Sensemaking and Sensebreaking in Complexity

A discursive approach to the dynamics between business, government, and society


  • Tina Karme


Business Government, Discourse, Future., Time, Business Government and Society, Sensemaking, Sensegiving, Complexity


This doctoral thesis contributes to discourse and sensemaking literature by exploring discursive dynamics in complexity between business, government, and society. Exploring the discursive dynamics between these three actors in complexity provides a deeper understanding of how sensemaking, sensebreaking, and sensegiving occur and the dynamic aspects grounded in this process. The research uses a phenomenological approach and a social science approach. The study is abductive, and the method applied is grounded theory. It describes the phases and provides examples from 26 in-depth interviews with actors. The complex setting chosen as a case study was the extraction, mining, and mineral industry (EMMI). The people interviewed were international actors despite most of them being based in Finland.

Findings include an indicative model on sensemaking, sensebreaking, and sensegiving that can be applied in complexity. Further, it explains how the model can be used to understand better how different actors make sense of themes and subthemes in their context. This fits well with complexity, as patterns and solutions emerge as we move through time. Complexity does not hold only one best practice but multiple layers and pathways, so different aspects and entanglements occur. This, in turn, explains how the discursive dynamic between actors evolves and develops based on how the actors engage in a sensemaking process.

The research found that time poses issues in the sensemaking process, as the perception of time and fragments of the problems are intertwined and hard to place on a timeline. Further, the findings suggest that new senses cannot occur without sensebreaking. The research indicates that common ground can be found in discussing the terms for the future.


Alvesson, M., & Sköldberg, K. (2008). Tolkning och reflektion:

vetenskapsfilosofi och kvalitativ metod. Studentlitteratur.

Ashforth, B. E., & Schinoff, B. S. (2016). Identity under construction: How

individuals come to define themselves in organizations. Annual Review of

Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 3, 111-137.

Barry, D. & Elmes, M. (1997). Strategy retold: Towards a narrative view of

strategic discourse. The Academy of Management Review, 22(2), 429-452.

Basu, K., & Palazzo, G. (2008). Corporate Social Responsibility: A Process

model of sensemaking. Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 122-136.

Baumann, Z. and Tester, K. (2001). Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman.

Polity Press, Cambridge.

Baffes, J. & Nagle, P. (2022) Commodity prices surge due to the war in

Ukraine. Retrieved May 30th, 2023, from war-ukraine

BBC, (n.d) (2021). German climate change law violates rights, court rules. Accessed at: [Accessed on November 30th, 2021]

BBC 2 (2021). Shell: Netherlands court orders oil giant to cut emissions Retrieved May 30th, 2023, from 57257982

Baumeister, R. E., & Tice, D. M. (1986). Four selves, two motives, and a substitute process self-regulation model. In Public self and private self (pp. 63- 74). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Bien, C., & Sassen, R. (2020). Sensemaking of a sustainability transition by higher education institution leaders. Journal of Cleaner Production, 256, 120299.

Boje, D. M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-Supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly. 36(1): 106-126.

Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative Methods for Organizational & Communication Research. London, Thousand Oaks CA, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Boston, W. (2021). How Volkswagen’s $50 billion plan to beat Tesla short- circuited. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 short-circuited-11611073974

Brickson, S. L. (2007). Organizational identity orientation: The genesis of the role of the firm and distinct forms of social value. Academy of management review, 32(3), 864-888.

Brower, H. H. (2011). Sustainable Development Thought of Service Learning: A Pedagogical Framework and Case Example in a Third World Context. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(1), 58-76.

Brundtland Report (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.

Caza, B. B., & Wilson, M. G. (2009). Me, myself and I: The benefits of work- identity complexity (Doctoral dissertation, Psychology Press).

Clegg, S., Kornberger, M., and Rhodes, C. (2007). Business Ethics as Practice. British Journal of Management, 18, p. 107-122.

Cornelissen, J. P., Mantere, S., & Vaara, E. (2014). The contraction of

meaning: The combined effect of communication, emotions, and materiality on sensemaking in the Stockwell shooting. Journal of Management Studies, 51(5), 699-736.

Creswell, J. W. (2014). A concise introduction to mixed methods research. Sage publications.

Cunliffe, A. L. (2004). On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner. Journal of Management Education, 28(4), p.407-426.

Cunliffe, A., & Coupland, C. (2012). From hero to villain to hero: Making experience sensible through embodied narrative sensemaking. Human relations, 65(1), 63-88.

Currie, G., Knights, D., & Starkey (2010). Introduction: a post crisis reflection on business schools. British Journal of Management, (21), p. 1-5.

De Jonge, B., & Louwaars, N. (2009). Valorizing science: whose values?. EMBO reports, 10(6), 535-539.

Derber, C. (1998). Corporation Nation. How corporations are taking over our lives and what we can do about it. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.

Donaldson, L. (2002). Damned by our own theories: Contradictions between theories and management education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, (1)1, p. 96-106.

Du Gay, P. (2000). In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weberm Organization, Ethics. Sage, London.

Edwards, K. T. (2014). Methods of legitimation: how ethics committees decide which reasons count in public policy decision-making. Social Science & Medicine, 113, 34-41.

Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case study research. Academy of management review, 14(4), 532-550.

Elsbach, K. D., & Flynn, F. J. (2013). Creative collaboration and the self‐ concept: A study of toy designers. Journal of Management Studies, 50(4), 515- 544.

Engine nr.1 (n.d) (2021). It’s time to Reenergize Exxon. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from

Espinosa, A., & Walker, J. (2017). Complexity Approach to Sustainability, A: Theory and Application (Vol. 5). World Scientific.

Eaves, S., & Walton, J. (2013). Advancing Polyphonic, Multi‐layered and Authentic Narrative Inquiry: Actor Sensemaking during Transformational Change. Electronic journal of business research methods, 11(2), 67-83.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, N., & Wodak, R. (1997). Critical Discourse Analysis. Discourse

Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, 2.

Fernández Pinto, M., & Hicks, D. J. (2019). Legitimizing values in regulatory

science. Environmental health perspectives, 127(3), 035001.

Fenton, C., & Langley, A. (2011). Strategy as practice and the narrative turn.

Organization studies, 32(9), 1171-1196.

FFF MAPA (n.d) (2022). Who we are. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from

Follett, M.P. (1995). Prophet of Management, A celebration of Writings from

the 1920s. (Ed.) Graham, P. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Forchtner, B. (2021). Critique, Habermas and narrative (genre): the discourse- historical approach in critical discourse studies. Critical Discourse Studies, 18(3), 314-331.

Ford, J. D. (1999). Organizational change as shifting conversations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 12(6), 480-500.

Gilligan, B. (1987). New Maps of Development: New Visions of Maturity. Women, Culture and Morality, pp. 279-307. Peter Lang, New York.

Gioia, D. & Chittipeddi, K. (1991). Sensemaking and Sensegiving in Strategic Change Initiation. Strategic Management Journal, 12, 433-448.

Gioia, D. A., Thomas, J. B., Clark, S. M., & Chittipeddi, K. (1994). Symbolism and strategic change in academia: The dynamics of sensemaking and influence. Organization science, 5(3), 363-383.)

Glaser, B., Strauss, A., 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Aldine Publishing Company, Hawthorne, NY.

Golden-Biddle, K. & Locke, K. (1993). Appealing work: An investigation of how ethnographic texts convince, Organization Science, 4(4): 595-616.

Goshal, S. & Morgan, P. (1996). Bad for Practice: A Critique of transaction cost theory. Academy of Management Review, 21, 13-47.

Hasan, H., & Kazlauskas, A. (2014). The Cynefin framework: putting complexity into perspective.

Haveri, A. (2006). Complexity in local government change: Limits to rational reforming. Public Management Review, 8(1), 31-46.

Hernes, T. (2014). A process theory of organization. Oup Oxford.

Hernes, T., & Obstfeld, D. (2022). A temporal narrative view of sensemaking.

Organization Theory, 3(4), 26317877221131585.

Hernes, T., & Schultz, M. (2020). Translating the distant into the present: How

actors address distant past and future events through situated activity.

Organization Theory, 1(1), 2631787719900999.

Hertz, N. (2002). The Silent Takeover, Global Capitalism and the Death of

Democracy. London: Arrow

Ibarra, H., & Barbulescu, R. (2010). Identity as narrative: Prevalence,

effectiveness, and consequences of narrative identity work in macro work role

transitions. Academy of management review, 35(1), 135-154.

IPCC (n.d) (2021): Climate Chang widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC.

Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from


Jameson, D. A. (2001). Narrative discourse and management action. The

Journal of Business Communication (1973), 38(4), 476-511.)

Joutsenvirta, M., & Vaara, E. (2009). Discursive (de) legitimation of a

contested Finnish greenfield investment project in Latin America.

Scandinavian Journal of Management, 25(1), 85-96.

Joutsenvirta, M., & Vaara, E. (2015). Legitimacy struggles and political

corporate social responsibility in international settings: A comparative discursive analysis of a contested investment in Latin America. Organization Studies, 36(6), 741-777.

Khurana, R. and Nohria, N. (2008). It’s time to Make Management a True Profession. Harward Business Review, Oct issue.

Kim, R. M., & Kaplan, S. M. (2006). Interpreting socio‐technical co‐ evolution: Applying complex adaptive systems to IS engagement. Information Technology & People, 19(1), 35-54.

Kolb, D. A. (1984): Experimental learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Korten, D. (1995). When Corporations Rule the World. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers (Edited by Dorwin Cartwright.).

Lundahl, U., & Skärvad, P. H. (1999). Investigation Methods for Social Scientists and Economists. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Maitlis, S., & Christianson, M. (2014). Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 57-125.

Maitlis, S. & Sonenshein, S. (2010). Sensemaking in Crisis and Change: Inspiration and Insights from Weick (1988). Journal of Management Studies, 47, 551-580.

Mantere, S., Schildt, H., & Sillience, J. A. A. (2012) Reversal of Strategic Change. Academy of Management Journal, 55, 172-196.

Mantere, S. & Vaara, E. (2008). On the Problem of Participation in Strategy: A critical discursive perspective. Organization Science, 19(2): 341-358.

Marín Arrese, J. I. (2015). Epistemicity and stance: A cross-linguistic study of epistemic stance strategies in journalistic discourse in English and Spanish. Discourse Studies, 17(2), 210-225.

Mills, G. R. W., & Austin, S. A. (2014). Making sense of stakeholder values emergence. Engineering Project Organization Journal, 4(2-3), 65-88.

Mintzberg, H. (2005): The Magic Number Seven - Plus or Minus a Couple of Managers. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), p. 244-247.

Mitic, P. (2018). A complexity framework for consensus and conflict. International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, 13(3), 281-293.

Mitleton-Kelly, E. (2006). A complexity approach to co-creating an innovative environment. World Futures, 62(3), 223-239.

Mitleton‐Kelly, E. (2011). A complexity theory approach to sustainability: A longitudinal study in two London NHS hospitals. The Learning Organization, 18(1), 45-53.)

Myers, M. D. (2009). Qualitative Research in Business & Management. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Neumer, C., Fisher, K.E, & Dervin, B. (2008). SenseMaking: A Methodological Perspective. Conference Paper.

Obstfeld, D. (2017). Getting new things done: Networks, brokerage, and the assembly of innovative action. Stanford University Press.

Oil Price (2021). The activist investor is transforming America’s largest oil company. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from News/World-News/The-Activist-Investor-Transforming-Americas-Largest- Oil-Company.html

Petac, A. O. (2019, May). Conversational Narrative Interfaces for Sensemaking. In Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and MultiAgent Systems (pp. 2438-2440)

Pfeffer, J. (2005). Why do bad management theories persist? A comment on Ghoshal. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(1), 96-100.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Suny Press.

Polman, P., & Winston, A. (2021). Net Positive – how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA.

Pratt, M. G. (2000). The good, the bad, and the ambivalent: Managing identification among Amway distributors. Administrative science quarterly, 45(3), 456-493.

Quick, K. S. (2021). The narrative production of stakeholder engagement processes. Journal of planning education and research, 41(3), 326-341.

Ricoeur, P. (1980). Narrative time. Critical inquiry, 7(1), 169-190.

Ricoeur, P. (1984). The model of the text: Meaningful action considered as a

text. Social Research, 185-218.

Ring, P.S., & Rands, G. P. (1989). Sensemaking, understanding and

committing: Emergent interpersonal transaction process in the evolution of 3M’s microgravity research program. Research on the Management of innovations: The Minnesota studies. New York: Ballinger.

Rockstrom, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, A. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sorlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.

Rouleau, L. (2005). Micro‐practices of strategic sensemaking and sensegiving: How middle managers interpret and sell change every day. Journal of Management studies, 42(7), 1413-1441.

Sandberg, J., & Tsoukas, H. (2020). Sensemaking reconsidered: Towards a broader understanding through phenomenology. Organization Theory, 1(1), 2631787719879937.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2009): Research Methods for business Studies. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. ., & Thornhill, A. (2019). Research methods. Business Students 8th edition. Pearson Education Limited, England, 6(3), 1-268.

Saveleva, I. V. (2019). Legitimization Mechanisms in the Media Discourse (A Case Study of the New Media). Vestnik NSU. Series: History and Philology, 18(6), 188-198.

Schildt, H., Mantere, S., & Cornelissen J. (2020). Power in Sensemaking processes. Organization Studies, 41, 241 – 265.

Snowden, D. (2002). Complex acts of knowing: paradox and descriptive self‐ awareness. Journal of knowledge management, 6(2), 100-111.

Snowden, D.J., Boone M.J. (2007): A Leaders Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review.

Stockholm Resilience Center (n.d) (2022), Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from planetary-boundaries.html

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research techniques.

Swain, D. (2019). Not not but not yet: Present and future in prefigurative

politics. Political Studies, 67(1), 47-62.

Tainter, J. A. (2006). Social complexity and sustainability. Ecological

complexity, 3(2), 91-103.

Taylor, S. (2006). Narrative as construction and discursive resource. Narrative

inquiry, 16(1), 94-102.

The Guardian (n.d) (2021). Court convicts French state for failure to address

climate criris. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from


Tietz, T. (2021) The Biosphere Mission 2 – Failures and Lessons Learned

Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from:

Time, (n.d) (2014). 25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis: The good

intentions, bad managers and greed behind meltdown, full list. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from,29569,1877351, 00.html

Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On organizational becoming: Rethinking organizational change. Organization science, 13(5), 567-582.

Tukiainen, S., Aaltonen, K., & Murtonen, M. (2010). Coping with an unexpected event: Project managers' contrasting sensemaking in a stakeholder conflict in China. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 3(3), 526-543.

Uhl-Bien, M. (2021). Complexity leadership and followership: Changed leadership in a changed world. Journal of Change Management, 21(2), 144- 162.


UN (n.d.) (2014). UN at a Glance. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from

UN FCCC (n.d) (2022). The Paris Agreement. Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from


UN Global Compact (n.d) (2014). Overview of the UN Global Compact.

Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from


Development Agenda Retrieved May 30th, 2023 from

Vaara, E., Tienari, J., & Laurila, J. (2006). Pulp and paper fiction: On the discursive legitimation of global industrial restructuring. Organization studies, 27(6), 789-813.

Vaara, E., Sonenshein, S., & Boje, D. (2016). Narratives as sources of stability and change in organizations: Approaches and directions for future research. Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 495-560.

Vaara, E & Tienari, J. (2008). A Discursive Perspective on Legitimation Strategies in Multinational Corporations. Academy of Management Review, 22(2), 370-390.

Vaara, E. & Whittle, A. (2021). Common Sense, New Sense or Non-Sense? A Critical Discursive Perspective on Power in Collective Sensemaking. Journal of Management Studies, 59(3), 755-781.

Van Beurden, E. K., Kia, A. M., Zask, A, Dietrich, U., & Rose, L. (2011). Making sense in a complex lansdcap: how the Cynefin Framework from Complex Adaptive Sysstems Theory can inform health promotion practice. Health Promotion International, 28(1), 73-83.

Van Dijk , T.A.(1998). Ideology: A Multidisciplinary approach. London: Sage.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2007). Legitimation in discourse and communication.

Discourse & communication, 1(1), 91-112.

Van Tulder, R., & Van der Zwart, A. (2005). International business-society management: Linking corporate responsibility and globalization. Routledge.

Vaagaasar, A. L., Hernes, T., & Dille, T. (2020). The challenges of implementing temporal shifts in temporary organizations: Implications of a situated temporal view. Project Management Journal, 51(4), 420-428.

Vasilescu, C. (2011). Strategic Decision Making Using Sense-Making Models: The Cynefin Framework. The 6th International Scientific Conference “Defence Resources Management in the 21st century” Brasov, December 02-03, 2011.

Vielmetter G., Sell, Y., (2014). Leadership is About to Get More Uncomfortable. Harvard Business Review.

Wartick, S. & Wood, D. (1999). International Business and Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Watson, T. J. (2003). Ethical choice in managerial work: The Scope for moral choices in an ethically irrational world. Human Relations, 56, p. 167-185.

Weick, K. E. (1979).The Social Psychology of Organizing. Reading, MA:


Weick, K.E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organisations. Thousand Oaks, CA:


Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the

process of sensemaking. Organization science, 16(4), 409-421.

Wells, J. (2012). Complexity and sustainability. Routledge.

Whittle, A., Vaara, E., & Maitlis, S. (2023). The role of language in

organizational sensemaking: An integrative theoretical framework and an

agenda for future research. Journal of Management, 49(6), 1807-1840.

Wicks, A. C., and Freeman, R. E. (1998). Organisation Studies and the New

Pragmatism: Positivism, Anti-Positivism, and the Search for Ethics.

Organization Science, 9(2), p.123-140.

Ybema, S., & Willems, T. (2015). Making sense of sense-breaking. In

Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2015, No. 1, p. 14563). Briarcliff

Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.

Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: design and methods. Unites States:

Sage Publications Inc.