Essay: The Relationship Among Enactment, Organizing, and Sensemaking

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  • The Relationship Among Enactment, Organizing, and Sensemaking
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‘The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order, and make retrospective sense of what occurs’ (Weick, 1995). The concept of sensemaking is related to the philosophical stream of social-constructionism. This movement views the construction of reality rather as an outcome of social interaction than an objective reality. Reality is seen as a product that is created via social interactive processes between individuals, own images, experiences and culture (Van de Ven and Poole, 2005). The construction of one’s own reality thus differs among individuals, dependent of the interactions one engages in. Grint (2005) advances the perspective of reality as that it ‘is constructed through language and, in turn, since language is a social phenomenon, the account of reality which prevails is often a temporary phenomenon’. Thus, communication plays an important role in the meaning construction of intersubjective realities but also creates opportunity for future reconstruction. One’s socially constructed reality directs future behavior. Behavioral acts are a reflection of how people construct meaning of particular events and in turn, these behavioural acts are themselves antecedents of new meaning constructions (Weick, 1995). For example, one’s self identity and collective identity are socially constructed perceptions of reality that are used as mirrors to make sense of new information, which affect interpretation and in the end lead to a certain choice of behavior. However, at the same time they are also altered during change, which suggests that not only existing identity images influence meaning ascription and future behavior, but also the ones yet to be constructed (Gioia and Thomas, 1996).
2.2.1. Characteristics of sensemaking
Weick (1979, 1988, 1993, 1995, 2005) has made a great contribution to the literature of sensemaking by theorizing how people organize the unpredictable world of raw, meaningless data. His perspective on sensemaking holds similar ideas as to how the social-constructionism movement views the creation of reality. The sensemaking process can be seen as an iterative course of acts and summarized as:

‘Once people begin to act (enactment), they generate tangible outcomes (cues), in some context (social), and this helps them discover (retrospect) what is occurring (ongoing), what needs to be explained (plausibility) and what should be done next (identity enhancement)’ (Weick, 1995).

In sum, Weick (1995) provides an overview of seven reoccurring features by which the concept of sensemaking in organizations can be distinguished from other explanatory concepts and which can guide future research:
‘ Sensemaking is rooted in identity construction. People determine which self is most applicable in a particular situation while constructing the event (Weick, 1995) and during this process they are influenced by the social context and the idea people have of how others see them.
‘ Sensemaking is retrospective. As Schultz (1967, in Weick, 1995) sensibly noticed, the only way for people to know how they are acting is by reflection after they have acted. Both past experiences and current experiences have an influence on the meaning giving process during a particular event (Choo, 1996; Weick, 1995).
‘ The third component refers to the ‘making’ part of sensemaking and constitutes the enactment of sensible environments. People cannot be separated from the environment they are part of, as these environments are themselves constructed during people’s sensemaking processes (Weick, 1995).
‘ Sensemaking is a social activity. Organizations are multi-actor environments in which shared meanings are created during social interaction, communication and language (Weick, 1995).
‘ Sensemaking as a continuous process without a clear beginning or end (Weick, 1995). As people act in a particular way, they make sense of this action retrospectively, thereby influencing their choice of future behavioural acts.
‘ Sensemaking involves extracted cues. Cues are recognizable signals or structures to which people give a broader meaning of an event (Weick, 1995). The cues can either provide guidance in ambiguous situation or cause rigidity if they confirm previous constructed realities.
‘ Sensemaking rather deals with social plausibility and subjective credibility than accuracy. As cited by Starbuck and Milliken (1988, in Weick, 1995): ‘filtered information is less accurate but, if the filter is effective, more understandable’. Elements that are helpful to make ambiguous situations more understandable are images, symbol analogy and tales, as they can function as a template of explanation (Weick, 1995).
2.2.2. Enactment
As mentioned before, by organizing the cues people extract from their surroundings, it becomes possible to make sense of them and in turn to project that sense back into their surroundings to regulate those surroundings (Weick, et al., 2005). Weick (1979) conceptualized the process of sensemaking in a framework called ‘the enactment theory’. The outcome of the process is an established environment (Weick 1988). The enactment model includes four sequential phases: ‘ecological change’, ‘enactment’, ‘selection’ and ‘retention’ (see figure 1).

Figure 1. The Relationship Among Enactment, Organizing, and Sensemaking

Source: Jennings and Greenwood (2003, adapted from Weick 1979, p.132)

Ecological change occurs when some orderly environment has to deal with an unexpected change. The line between ecological change and enactment comprises making sense of actions such as anticipating on deviations from the status quo and creating structure in unstable situations while being affected by external influences. In the phase of enactment, individuals try to grasp the occurring ambiguous situation by means of ‘noticing and bracketing’, and they start to create some structure in the events happening in that situation. The activities of noticing and bracketing can be viewed as categorizing actions that lead to various different meanings (Weick et al., 2005). During the selection process some meanings are retained, whereas other get left out on the basis of individuals’ previous experiences that are kept in cognition. The result is a subjective probable narrative of the occurring situation (Weick et al., 2005). However, even though the selected narrative is probable, a possibility for revision remains. This possibility is decreased during the retention phase, wherein the narrative becomes more substantial. In this phase, individuals interact with one another to focus on particular parts of the narrative to further deepen these, give meaning to them in order to finally place them in one’s identity. The retained narrative is now related to previous experiences, linked to relevant other identities and becomes an advisory tool to direct future behavior and interpretations (Weick et al., 2005). This last notion can be found back in the figure, in the feedback arrows from retention to selection and enactment. Weick summarizes the ‘enactment’ process as:

‘When people act, they bring events and structures into existence and set them in motion. People who act in organizations often produce structures, constraints and opportunities that were not there before they took action. Enactment involves both a process, enactment, and a product, an enacted environment’ (Weick 1988:306).
2.2.3. Sensemaking through social processes
Sensemaking always occurs in a social context. Organizations consist of many actors, who have their own beliefs, values, experiences and opinions. This diversity of perspectives can make (re)framing ambiguous situations into shared meanings challenging. People are not aware of the fact that they, in interaction, actually create their own reality (Sonnaville, 2006). The way in which organizational change is experienced and is given meaning to, cannot be seen as an objective reality, it differs among participants and is constructed in the context of social interaction.
There is an increasing agreement in the field of organization theory that organizations are created in and through human interaction (Cooren et al., 2011). Weick et al. (2005) state that situations, organizations and the environment become substantial and come into existence via conversations. Interaction in this sense entails more than communication alone and also constitutes schemas, symbols, scripts and narratives. Sensemaking and meanings come about via language, stories and communication (Hong and Lao, 2006). In turn, subjective truths, meanings and interpretations can be viewed as a result of sensemaking (De Sonnaville, 2006). Techniques and languages differ among organizations, but all include a social process in which people together make sense and create shared meanings (Maitlis, 2005; Weick et al., 2005). Research furthermore suggests that the meaning people collectively ascribe to a particular (potentially occurring) event also influences how it is reacted to. Studies on corporate social responsibility for example theorized and found support that when individuals, especially in the context of groups, create shared meanings about a subject that involves important social elements, this affects their sensemaking process and enactment of behaviors towards a beneficial outcome for the social issue (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). Also, the extent to which people participate or are involved in a change program influences the sensemaking of that change towards more shared meanings of the change (Bartunek et al., 2006).
2.2.4. Emotions influencing sensemaking
The process of sensemaking not only encompasses individuals’ cognition ‘ emotions and feelings are involved as well (Bartunek et al., 2006). In fact, feelings as such can hinder or enhance sensemaking resulting in respectively negative or positive meaning creations, depending of the nature of the emotions. A differentiation can be made between felt emotions and expressed emotions (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). Research shows that individuals’ interpretation process involves consultation of their emotions, and that in the case of a change event negative felt emotions can serve as a cue to interpret the change as unfavorable for their own contentment (Bartunek et al., 2006; Sonenshein, 2009). On the contrary, in the case of felt positive emotions, worthy information can be extracted (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). Also, positive emotions enlarge people’s attention frame and influence cognitive processes that guide action (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). These felt feelings and emotions influence sensemaking and meaning giving processes and provide individuals with useful information for altered interpretations of occurring events (Sonenshein, 2009).
Next to felt emotions, expressed emotions also exercise influence on individuals in situations of ambiguity and uncertainty. Especially in situations of collective sensemaking, others’ negative expressed feelings can affect individuals’ interpretation as well as the group’s sensemaking process of that situation (Hatfield et al., 1994). Positive expressed emotions are often used as a form of sense giving, to show commitment for the change and to enhance individuals’ understanding of the worthiness of the change (Huy, 1999; Huy, 2002; Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010).
Another type of emotions important in sensemaking is self-conscious emotions. ‘Self-conscious emotions are those arising from people’s inferences about others’ evaluations of them, and include guilt, shame, embarrassment, social anxiety, and pride’ (Leary, 2007 cited in Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). These emotions are thought to direct behavior, partly due to their influence on individuals’ sensemaking processes. These feelings often arise when one believes to have caused the situation or when one feels as being treated unfairly (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). These feelings can thus be either negative or positive. Consequences of negative emotions can comprise a narrow attention to cues, systematic instead of expansive forms of sensemaking, reliance on dominant action repertoires, self-focus and withdrawal from correction actions (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). Positive emotions, on the other hand, are thought to have a more useful influence on sensemaking, enabling sense giving and a broader perspective on possible actions (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010).
2.2.5. Team leaders’ sensemaking during organizational change of workplace innovation
Organizational change inherently involves ambiguous situations that trigger sensemaking (Weick, 1993). Team leaders’ sensemaking processes occur during ambiguous events that infer alterations of the status quo to new situations. By means of social interaction, leaders interpret and create meaning of the ongoing situation and form their own subjective reality (Weick et al., 2005). Moreover, the sensemaking of leaders is crucial to the behaviors they display, as sensemaking influences choices of action (Weick, 1995). The growing body of research on leadership of teams emphasizes the importance of the leaders role in the organization (Morgeson, DeRue & Karam, 2010). Team leadership is thought to impact teams’ cognitive, motivational and affective processes and to influence subordinates’ interpretations, attitudes, motivations and behaviors (Ensley, Pearson & Pearce, 2003; Zaccaro, Rittman & Marks, 2001). Team leaders’ sensemaking thus not only influences their own meaning of the organizational change, but also those of their subordinates. Thus, the sensemaking process leaders go through during an organizational change of workplace innovation is crucial to the future behaviors they will enact and which they will display in interaction with their teams.

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