Leading Change in Schools: Sensemaking and Interactions.


Message from the Editor:

Our latest blog looks at the challenge of leading change in schools. Judith offers us an insight into her own research in that field as well as the thoughts and reactions from participants in the recent #BELMASchat she hosted on that topic. To read the discussion follow this link.

Judith emphasises the importance of language in our interactions and introduces us to the concept of sense-giving as part of an interactional sense-making process. Given how disruptive change can be, especially within what Judith calls the ‘frenetic’ setting of a school, this blog raises a timely issue about the importance of communication between leaders and reinforces the key role that middle leaders play in leading change.

If you’d like to comment on this or any other of our blogs, please tweet using #BELMASblog. Suzanne

 - Suzanne


Author: Judith Hunt

Schools are busy, frenetic and complex organisations in which change is rampant. Myriad new initiatives present themselves in a busy system that has little time to pause and reflect. There is never one initiative at a time; school leaders are juggling multiple change processes at any one time, all with different drivers and varying accountability measures. Complex systems are dynamic and evolving (Morrison, 2012), they cannot be mapped out (Hawkins and James, 2017) and any change initiative will be largely unpredictable as a result (Wallace, 2003). Alongside the complexities of the system itself, there are also the people to consider. I have been researching how middle and senior leaders make sense of change and what the implications of this are for organisations.

Sensemaking provides a useful lens for looking at change. We make sense of situations when our current schema is no longer fit for purpose; we make sense of the ambiguity change can cause by referring to our prior knowledge and using that to interpret our current situation (Holt and Cornelissen, 2014). Our previous experiences and our prior knowledge provide us with anchors to make sense of new information (Rouleau, 2005). Sensemaking is an active process (Weick, 1995) which is also ongoing and cyclical (Rouleau and Balogun, 2011). This means that as change unfolds so does our interpretation and understanding of it; we are never static. My research has focussed on how different groups of leaders make sense of change and whether they are in alignment or not. As middle leaders are in a central position within the organisation, described by Balogun and Hailey (2008) as having a Janus-like view and as boundary spanners by Floyd and Wooldridge (1997), it is clear the key role middle leaders play.

I would argue that for change to be successful there has to be a shared understanding held by both senior and middle leaders. A common language can be key to this. If what a senior leader says is not heard in the intended way by middle leaders, this will impact their sensemaking and ultimately their enactment of the change. Interactions are a central part of change leadership; Tsoukas and Chia (2002) suggest that change should be seen as a series of interactions, each one causing a micro-change that influences the whole. Taking the view that language is what drives change - rather than the individual – (Crevani et al, 2010) highlights the importance of planning what you say when delivering information about change. This is a form of sensegiving, the process whereby you can guide other people’s sensemaking through interactions (Gioia, 2006), consciously or unconsciously (Rouleau, 2005). Narrative can also be a really useful sensegiving device (Jameson, 2001); using stories of past experiences to help construct new schema.

Looking at change through a sensemaking lens has led me to realise and recognise the power of language; Fiol (2002) suggests that the language chosen by leaders can have a role in shaping employees’ perception of the organisation. This is echoed by Sonenshein (2006) who suggests language can be used to craft how an issue within an organisation is perceived. As part of the #BELMASchat I recently hosted on the topic of change, clear communication was an area people felt was key to change leadership. A prevalent theme was the need for transparency; as @RMcKeever stated “If you don’t know why the change is taking place you will not get the buy in from staff.” This was echoed by @jennypritch who said, “openness and sharing the reason for change is vital.” It was clear that without understanding the ‘why’ driving the change, fear can arise and that is where problems can occur; this was summed up by @HoyleRosemary who said “I think this is the most important part….fear of change comes from fear of the unknown….why is it happening? What does it mean for me?” Communicating clearly and openly can help guide the change process; it does not mean you can fully predict the outcome; organisations are complex as outlined above, but you can steer the process.

If leaders can harness the power of interactions then I believe this can impact on how people make sense of change and thus how they enact it. This has implications for organisations and my own leadership research has concluded that exploring the role of interactions is the next step in understanding alignment between middle and senior leaders. 

Judith is currently a Faculty Leader for Languages at an 11-18 school in Malvern and is also studying for her MA in Educational Leadership at the University of Gloucestershire. She has just completed her dissertation on how middle and senior leaders make sense of change and what implications this has for schools. She tweets at @JudithFHunt. 


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