Sub-theme 31: Power, Sensemaking and Organizing

Gerardo Patriotta
University of Nottingham, UK
Sally Maitlis
University of Oxford, UK
Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Johns Hopkins University, USA

Call for Papers

Sensemaking research has been at times criticized for its inadequate attention to power and political processes (Maitlis & Christianson 2014; Mills, Thurlow & Mills, 2010; Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld 2005). Power affects access to opportunities to sense; it influences how meanings get constructed; it channels multiple voices, narratives, and discourses within and outside organizations. That is, the accounts that dominate and the practices that become accepted in organizational contexts are products of negotiations undertaken in structures that privilege some actors over others (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). In turn, these power structures emerge from multi-party sensemaking and sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991; Maitlis & Lawrence, 2007). They crystallize as a result of social interaction processes whereby individuals, drawing on identity resources, navigate controversies, notice and act on cues, develop plausible conjectures, share their emerging accounts with available others, update their understandings, and advocate their preferred meanings of a situation (Weick, 1995).

Power and sensemaking become especially salient in the grey zones of organizing – transitional situations characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and equivocality (Patriotta, 2003; Weick, 1979, 1995; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). Examples of such situations include major disruptions caused by accidents and catastrophic events, disputes over the legitimacy of particular organizational practices, organizational change processes, transitions between routine and non-routine events, and more limited interruptions at work. These critical situations typically prompt controversies over meaning whose outcome will depend on the power differentials between the parties involved as well as the ability to influence the opponent's sensemaking in the desired direction. In other words, power provides a context for sensemaking. At the micro level, it influences sensemaking dynamics during interpersonal communication and social encounters (Patriotta & Spedale 2009). At the macro level, it constitutes the socio-structural basis within which corporations, social movements, the media, and other stakeholder groups negotiate meaning, and ultimately develop competing definitions of reality (Berger & Luckmann 1967).

This sub-theme intends to foster an exchange of theoretical ideas and empirical research findings across various substantive aspects of power and sensemaking in the context of organizing. The central research questions addressed in the sub-theme include: What happens when there are conflicts of sense? How do multiple accounts compete in organizational settings, and with what effect? Whose framing of social reality prevails and why? Who gives sense? When do people cede sense?

The sub-theme invites contributions that focus on one or more of the following issues (but not limited to them):

  • The interplay of power and sensemaking processes across different levels of analysis (individual, group, organizational, network, field, market) and the various mechanisms that link these levels
  • The joint influence of power and sensemaking on processes of social construction of reality and negotiation of meaning
  • Breakdowns of power and breakdowns of sense
  • The grey zones of power and sensemaking: uncertainty, ambiguity, and equivocality
  • Sensemaking as the politics of meaning: narratives, power and discourse
  • The effect of power and sensemaking on identity processes
  • The emotional consequences of power and sensemaking
  • Sensemaking, sensebreaking and sensegiving during communication and social interaction
  • Framing contests between corporations, social movements and the media
  • The influence of market, institutions and macro-level political processes on sensemaking
  • The interaction of power and sensemaking during institutional work

The sub-theme wishes to attract both high-quality contributions that are ready to be submitted to a research journal and research in progress that explores these challenging issues. It seeks to provide an opportunity for engaging in constructive dialogue and to encourage mutual learning among the participating scholars.




  • Berger, P.L., & Luckmann, T. (1967): The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise it's the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Gioia, D.A., & Chittipeddi, K. (1991): "Sensemaking and Sensegiving in Strategic Change Initiation." Strategic Management Journal, 12 (6), 433–448.
  • Helms Mills, J., Thurlow, & Mills, A. (2010): "Making Sense of Sensemaking: The Critical Sensemaking Approach." Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, 5 (2), 182–195.
  • Maitlis, S., & Lawrence, T. (2007): "Triggers and Enablers of Sensegiving in Organizations." Academy of Management Journal, 50 (1), 57–84.
  • Maitlis, S., & Sonenshein, S. (2010): "Sensemaking in Crisis and Change: Inspiration and Insights from Weick (1988)." Journal of Management Studies, 47 (3), 551–580.
  • Maitlis, S., Christianson, M. (2014): "Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward." Academy of Management Annals, 8 (1), 57–125.
  • Patriotta, G. (2003): "Sensemaking on the Shop Floor: Narratives of Knowledge in Organizations." Journal of Management Studies, 40 (2), 349–375.
  • Patriotta, G., & Spedale, S. (2009): "Making Sense through Face: Identity and Social Interaction in a Consultancy Task Force." Organization Studies, 30 (11), 1227–1248.
  • Weick, K.E. (1979): The Social Psychology of Organizing. Reading, MA: Addison–Wesley.
  • Weick, K.E. (1995): Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
  • Weick, K.E., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2007): Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  • Weick, K.E., Sutcliffe, K.M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005): "Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking." Organization Science, 16 (4), 409–421.


Gerardo Patriotta is Professor of Management and Organization at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research examines processes of sensemaking in the contexts of controversies, transitions between routine and non-routine events, learning from errors, face-to-face interaction, and identity work.
Sally Maitlis is Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Leadership at the University of Oxford, UK. Her research examines how people make sense of important, challenging and sometimes painful issues at work and highlights the emotional side of organizational life for individuals and teams. Sally is particularly interested in processes of suffering, care, compassion and growth in the workplace, exploring how sensemaking shapes people's capacity to deal with adversity.
Kathleen M. Sutcliffe is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University with appointments in the Carey Business School and the School of Medicine, USA. Her recent research investigates how organizations and their members sense and cope with uncertainty and how organizations can be designed to be more reliable and resilient. She is currently investigating issues of safety, reliability and resilience in oil exploration and production, wildland firefighting, and healthcare.