Sensemaking In and About Crises
An organizational crisis is ‘a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly’ (Pearson and Clair, 1998, p. 60). Such conditions provide powerful occasions for sensemaking, as individuals' ongoing routines are interrupted and they are compelled to ask themselves, and those around them, what is going on. Studies of crisis sensemaking fall into two broad streams. First, we see research on sensemaking as it precipitates or unfolds during a crisis that spans a range of contexts, including mining disasters (Wicks, 2002), climbing disasters (Kayes, 2004), and disasters in entertainment events (Vendelo and Rerup, 2009), as well as Weick's work on the Bhopal accident (W88; Weick, 2010), the Tenerife air crash (Weick, 1990), the Mann Gulch fire (Weick, 1993), and the medical disasters of Bristol Royal Infirmary (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003). A second strand of research addresses how sense is made of crises after they happen, often drawing on public inquiry reports and other documents which have constructed an account of what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible. Public inquiries have been said to represent the longer term organizational responses to crises from which institutional and organizational learning can occur (Brown, 2000; Shrivastava et al., 1988; Turner, 1976). Seen as events in which ‘micro-level sensemaking practices produce the macro social order’ (Cicourel and Knorr-Cetina, 1981; Gephart et al., 1990, pp. 44–5), they reveal much about how shared sense is made and given after a crisis (Gephart, 1993).
Looking across these two streams of crisis sensemaking research, we see three important themes, which reflect important individual, collective, and institutional influences on sensemaking processes. First, individuals' early, positive, public evaluations shape sensemaking in crisis by preventing them and others from bracketing contradictory cues until it is much too late (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003). We also see, however, that after a crisis, such positive evaluations can have a powerful generative effect on organizations, enabling renewal, and energizing restorative action among their members. Second, we examine studies of collective sensemaking in crisis and see the range of challenges facing groups and teams trying to generate shared understandings and coordinated action in conditions that are fast-moving and frightening. Third, we show that sensemaking in crisis is cumulatively influenced by the institutional contexts in which the organization and its members are embedded, and that sensemaking about crises often serves to maintain these institutions.
We begin by considering studies that have shown the fatal influence of strong, positive statements that a situation looks ordinary and will likely turn out for the best. For example, Kayes (2004, p. 1277) notes how pre-summit assertions made by mountain climbers, such as ‘as long as the weather holds, we will have success’ and ‘we've got the Big E [Everest] all figured out’ prevented them from sensing what was really an ill-defined problem with no clear goal or solution, and ultimately led to the deaths of eight climbers. Similarly, Weick (1993, p. 635) notes the effect of the statement by the spotters on the smokejumpers' aircraft during the Mann Gulch fire that ‘the crew would have it under control by 10:00 the next morning’ (Maclean, 1992, p. 43). This strong, optimistic construction of the situation provided a powerful frame for the smokejumpers, blinding them to growing evidence to the contrary. Weick (W88) also notes how commitment to action and the tenacious justifications that follow it create blind spots. In particular, when these commitments are active, voluntary, and public – for example, publicly assessing, explaining, and recommending actions in response to a crisis – people are much more likely to feel bound to them (Cialdini, 1998; Salancik, 1977). It is this kind of staunch commitment, coupled with the tendency to seek confirmatory and avoid disconfirmatory evidence (Nickerson, 1998; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003), that can blind individuals to contradictory cues.
Recent studies of crises suggest that public commitments in the form of optimistic evaluations of a situation are especially likely to generate sensemaking blind spots. While research in psychology shows that ‘positive illusions’ of control over the environment and of what the future holds can be highly adaptive (Taylor, 1989; Taylor and Brown, 1988), in certain organizational contexts, such illusions are potentially lethal. Indeed, Landau and Chisholm (1995) argue that pessimism, with the failure-avoidance management strategy it engenders, is the way to prevent a crisis, and suggest that we should ‘institutionalize disappointment’ to protect against organizational self-deception. These ideas are consistent with research on high reliability organizations, which finds that members are instilled with a ‘preoccupation with failure’ and encouraged to use ‘vigilant wariness’ at all times (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001; Weick et al., 1999). Although optimism, and the hopeful situation assessments that often accompany it, is often intended to motivate team members before a dangerous mission, it can instead create blinkers and prevent individuals from adapting their understanding of an unfolding situation to accommodate new information as it becomes available.
In contrast, optimistic sensemaking after a crisis can have a powerful, beneficial effect on organizations and their members. In a study of CEO discourse following devastating fires at two US manufacturing/processing plants, Seeger and Ulmer (2002) found the CEOs speaking of the crisis as an opportunity for organizational renewal (e.g. Dutton, 1993), emphasizing possibilities over issues of cause and culpability, and supporting these statements with guarantees of jobs and salaries for those who were temporarily displaced. Quite differently from the public commitments that contributed to the Bhopal crisis (W88), these CEOs' positive statements were enabling, permitting employees and other stakeholders to enact a trajectory of renewal and growth over subsequent years. Similarly, senior leaders' ‘recovery’ interpretation after the roof of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum collapsed allowed organizational members to enact the disaster as a temporary setback and opportunity for renewal (Christianson et al., 2009). Clearly, then, positive, public evaluations of a situation can create frames for sensemaking that lead to disaster, but they can also enable post-crisis sensemaking that enables recovery and replenishment.
Second, we consider what we have learned about the complexities of collective sensemaking during a crisis. Weick (1990) identifies ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (Miller and McFarland, 1987), the phenomenon in which ‘I am puzzled by what is going on, but I assume that no one else is’ (Weick, 1990, p. 588), as an important contributor to the early stages of a crisis. The belief that others have made plausible sense of the situation prevents individuals from taking an action – even merely signalling their confusion to others – that could prevent a crisis. In Mann Gulch, collective sensemaking was made especially difficult because the smokejumpers' scattered locations made verbal and non-verbal communication nearly impossible, and because of the smoke and the noise and heat of the fire. In addition, team members were relative strangers and were unfamiliar with the team leader, and therefore less likely to trust each other's actions or reactions (Weick, 1993). As a result, the firefighters experienced a growing panic as their incomprehension at the situation increased and they began to fear for their lives.
Vendelo and Rerup (2009) also examine the problem of crisis sensemaking among strangers in the context of the Roskilde Festival disaster, one which they characterize as a low risk context where swiftly incubating accidents can occur. Their analysis of an accident in which nine members of the audience suffocated or were crushed to death near the stage, while the band unwittingly played on, reveals that security guards failed to make sense of the swiftly incubating threat partly because they did not have ‘attentional coherence’ (Rerup, 2009). That is, disparate individuals, teams, and levels were not jointly involved in scanning, sharing, and interpreting information to coordinate collective attention to a particular issue. As a result, each individual had little information about the issues to which others were attending, leading to a failure to coordinate information about potential threats. The coordination of information and the ability to create a shared understanding of the situation were made still harder by the increasingly intense emotional reactions of the guards and crowd, particularly the ‘frantic’ behaviour of the Front Area security guards, and the ‘desperation’ of another guard who could see that people were dying and not being helped. Although the disaster unravelled in just 20 minutes, these minutes were critical for the number of lives lost.
The timescales are a little longer in Dunbar and Garud's (2009) analysis of collective sensemaking in the Columbia shuttle disaster, where they examine organizational members' struggle to make sense of the situation over several days. Focusing on how knowledge is distributed, they note that, in this kind of crisis, people make sense by using a variety of knowledge sources that are distributed within different action nets. As a result, we see ‘interpretive indeterminacy’, as individuals draw on different knowledge bases to develop different understandings about what is happening and what should be done to prevent crisis.
If sensemaking in crisis is difficult, we can see that collective sensemaking in crisis is near impossible in the absence of social processes that lead to collective mindfulness, the enriched collective awareness that facilitates the ‘construction, discovery, and correction of unexpected events capable of escalation’ (Weick et al., 1999, p. 88). We return to this point later in the paper when we examine the conditions under which a collective is more likely to engage in adaptive sensemaking.
Moving up from studies of individuals' and collectives' influences on sensemaking, we last address institutional effects on sensemaking in crisis, and the effects of post-crisis sensemaking on institutions. Less sensemaking research has been conducted at this level, despite a growing acknowledgement of its importance for both institutional theory and sensemaking theory (Jennings and Greenwood, 2003; Weber and Glynn, 2006; Weick et al., 2005). A powerful example of institutional effects on sensemaking in crisis is provided by Wicks' (2002) study of the 1992 Westray mine disaster, in which he explores how institutional and organizational logics over time affected organizational members' sensemaking in ways that led them to overlook important cues. At Westray, miners' daily practices were shaped by institutional and organizational rules, organizational and non-work roles, and by their identities as ‘real men’, which created a ‘mindset of invulnerability’ through which miners framed their work. This frame in turn led miners to feel buffered from fear, and to overlook the potential dangers of the environment in which they were employed, and so, to accept inappropriate risks. Over time, miners' day to day activities and the institutional and organizational sanctions that accompanied them, meant that those working in the most dangerous conditions came to understand them as ‘normal’ and unthreatening, creating fertile ground for one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history. Wicks' study builds on W88's core theme of enacted sensemaking to show how individuals enact crises not only as they ‘tap the gauge or call the supervisor or proceed with a tea break’ (p. 309), but through engaging, unwittingly, in ‘institutional work’ (Lawrence et al., 2009) that maintains the rules and norms that provide the bedrock for a situation in which crisis is almost inevitable. Moreover we see how this recursive process enacts and re-enacts shared understandings, as dominant logics shape daily routines, which in turn recreate structures, identities, and expectations that enable and constrain certain collective practices.
While organizational members play a key role, they are not, of course, the only individuals engaging in practices that maintain these institutions. Research on post-crisis sensemaking has shown that public inquiries constitute an important form of institutional work. In a series of studies, Brown explores how inquiry reports such as those following the Piper Alpha explosion and the collapse of Barings Bank use rhetorical strategies of normalization, observation, and absolution to legitimize and restore trust in the social institution in question (Brown, 2000, 2003, 2005; Brown and Jones, 2000). These studies further suggest that such reports present the inquiry team's sensemaking as authoritative, offering an account of the crisis that accomplishes verisimilitude and hegemony. Post-crisis inquiries, often despite laudable efforts to develop an accurate understanding of events, thus necessarily result in reports that provide a plausible and authoritative account, upholding the social institutions under investigation.
The media are also critical in shaping in post-crisis accounts, and therefore play a key role in maintaining and disrupting institutions. In their analysis of sensemaking following the Westray mine disaster, Mills and O'Connell (2003) examine the media's construction of the disaster and the impact of the account that circulated. Implicating journalistic work practices and the relationships between news workers and those holding power in organizations, they discuss how, early on, a discourse of natural disaster and tragedy prevailed over accounts that incorporated human agency and organizational culpability. The propagation of this account, the authors argue, had a significant impact on the broader discourses of worker safety and organizational responsibility in the province in which the disaster occurred, thereby contributing to the maintenance of the institution that enabled its slow incubation. Looking across research in this third core theme, we see that sensemaking in crisis is significantly shaped by institutions, but also that individuals enact understandings, both during and after crises, that maintain and even strengthen these same institutions.