Summary and Keywords
Since the 1980s, the management and organizations literature has grown substantially, turning over the years toward cognitive, discursive, and phenomenological perspectives. At the heart of this continued growth and its many turns is the matter of sensemaking. Construed narrowly, sensemaking describes the process whereby people notice and interpret equivocal events and coordinate a response to clarify what such events mean. More broadly, sensemaking offers a unique perspective on organizations. This perspective calls attention to how members of organizations reach understandings of their environment through verbal and embodied behaviors, how these understandings both enable and constrain their subsequent behavior, and how this subsequent behavior changes the environment in ways that necessitate new understandings.
Whereas organizational psychology constructs typically fit most comfortably into a linear “boxes and arrows” paradigm, sensemaking highlights a recursive and ongoing process. Sense is never made in a lasting way: It is always subject to disruption and therefore must be continually re-accomplished. As a result, sensemaking is especially evident when equivocal events cause breakdowns in meaning. Such breakdowns render organizations incapable of answering two key questions: “What’s going on here?” and “What should we do about it?” Not coincidentally, such events—including crisis situations, strategic change episodes, firm formations and dissolutions, and new member socialization—are among the most pivotal events that occur in organizations. Sensemaking is therefore strongly implicated in organizational change, learning, and identity.
Sensemaking can appear impenetrable to newcomers for precisely the same reason that it enables remarkably incisive analyses: the sensemaking perspective helps disrupt limiting rationality assumptions that are so often embedded in organizational theories. As such, sensemaking sensitizes scholars to counterintuitive aspects of organizational life. These aspects include how action in organizations often precedes understanding rather than following from it, how organizations are beset by a surplus of possible meanings rather than a scarcity of information, how retrospective thought processes often trump future-oriented ones, and how organizations help create the environments to which they must react. Nonetheless, despite these advances and insights, much remains to be learned about sensemaking as it relates to emotion and embodiment; as it occurs across individual, group, organizational, and institutional levels of analysis; and as it both shapes and is shaped by new technologies.
Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription.
If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.