Middle managers’ sensemaking of distance managing during COVID-19

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Sensemaking initiates when individuals face a disruption in their activities and their perceptions deviate from the norm (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005). Through the process of sensemaking, individuals engage in an ongoing reflective activity to understand novel, uncertain and confusing situations (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014). Rare events such as COVID-19 are potential triggers for sensemaking (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014; Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2015; Weick et al., 2005) as they interrupt the everyday practice (Christianson et al., 2009). Rare events also bring uncertainty on how to proceed with regular activities due to no comparability to past experiences of an organization (Lampel et al., 2009). When facing an interruption, individuals extract and interpret the cues within their environment, then use them to generate an understanding for ordering and making sense of the experience to resume the disrupted activity and move forward (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014; Weick et al., 2005). Sensemaking is an unfolding, active, social process, where organizing occurs through experiencing uncertainty while simultaneously (and retrospectively) searching to understand what is happening. The spread of COVID-19 and the following worldwide lockdowns forced organizations to move knowledge workers into mandatory home-working arrangements. Organizations experienced a swift change in their work processes, bringing new challenges to employees and managers. While employees experienced challenges working from home and needing to balance private and professional life (Kniffin et al., 2021), managers faced difficulties related to supervising over a greater distance (Ipsen et al., 2020). Due to the need to work from home, digital technology became the main component of everyday management practice. Computers, phones, tablets, and digital platforms for collaboration facilitated supervision and communication, thus engaging managers in distance managing. The first wave of COVID-19 and the consequent shift to distance managing brought unpredictability, a key element to rare events, turning the known practices into unknown, thus triggering an intensive search for explanations and appropriate steps forward i.e., initiating sensemaking (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014) and the interrelated sensemaking processes of creation, interpretation, and enactment (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2015). Despite the call by Beck and Plowman (2009) for more research on the role middle managers take in influencing how organizations interpret rare events, scholars are yet to investigate how creation, interpretation and enactment processes intertwine throughout middle managers’ sensemaking (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2015). Therefore, this study aims to answer the following research question: How do middle managers make sense of distance managing through the interrelated sensemaking processes of creation, interpretation, and enactment during a rare event? Following Sandberg and Tsoukas (2015), we define creation as the middle managers’ initial reaction to an interrupted activity and the development of an understanding; interpretation as the middle managers’ more profound evaluation of the initial understanding from their lived experience; and enactment as the action pursued by middle managers’ based on their interpretation. We focus on middle managers because of their role in organizations, operating as the mediators between those above them and their teams (Beck & Plowman, 2009; Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). As such, middle managers are located close to various interpretations of emerging events across an organization. By participating in decision-making processes at multiple organizational levels, middle managers can influence the interpretations and play a role in which interpretations are adopted across an organization (Maitlis & Sonenshein, 2010). We follow a process approach to study sensemaking over time (Abdallah et al., 2019; Langley et al., 2013) and study in-depth a large Danish pharmaceutical company during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. In Denmark, the government announced a national lockdown in the middle of March 2020, issuing interactional restrictions that, among other measures, instructed employees and managers of knowledge-intensive organizations to work from home. We followed thirteen middle managers with varied experience in distance managing from May 2020 to December 2020. We draw on six rounds of semi-structured interviews (recorded and transcribed verbatim), interview notes, and publicly available documents. To turn the corpus of data into more tangible connected blocks and aid sensemaking, we use temporal bracketing (Langley, 1999). Moreover, we generate first-order (based on informant terms) and second-order analysis (based on theoretic themes and dimensions) building towards data structure, to achieve a systematic presentation of the data (Gioia et al., 2013).
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Event12th International Process Symposium - Virtual
Duration: 1 Sep 20214 Sep 2021


Conference12th International Process Symposium


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