February 10, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Leaders need to understand their world in order to influence it. This requires sharp sense-making skills. Sense-making on the surface seems like a cinch: you notice something, decide what to make of it, and determine what to do about it. Humans are pretty fast at this, and therein lies the problem. We tend to overlook four limiting features of the process.
1. Sense-making is always incomplete. Humans can attend to only a small portion of the information and experiences available to them. Our non-conscious is always hard at work attending to some data and screening out others. We rarely reflect on what and how much we ignore.
Stop reading for a minute and think about what’s happening around you. Are there sounds? A humming printer? Buzzing ceiling lights? Colleagues bustling in the background? What about movements? People passing your door? Traffic visible out your window? How about light? Objects in your periphery vision? What’s the comfort level of your chair? The feel of your hands resting on your desk/lap/keyboard? Is the room hot or cold? You get the point. We always know more than we know we do.
2. Sense-making is very personal. Individuals’ values, education, past experience, cognitive capacities, physical abilities, and developmental limitations influence what they see. But since sense-making occurs so quickly and tacitly, the everyday explanations leaders construct feel so obvious and real to them that they seem more like Truth and the way the world really is than the individual creations and interpretations that they are.
This can blind leaders to available alternatives, gaps in their thinking, and biases. It also leaves them feeling little incentive to question their interpretations.
3. Sense-making is interpretive. When thrown into life’s ongoing stream of experiences, people create explanations of what things mean – and often assume that others either see things the same way or, if they don’t, they are wrong.
4. Sense-making is action-oriented. People’s personal interpretations contain implicit prescriptions for how they and others should respond.
If you conclude, for example, that your unit’s budget problems result from over-spending, you’ll cut expenses. If you see the problem as inadequate allocations, you’ll lobby for more. If you bemoan inattention to revenue generation, you’ll develop new programs, services, or products. If it’s embezzlement, you’ll call the police.
You can see the ease and the potential complications in all this for leaders. They’re off and running before they’re even sure what’s most important and where they should really be heading. And they’re rarely aware that this is what they are doing. For more, check out Reframing Academic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2011), Chapter 2: Sense-making and the Power of Reframing.