The middle management canyon: a real time study of the middle manager as sensemaker in the context of strategic change
The middle manager’s role in the organisation is crucial. Their middleness between the senior leadership team and the operating core uniquely positions them to contribute to the formulation of strategic change while simultaneously being the filter through which this organisational strategy is interpreted and operationalised. Middle manager sensemaking is central to this contribution. This study explores the middle manager as sensemaker in the context of strategic change. Specifically, it explores the under-researched area of socio-collective sensemaking as a dialectical process which is ongoing for middle managers. It was undertaken among six middle manager teams in three organisations: one indigenous and two Irish sites of multi-national corporations. Through a qualitative diary method, 36 middle managers’ experiences of ongoing strategic change events were captured over a period of twelve weeks. Additional data was gathered through focus groups with each team and thirteen interviews with members of their senior leadership teams.
Findings from this study have identified a type of organisational sensemaking referred to as shared sensemaking. Shared sensemaking is a highly impactful form of collective sensemaking characterised by an ongoing, systematic approach to discourse between the senior leadership team and middle management, which is enabled by specific practices and behaviours, and underpins a number of critical processes in organisational strategy and strategic change. Shared sensemaking is specifically enabled by the practices of ongoing alignment, planning, prioritisation and allocating sensemaking time around individual strategic change events. These practices are underpinned by behaviours; specifically persevering with strategic change beyond its initiation stages, mutual trust and middle manager empowerment. The role of business metrics and senior leadership team signals are also found to have an impact. Shared sensemaking contributes significantly to the ongoing formulation and implementation of organisational strategy and strategic change and leads to a number of other organisational outcomes. Shared sensemaking is shown to positively influence middle manager engagement with and enactment of strategic change, sensegiving with their own teams, and to contribute to positive strategic outcomes and a positive organisational context. However, findings also highlight the critical role of senior leadership team schemata of sensemaking and the middle manager as sensemaker. These prevailing schemata are shown to positively or negatively influence the organisational context, either enabling or disabling shared sensemaking as a critical organisational capability, and subsequently the middle manager role in the formulation and implementation of organisational strategy and strategic change.
This study evolves our existing knowledge of sensemaking theory and the role of the middle manager through the development of a conceptual model of shared sensemaking in organisations. This model also has a strong practical application for organisations who wish to better understand and improve their middle manager contributions to organisational strategy, strategic change, innovation and learning.
- Kemmy Business School
First supervisorJuliet McMahon
Second supervisorSarah MacCurtain
Department or School
- Work and Employment Studies