The Challenge of Sensemaking for Leaders

Organisations experience novelty, either when their activities have resulted in them facing situations for which they were not prepared and had little or no experience, or because external events have forced them into the same space. Either way, in such situations, leaders need to i) not make matters worse by guessing and ii) ‘perch’ and focus on what is actually happening, rather than what they think should be happening. Easy to say in retrospect; more demanding whilst an organisation’s tectonic plates are colliding out of control. Covid-19 has reinforced the need for leaders to enhance their ability to manage the unexpected and, concurrently, balance two competing thoughts:

  • How to maintain the equilibrium of the organisation
  • How to continually scan for signs that might disturb that equilibrium 

Effectively this means a mindset characterised by creative disturbance – balancing the duality of thought processes that simultaneously credits ongoing events (confirms meanings) and discredits ongoing events (questions meanings). This is difficult enough but when dealing with a series of important issues people can be overwhelmed by the scale, complexity and contradictory nature of the information available. A high degree of emotional turbulence, the task of piecing together fragments into explanations and the creation of common-sense-meaning only adds to the challenges that leaders face.

Leadership matters most—and is hardest to do well—when people face objective threats, when old ways of working are no longer possible, and when confusion and anxiety abound. These are brutal and relentless facts of organizational life for tens of thousands of leaders who feel heightened responsibility for billions of people as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.