Leaders help us understand the world. Or more precisely, they shape how we view it. At least that’s what Valerie Stead and Carole Elliott present in their book, Women’s Leadership. Leaders shape our perspective by sharing information, sharing stories, and providing interpretations of what is occurring in the world outside. By instilling a shared set of beliefs about the world, it is easier for the group to develop a shared goal and pursue it together – the definition of leadership. In summary, leadership is about creating shared interpretations of the world, shared beliefs, shared goals and concerted action.
Why do we want leaders to make sense of things for us? Perhaps we are confused and want someone “smarter” to figure it out. Perhaps it is too hard to make sense of things. Maybe we see it as a leader’s role to do this for us. Possibly we need to feel like someone is in control of a messy situation and we interpret sense-making as an indication of control. I don’t know why. What I do know is that leaders are expected to take action, and the first step of action is to make sense of a situation, in order to determine what actions are possible in that situation.
This idea of creating meaning has some downsides. Even if a leader’s intent is well-meaning, there is a fine line between shaping and manipulating followers’ interpretation of the world. If a leader’s intent is self-serving or harmful to a group of stakeholders, the idea of shaping meaning becomes threatening to the well-being of others. Sense-making can be used for good or for evil.
In spite of its downsides, sense-making is essential in the process of collective action. Often leaders do not spend enough time engaging the organization in the process of sense-making. They skip the process of collectively assessing the external world to identify problems jointly. As a result, the members of the group are not aligned in a shared understanding of the situation, resulting in resistance at the action stage.
So the next time you are in the middle of a wicked problem, think about the process of sense-making. How are you making sense of this situation? How are you sharing your interpretation of the problem with the members of your organization? How are you working with them to shape an organizational perspective on the problem, its causes and solutions? When dealing with complex problems, it pays to slow down to develop a shared understanding of the situation, before rushing to solutions.