Employees. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(1), 71-87. doi:10.1007/s10869-016-9474-5

Maitlis, S. (2005). The social processes of organizational sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 21-49.

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[1] Leadership activity: a term used to include practices of influence by any member of the community; whether the member is in a formal or informal position. The term disarms the assertion that only the formal leader is one to provide influence or in this case ‘give sense’.

[2] Storytelling is an effective sensegiving device which is used in diverse settings and cross-cultural leadership practices (Grisham, 2006). A theory to explain the power of stories called Narrative Parading Theory (NPT) was first developed by Fisher (1984). NPT regenerates the rational paradigm in the same way that sensemaking is not concerned with accuracy of facts but is rather about plausibility (Weick, 1995).