“Sensemaking occurs in organizations when members confront events, issues, and actions that are somehow surprising or confusing.” (The Social Processes of Organizational Sensemaking, Sally Maitlis, 2005). During this past week, post-election, I believe I have observed our “organization,” the United States of America (as well as other countries around the world), exhibiting this social construction called sensemaking.
What I have observed this week is a look of shock in the eyes of many I pass in the halls. Looks conveying what words cannot. On the street and in public places I see looks of disbelief, confusion, stupefaction, surprise, befuddlement, and in some, fear of the unknown of what lies ahead.
On our own campus, a forum was recently held to “deconstruct the election.” High schools have had focused discussions on civil and respectful behavior and people across the country are protesting in the streets. In the past, have we ever had to have such conversations or create such forums post-election? In essence, we are faced with something unexpected and confusing and are trying to make sense of it.
Sensemaking can be both messy and takes time. William Bridges referred to this similarly as, “the wilderness” — that time where we can’t see where we are going and because that is not clearly visible, we want to return to what we know — the place we’ve been to in the past. If nothing else, it is familiar.
To be a leader during this period requires an understanding that sensemaking is a way that organizations and individuals within them regain stability after an unexpected or surprising event. Sensemaking requires that individuals be allowed time to interpret what they observe and feel, understand that others will observe and feel things differently, and be willing to work through the discussions required to regain balance. Until these discussions occur, our organizations, even our society, will be unbalanced and confused about how we are to move forward.
Working together is the only way we can make sense of these new realities. Trust must be fostered, dialogue must occur, and we must listen to each other. Leaders set the tone for creating a culture where sensemaking can occur and balance can be regained as we all move forward. So, leaders at all levels: take time to listen, build trust, and understand that many are trying to make sense of it all and regain their balance in this organization we call the United States of America.