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The Contraction of Meaning: The Combined Effect of Communication, Emotions, and Materiality on Sensemaking in the Stockwell Shooting

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In this article, we seek to understand how individuals, as part of a collective, commit themselves to a single, and possibly erroneous, frame, as a basis for sensemaking and coordinated actions. Using real-time data from an anti-terrorist police operation that led to the accidental shooting of an innocent civilian, we analyze how individual actors framed their circumstances in communication with one another and how this affected their subsequent interpretations and actions as events unfolded. Our analysis reveals, first of all, how the collective commitment to a framing of a civilian as a terrorist suicide bomber was built up and reinforced across episodes of collective sensemaking. Secondly, we elaborate on how the interaction between verbal communication, expressed and felt emotions and material cues led to a contraction of meaning. This contraction stabilized and reinforced the overall framing at the exclusion of alternative interpretations. With our study we extend prior sensemaking research on environmental enactment and the escalation of commitment and elaborate on the role of emotions and materiality as part of sensemaking.
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The Contraction of Meaning: The Combined Effect of
Communication, Emotions, and Materiality on
Sensemaking in the Stockwell Shooting
Joep P. Cornelissen, Saku Mantere and Eero Vaara
VU University Amsterdam; Hanken School of Economics; Hanken School of Economics and EMLYON
Business School
ABSTRACT In this paper, we seek to understand how individuals, as part of a collective,
commit themselves to a single, and possibly erroneous, frame, as a basis for sensemaking and
coordinated actions. Using real-time data from an anti-terrorist police operation that led to the
accidental shooting of an innocent civilian, we analyse how individual actors framed their
circumstances in communication with one another and how this affected their subsequent
interpretations and actions as events unfolded. Our analysis reveals, first, how the collective
commitment to a framing of a civilian as a terrorist suicide bomber was built up and
reinforced across episodes of collective sensemaking. Second, we elaborate on how the
interaction between verbal communication, expressed and felt emotions, and material cues led
to a contraction of meaning. This contraction stabilized and reinforced the overall framing at
the exclusion of alternative interpretations. With our study we extend prior sensemaking
research on environmental enactment and the escalation of commitment and elaborate on the
role of emotions and materiality as part of sensemaking.
Keywords: commitment, emotions, framing, materiality, sensegiving, sensemaking
In organized activity, commitment to a frame – as opposed to being open to and
exploring alternative framings – has been suggested as an important source of
sensemaking failure in the context of novel, unprecedented circumstances that require
inferential flexibility and improvised behaviours (Snook, 2000; Weick, 1993a, 2010;
Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003, 2007; Weick et al., 1999). In this paper, we explore how such
commitment to certain frames builds up and escalates within a series of communicative
interactions between experienced professionals. A general characteristic of sensemaking
is that the world does not present itself directly in its ‘raw form’; rather, individuals
actively construct it using available cognitive frames that ground their perceptions,
Address for reprints: Joep Cornelissen, Department of Management and Organization, Faculty of Economics
and Business Administration, VU University Amsterdam, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
( j.p.cornelissen@vu.nl).
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© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Society for the Advancement of Management Studies
Journal of Management Studies 51:5 July 2014
doi: 10.1111/joms.12073
thoughts, and behavioural actions (Cornelissen and Clarke, 2010; Maitlis and
Sonenshein, 2010; Weick et al., 2005). The implication is that the ability of individuals
in organizations to either fail or succeed in their coordinated actions depends on the way
in which they, individually and collectively, cognitively frame and potentially reframe
their circumstances as a basis for action (Taylor and Van Every, 2000; Weick, 1993a,
1993b, 1995).
Prior research has highlighted the role and importance of language, including con-
ventional codes and idioms as a crucial mediating mechanism between individuals in real
time sensemaking, specifically in terms of how they understand the framing of a situation
as it unfolds (Maitlis, 2005; Weick, 1988; Weick and Roberts, 1993). In particular,
sensemaking research has over the years documented the effects of an over-reliance by
individuals on taken-for-granted social labels and common categories as default frames,
with at times disastrous consequences (Vaughan, 1996; Weick, 1988, 1993a). However,
our understanding of how such commitment is established (Weick, 1988, 1993a, 1993b),
within and as a result of communication is still limited (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010;
Weick, 1988, 1993a, 1993b). Weick (1988) initially referred to a process whereby a
provisional framing gains strength and certainty with each mention over time. This
account, however, lacks theoretical specificity in terms of the role of language and the
dynamics of communication and is also largely silent on the impact of emotions (Maitlis
and Sonenshein, 2010) and materiality (Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012) on this process.
The main objective in this paper is therefore to elucidate how commitment to certain
frames builds up and escalates within a series of communicative interactions. We use the
case of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, also known as the Stockwell shooting,
as a generative case. The analysis of the case allows us to integrate processes of commu-
nication, emotional turmoil, and materiality into a model of escalating commitment in
sensemaking under pressure. By so doing, our model explains how commitment to a
frame builds up and may come to overrule reflective thought. Our analysis thus adds to
previous research that has not specified the processes leading to commitment to particu-
lar frames (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick, 1988, 1993b). Moreover, by integrat-
ing explanations related to communication, emotion, and materiality, our analysis helps
to better understand the dynamics of these crucial interlinked aspects of sensemaking.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
The theoretical backdrop for our study is the extensive literature on sensemaking under
pressure (Cornelissen, 2012; Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Quinn and Worline, 2008;
Weick, 1988, 1993a, 1993b, 1995). Sensemaking under pressure relates to organizational
conditions where individual actors need to make timely and swift decisions and where the
consequences of their decisions have a high impact (Weick et al., 1999). If not anticipated,
such sensemaking may translate into accidents or disasters that have consequences for
stakeholders. Examples include the Bhopal gas leak (Weick, 1988, 2010) and the Bristol
Royal Infirmary cardiac surgery scandal (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2003). It may also present
the sensemaking actors themselves with loss of or threats to their personal wellbeing
(Weick, 1990, 1993a; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011). Quinn and Worline’s (2008, p. 501)
study of the hijacking of United Airlines flight 93, for example, involved a ‘shocking and
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incomprehensible’ event where passengers had to recover a sense of what it meant to be in
the midst of a terrorist ‘suicide mission’ that posed a direct threat to their lives.
Framing in Sensemaking
Sensemaking aims to understand how the framing of decisions in event sequences guides
and directs individual and collective cognitive inferences and behaviours (Maitlis and
Sonenshein 2010; Taylor and Van Every, 2000; Weick, 1993a; Weick and Roberts,
1993). Sensemaking has been defined as the attribution of meaning to a target (experi-
ences, events, or other stimuli) via the placement of this target into a mental model or
framework, otherwise known as a frame (Pratt, 2000; Weick, 1995). As Weick (1995,
pp. 109–11) suggests, sensemaking involves a frame, a cue, and the relational connection
made between them. ‘Less abstract words’ designating and labelling specific cues, as
reference points, are seen to point in a relational sense to ‘more abstract frames’ (Weick,
1995, p. 110). This implies that when, for example, individuals use specific words as part
of their sensemaking, these do not strictly encode or determine meaning. Instead, words
prompt larger background frames, or cognitive schemas, that guide interpretations and
actions. This also means that in ongoing interaction, individuals need to detect the
changing background assumptions, or schemas, necessary for continued interpretation
(Goffman, 1974, 1981; Tannen, 1985), ‘with [such] frames providing an interpretive
“footing” that aligns schemas that participants to the interaction bring with them’
(Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 614; Goffman, 1974, 1981).
Another important characteristic of the role of frames within sensemaking is that they
impart organizing structure. Simply put, the frames individuals use as part of their
sensemaking define situations and the structure of experiences associated with them
(Goffman, 1974; Snow et al., 1986). Benford and Snow (2000, p. 614) argue that ‘frames
help to render events or occurrences meaningful and thereby function to organize
experience and guide action’. For example, when the firefighters in the Mann Gulch case
had been prompted to define the raging fire as a ‘10 o’clock fire’, they incorrectly
categorized it as a fire that would be under control and out by 10 o’clock the next day
(Weick, 1993a). Activating a frame thus creates expectations about important aspects of
the context or circumstance by directing individuals to elaborate on the default or
prototypical scenario in a manner suggested by the frame (Lakoff, 1987). Furthermore,
frames help individuals to comprehend and predict the behaviour of others through
stereotypical inference and, as such, support coordinated collective action, providing
individuals commit themselves to playing out the jointly framed situation (Gioia and
Poole, 1984; Pentland and Reuter, 1994).
Commitment to Frames
When organizational members need to coordinate their actions in unexpected situations,
they construct a common frame in a step-by-step manner as events evolve. This obser-
vation has been made in studies within groups and organizations situated in contexts of
crisis, change, and uncertainty (Corley and Gioia, 2004; Maitlis, 2005; Sonenshein,
2010) and similarly applies to studies of the improvised coordination of teams or groups
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in novel or dynamic circumstances where joint understanding has to be established in
real-time (Bechky and Okhuysen, 2011; Faraj and Xiao, 2006; Okhuysen and Bechky,
2009; Quinn and Worline, 2008; Weick, 1993a). Faraj and Xiao (2006) demonstrate how
open and frequent dialogue among team members in trauma centres facilitated coordi-
nation in emergency response operations, over and beyond standard procedures. In this
and related cases, coordination was effectively accomplished, rather than pre-designed,
through communication and as the coordinated activity progressed (Bechky, 2003;
Quinn and Dutton, 2005). The collective act of building up common ground around a
common framing of the situation is crucial to enable coordination between individuals
and to ensure that each individual has a sense of what is expected of them (Maitlis and
Sonenshein, 2010; Faraj and Xiao, 2006; Weick, 1993a; Weick and Roberts, 1993). The
resulting commitment to such a frame structures understanding, provides purpose and
direction (Christianson et al., 2009; Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick, 1993b) and a
basis for expectations about the interrelated activities that are required as events unfold
(Faraj and Xiao, 2006; Quinn and Dutton, 2005).
While commitment ‘serves as a foundation for sensemaking’ (Maitlis and Sonenshein,
2010, p. 562), it can also act as a double-edge sword. On the one hand, it creates meaning and
purpose and enables coordinated activity, and may thus facilitate sensemaking under pressure
(Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010). On the other hand, ‘such staunch commitment to a particular
set of meanings creates substantial blind spots that impede adaptation’ (Maitlis and
Sonenshein, 2010, p. 562). Whilst commitment is an important basis for sensemaking, it may
also entrap sensemakers and impede their ability to be mindful as commitment to a particular
frame escalates (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010). The problem with an overreliance on any
single frame is that frames themselves may be overly brittle (Weick, 1995). Wilensky (1986)
criticizes frames for being rigid data structures that cannot accommodate events that are out
of the ordinary – a point echoed by Weick and Sutcliffe (2007).
Weick (1988, 1995) argues that commitment is founded on enacting a particular
framing of the environment. He conceptualizes ‘enacted environments’: processes by
which a particular framing is established in prior episodes of communication and as such
provides the source for future expectations (Weick, 1988, 1995). When a frame is
reinforced in interlinked episodes of communication (what he labels as an enacted
environment) and collectively elaborated as a shared commitment, it leads to a strength-
ening of commitment to a particular frame, which in turn directs and channels meaning
construction in real-time. Weick (1988, p. 307) thus refers to an enacted environment as
the ‘conceptual residue’ that is carried over from previous ‘episodes of talk’ and affects
subsequent sensemaking. As he suggests, the action of talking conceptually frames cir-
cumstances, which then become ‘preconceptions which partially affect the next episode
of talk’ and any future episodes of sensemaking.
We, however, lack understanding of the processes by which commitment becomes
established and binds participants to a particular course of action. For example, it may
well be that the initial sensegiving of particular actors towards others plays an important,
if not decisive, role in directing and constraining meaning construction as it unfolds
within a group (Gioia et al., 1994; Maitlis and Lawrence, 2007; Whiteman and Cooper,
2011). Sensegiving refers to the strategic discursive and framing efforts of actors to
influence ‘the sensemaking and meaning construction of others toward a preferred
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redefinition of organizational reality’ (Gioia and Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 442). We also do
not know how ‘conceptual residue’ is carried over, nor how earlier acts of sensegiving
and sensemaking are related in a contingent manner so that these scale up into a
collective commitment to a particular framing and course of action at later stages.
Moreover, it is likely that the process is not simply cognitive or linguistic, but is generally
affected by individuals’ prior experience (Mantere et al., 2012; Whiteman and Cooper,
2011), emotions (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010), and the material contexts of action in
which they find themselves (Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012).
Maitlis and Sonenshein (2010) recently highlighted that the role of emotions, whilst
prevalent in processes of sensemaking under pressure, has been left largely unaddressed
in prior work. Weick (2010, p. 537) also described his original analysis of Bhopal as ‘cool
and cognitive’, and hinted at alternative analyses and interpretations that would fore-
ground the role of emotions. The limited work that does exist (Bartunek et al., 2006;
Myers, 2007; Sonenshein, 2009) largely focuses on the arousal of negative emotions such
as fear and anxiety at the individual level, but has not yet covered how emotions dovetail
with collective sensemaking processes. Following the call by Maitlis and Sonenshein
(2010) and Weick (2010) for more research on emotions as part of sensemaking, we
therefore focus on the arousal and effect of emotions on individual and collective
sensemaking as part of our case (see also Huy, 2002; Walsh and Bartunek, 2011).
Furthermore, following Whiteman and Cooper (2011), sensemaking and sensegiving
also involve physical gestures or demonstrations from one person to the next (what they
label as sensegiving-in-action). We expect however that besides physical, embodied
gestures and acts, materiality may also play other roles in sensemaking. We thus consider
materiality in an enlarged sense in this paper by focusing on the material environment or
surroundings in addition to physical artefacts or objects (Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012) and
embodied acts of gesturing (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011).
The ability of sensemakers to transcend the commitment to any particular frame – to
‘update’ and ‘doubt’ (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010, pp. 565–66) – is crucial to adaptive
sensemaking in context. The concept of ‘adaptive sensemaking’ refers to the ability of
sensemakers to query an initial frame and commitments, and to mobilize instead an
alternative frame from background knowledge or make novel associations as a way of
structuring expectations and make inferences (Bechky and Okhuysen, 2011; Maitlis and
Sonenshein, 2010). Previous research has highlighted the potential role of an inquiring
mind and surprise or doubt as key conditions in this respect, enabling individuals to shift
between frames, or at least leave open the possibility for an alternative and ‘updated’
version of events (Christianson et al., 2009; Hare and Roberts, 2010; Weick, 2010). In
this paper we are interested in further exploring when and how such adaptive
sensemaking is triggered or enabled in the face of a previously built up collective
commitment to a frame.
Research Question
We formulate our research question as follows: What are the processes that make
individuals commit themselves to a specific frame in collective settings of interlinked
sensemaking, at the expense of more adaptive sensemaking? We believe answering this
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question will be an important step towards solving the perennial research question on
sensemaking under pressure (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick, 1993a, 2010);
namely, how it is that individuals, as part of a collective, are at times able to think laterally
and improvise rather than committing themselves to a single, and possibly erroneous,
frame. We employ a generative case (Weick, 2007) that puts these processes into relief
and allows us to formulate a set of theoretical explanations to answer our research
question.
CASE STUDY AND METHODS
The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005, an incident also known as
the Stockwell shooting, presents a prototypical case of collective sensemaking under
pressure (Weick, 2007). A critical characteristic of the operation was that it involved
time-limited processes of communication and distributed sensemaking in stressful, fast-
changing circumstances where the individual officers were not physically co-present
(Roberts et al., 2008; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007) and where the scale of consequences
of their sensemaking precluded any trial and error learning through experimentation
(Weick et al., 1999). Specifically, the terrorist suspect could not be approached unless
it was confirmed that he was the target, which in turn would mean that he would be
preemptively shot. Any alternative actions could alert the suspect to the presence of the
police, risking the detonation of a bomb. These particular conditions not only put
enormous pressures on police officers to get the identification right, but arguably also
necessitated a degree of flexibility to allow for improvisation in a volatile environment
that carried the potential for error (Faraj and Xiao, 2006; Roberts and Bea, 2001;
Weick et al., 1999).
The operation uniquely relied on flexible on-line communication, as opposed to a
system of code words or routines not yet developed for ‘spontaneous’ suicide bombing
incidents. The Metropolitan Police argues that for this kind of operation, the ‘use of plain
language to convey critical decisions’ and ‘clear words of command’ is more critical than
a system of code words (MPS/MPC, responses to Rule 43 (inquest recommendations),
February 2009). Besides setting up a command and control structure, the operation itself
was not pre-scripted, and the officers themselves had to construct an understanding of
the individual subjects they were following. The operation was also a dynamic and
fast-moving one, involving different areas in the city of London. These particular char-
acteristics of the case make it ideal for our theory-building purposes. They allow us to
systematically explore, first, how and why particular instances of communication led to
commitment to specific frames; second, how emotional arousal affected this commit-
ment; and third, how interpretations of material cues impacted this sensemaking and
commitment.
Data
The primary data for our analysis come from the extensive and detailed evidence
gathered during the so-called Stockwell inquest into the events leading up to the shooting
of Mr de Menezes. In England and Wales an inquest is an official investigation of any
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death where public servants, for example police officers, may be implicated. The purpose
of this kind of inquest is to establish in a public and factual manner how the death
occurred. Inquest data from other events have been previously used in sensemaking
research (Brown, 2003, 2005; Gephart, 1993). Connected to their jurisdictional premise,
inquest data include retrospective sensemaking accounts (Brown, 2003, 2005), although
in the context of our study we focus primarily on recorded real-time instances of
sensemaking on the day of the shooting. Where we introduce post hoc recollections or
accounts of officers involved in the shooting, we clearly mark this in the analysis.
We first downloaded the transcripts of the evidence in the inquest proceedings and
converted these into text files. The proceedings started on 22 September 2008 and
concluded on 4 December of that same year. There were a total of 48 transcript
documents from the days in which testimonies and evidence were recorded. In total, 73
witnesses gave evidence during these proceedings, including the police officers involved
in the operation on the day as well as expert witnesses such as forensic examiners and
anti-terrorism experts. We saved these files as a single corpus, defined as ‘a relatively
large collection of naturally-occurring texts which have been stored in machine-readable
form’ (Deignan, 2005, p. 76). We used the Oxford Wordsmith software to aid with the
analysis of the words and expressions that were used by police officers in the operation.
Wordsmith is adept at navigating across a large collection of texts (Gephart, 1993, 1997).
Our analytic strategy for these texts was based on interpretive analysis (Gephart, 1993,
1997) that ‘seeks to develop or recover themes, meanings and patterns in textual data; to
provide “thick” interpretations which display how concepts are operative in the data;
and to ground theory in data in an ongoing or iterative process of analysis’ (Gephart,
1997, p. 585).
The software enabled us to simultaneously process all of the transcribed files for key
words or expressions used in the operation (cf. Gephart, 1993, 1997). This was helpful in
providing background information for interpreting the word or expression in context and
for triangulating across the sources of evidence and witness testimonies. In addition to
analysing the verbal transcripts in this manner, we consulted the material evidence
directly referenced in the transcripts, both of which are publicly available (previously at
http://www.stockwellinquest.org.uk and now at http://www.julyseventh.co.uk/j7-jean
-charles-de-menezes-inquest/index.html). This evidence includes 1012 separate files
with photos, excerpts of logged accounts, police documents, and records of telephone
conversations on the day. We used the transcripts as the primary data for our analysis,
with the additional material evidence used to corroborate our analysis.
The evidence recorded in the transcripts gives a direct record of the real-time com-
munication between police officers, indicating their sensemaking from the moment Jean
Charles de Menezes left his house to the point where he was shot. Triangulation across
these sources of real-time data and across the testimonies of individual police officers
confirms the essential events on that day and the experiences of police officers during the
operation (as they recollected them afterwards). In fact, after weeks of taking evidence,
the presiding judge over the inquest proceedings expressed in his summing up to the jury
that the compiled evidence was comprehensive, saying ‘we are as sure as we can be that
there is nothing more of any materiality or relevance that could be put before you’ (2
December transcript, p. 43). This level of support for the detail of the primary data is
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sufficient for our purpose of developing theory on real-time sensemaking in the context
of an unprecedented, complex, and dynamic situation that required a reliable and
resilient organizational performance (Weick et al., 1999).
Our ontological and epistemological position in this study can best be characterized as
a version of critical realism that focuses attention on the crucial role of communication
in the social construction of reality, but places this communication in its socio-material
context (Fairclough, 2005; Vaara and Monin, 2010). We consider frames as part of
sensemaking, as analogue structures, or hypothetical models, that are constructed by
individuals and provide them with a basis for interpretation. Likewise, emotions may be
aroused and expressed as part of sensemaking, but, as in our case, are not necessarily
directly representative of the objective circumstances in which individual officers found
themselves. At the same time, the material environment exists in a real physical sense
outside of the individual officers as embodied agents. However, how they read and
interpret this environment is again an act of constructing, or conceptualizing, an under-
standing. Our analysis also includes pragmatist elements in the sense that we pursued an
abductive approach (Ketokivi and Mantere, 2010; Locke et al., 2008) where alternative
counterfactual explanations (Durand and Vaara, 2009) played a key role in our theory
development (as explained below).
Data Analysis
For our analysis, we used a grounded theorizing strategy (Langley, 1999) and followed an
abductive approach where emerging theoretical ideas were refined alongside increas-
ingly detailed empirical analysis (Ketokivi and Mantere, 2010; Locke et al., 2008;
Mantere and Ketokivi, 2013). An abductive research design is an iterative process, where
data and theory are examined in tandem in an effort to solve a stated mystery (Alvesson
and Kärreman, 2007). Multiple candidate explanations or counterfactuals (Durand and
Vaara, 2009) are constructed from the theoretical discourse on sensemaking, and inter-
rogated against the data to provide a credible solution to the mystery (Ketokivi and
Mantere, 2010). In our case, the mystery was tangible: What would explain the tragic
outcome of the Stockwell shooting? How could the sensemaking of officers on the job
that day, lacking sufficient evidence to support drastic action (i.e., no positive identifica-
tion), result in such an outcome?
Our analysis proceeded in three stages. The first stage of our analysis involved the
construction of a detailed mapping of the key events and sensemaking episodes, as based
on the available data (Langley, 1999). We drew largely on logged accounts and records
from that day. Second, to better understand the background to the decisions that
were made and the experiences of the police officers on the day, one of the authors
attended the inquest proceedings. Lastly, we all studied the submitted evidence on police
protocols.
In the first, stage, based on the initial mapping of events, we bracketed three key
episodes in the case (Langley, 1999) and singled out significant decisions that appeared
to be turning points in the case, such as the order that was given to the firearms officers
to ‘stop’ de Menezes. We parsed each of these episodes, taking into account the
sensemaking and coordination of different officers, as part of the overall operation.
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The first episode that we identified involved sensemaking about the identification of
the subject, covering the period from when de Menezes left his house to Commander
Dick’s decision to mobilize the firearms team (see Table I). The coordination in this first
episode was restricted to the surveillance teams and to Commander Dick and her staff in
the control room. The subsequent second episode started with the actual decision to
deploy the firearms team. In this episode, firearms officers made sense of the kind of
scenario they were in as well as the tactics they should follow in relation to the suspect.
The coordination of this episode involved Commander Dick and her staff in the control
room, the team of firearms officers, and a group of surveillance officers who were still
shadowing de Menezes. The final episode focuses on the sensemaking of police officers
when they approached the suspect in the Stockwell tube station. This episode involves
the final moments in the station and train carriage when officers came face-to-face with
de Menezes in the crowded underground train. Coordination in this instance was
restricted to those firearms officers and surveillance officers who had gone into the station
and who no longer had any radio contact with the control room. For each of these
episodes we relay the sensemaking (cognitive frames), communication and actions of key
actors, including Commander Dick, the main operator in the control room (‘Pat’), senior
surveillance officers (‘James’ and ‘Ivor’), and the firearms officers (‘C2’ and ‘C12’) who
come face-to-face with de Menezes.
In the second stage of our analysis, we mobilized specific theoretical lenses to analyse
the data and develop our explanations. The main purpose of doing so was to zoom in on
viable interpretations of the case and to ultimately develop a more refined process theory
of commitment in sensemaking (cf. Langley, 1999). The explanations we discovered are
drawn from the sensemaking literature. Each lens was laid over the data and observa-
tions of each of the three episodes in an attempt to explain the sensemaking of the police
officers and the decisions and actions that they took. The first, communication lens
focused on the role of language in sensegiving and sensemaking (Gioia et al., 1994;
Maitlis and Lawrence, 2007; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011) and tuned our analysis to
how words and expressions within communication may cue or prompt a cognitive frame,
or ‘schema of interpretation’ (Goffman, 1974, p. 21). In particular, we concentrated on
the crucial role of ‘linguistic framing’, that is the key role that specific words and
expressions played in the creation and reinforcement of particular frames as part of
ongoing sensegiving and sensemaking.
The second lens focused on the experienced and expressed emotions of the police
officers on the day, and how this affected their sensemaking, decisions, and actions. This
perspective provided an analysis of how certain emotions such as fear and panic (Maitlis
and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick, 1993a; Weick et al., 2005) started to consume officers,
affecting their decision-making and severely impeding their ability to be reflective and
mindful of alternative scenarios to that of closing in on a terrorist suicide bomber. In this
analysis, we sought evidence on both emotional arousal at the level of individual officers
as well as how emotions were expressed (in language or gestures) and influenced
co-interacting officers. Rather than employing an a priori categorization of basic emo-
tions (as in, e.g., Liu and Maitlis, 2014), we coded the evidence on emotions in an
iterative and open fashion (as in, e.g., Martin et al., 1998). We drew on prior literature
to guide the identification of specific emotions and their arousal (Walsh and Bartunek,
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Table I. Summary of key events, sensegiving and sensemaking processes, and outcomes
Time Event Key actor(s) Sensegiving and sensemaking Outcome(s)
06:00 First of the two surveillance
teams takes position
Surveillance teams and unnamed
supervisor
Surveillance officers were told to ‘contain’ any
suspects leaving the premises [communication]
Surveillance team had no authority to confront but
were told to ‘contain’ suspects
07:45 First briefing, firearms
team
Trojan 84 and firearms team Firearms officers told that they might have to use
‘unusual tactics’ and that they should trust the
information that they were given
[communication]
Expressions directly refer to the critical head shot
and command structure consistent with a
Kratos operation
First briefing, firearms
team
Trojan 84 and firearms team Firearms officers issued with hollow point bullets
for critical headshot [material cue]
Bullets, as a material object, signal that the
operation is a Kratos operation
08:45 Second briefing, firearms
team
Mr Purser and firearms team Terrorists described as ‘deadly and determined’,
‘well prepared’, and ‘up for it’ [communication]
Expressions mark the suspect(s) that they will come
up against as single minded terrorists
Episode 1: The positive identification
09:33 JCM is observed leaving
the building at Scotia
Road
‘Frank’ and ‘Edward’ of the red
surveillance team, Commander Dick
and other officers in the control
room
JCM is ‘worth a second look’ and characterized as
‘North African’ [communication]
JCM is seen to warrant attention as his profile
corresponds with the profile of Nettle Tip
JCM is shadowed as he
enters the bus
‘Harry’, ‘James’, and ‘Ken’ of the grey
surveillance team, Commander Dick
and other officers in the control
room
JCM ‘acting in a wary manner and appearing
nervous’; JCM described as having a ‘good
possible likeness’ and being ‘possibly identical
with’ the targeted suspect [material cue,
emotions and communication]
JCM warrants further attention as his profile and
physical movements corresponds with the profile
of Nettle Tip
09:43 JCM is observed in the bus ‘Ivor’ of the grey surveillance team,
Commander Dick and other officers
in the control room
Ivor describes JCM as ‘Mongolian looking’ and
having ‘distinctive eyes’, but not able to identify
him [material cue and communication]
Apart from his racial profile, communication
primes the frame of identification, in line with
standard surveillance protocol
09:49 JCM gets off and back
onto the bus
‘James’ of the grey surveillance team,
‘Pat’, Commander Dick, and other
officers in the control room
Pat relays James’ message of JCM’s movements as
an ‘anti-surveillance tactic’ and describing
JCM’s behaviour as ‘very nervous and twitchy’
[material cue, emotions and communication]
Physical movements of JCM interpreted and
described as consistent with a profile of Nettle
Tip
Question about the
identification of JCM
Pat, James, surveillance officers, and
Commander Dick
Commander Dick requests a ‘percentage of
identification’; James replies ‘for what it’s worth,
I think it’s him’ which Pat relays in turn as
‘It is him, the man off [the] bus. They think it is
him and he is very, very jumpy’
[communication and emotions]
Expressions mark a probability frame where a
percentage suggests the likelihood that JCM is
Nettle Tip
Expressions mark and amplify emotional stress and
anxiety that JCM might be Nettle Tip and lead
to the inference that action had to be taken
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Episode 2: The case to stop the suspect
Firearms team mobilized
to apprehend JCM
Commander Dick, Trojan 84, DCI
Purser, and firearms officers
Commander Dick asks DCI Purser ‘are you
getting this?’, ‘are you getting all this?’, which
highlights anxiety that suspect might be getting
away [communication and emotions]
Order and expressions reify the positive
identification of JCM and the activation of
Kratos protocol
10:01 ‘Stop’ order Commander Dick, Trojan 84, firearms
officers
Commander Dick orders a ‘stop’ after discussion
that suspect should not be allowed to ‘run’
[material cue and communication]
Expressions cue an image of chasing a suspect who
is nearing a possible target for a detonation
‘Stop’ order Commander Dick Commander Dick orders a ‘stop’ based on the
realization that JCM is entering the same station
as the failed bombers the day before [material
cue]
The arrival of the firearms
team is signalled
James and other surveillance officers James broadcasts to his team; ‘CO19 coming
through’ [communication]
The surveillance team is told to make way for the
firearms team when necessary
Firearms officers are still
not in contention
Chf Insp Esposito, SI Johnston, Trojan
84, and other firearms officers
Chf Insp Esposito shouts ‘What do you mean you
can’t do it? Get yourself there’ [communication
and emotions]
Firearms officers realize that they are physically
behind in the chase to catch up with the suspect
[material cue]
Expressions confirm again a chase and the
impending danger
10:02 JCM is seen picking up a
Metro newspaper in the
Stockwell tube station
Ken, Ivor, and James Ivor see JCM picking up a Metro newspaper and
asks ‘do you want him lifted?’ [material cue and
communication]
Ivor breaks with framing of JCM as Nettle Tip
and suggests the opportunity for detaining the
suspect, bringing an end to the pursuit
Ivor’s question relayed to
the control room
James, Pat, and Commander Dick in
the control room
James asks Pat ‘Do you want him detained?’
[communication]
Expression marks the opportunity for detaining the
suspect, bringing an end to the pursuit
10:03 Firearms officers arrive at
Stockwell tube station
Trojan 84, Chf Insp Esposito, and
Commander Dick in the control
room
Chf Insp Esposito confirms to Commander Dick
that the firearms officers were there [material
cue and communication]
Commander Dick countermands her order and
says ‘SO19 [are] doing [the] stop, do not let
surveillance intervene’ [communication]
The physical arrival of the team reinforces the set
strategy of an armed intervention
Commander Dick confirms this when she refers to
the tactics associated with the Kratos frame
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Table I. Continued
Time Event Key actor(s) Sensegiving and sensemaking Outcome(s)
Episode 3: Containing the threat
10:03 JCM reported going down
the escalator
Ralph of the firearms team and
Trojan84
Firearms officers are being deployed for an armed
intervention
C2 and C12 enter the
station
C2 and C12 C2 and C12 make eye contact which confirms to
both men that they are deployed [material cue]
10:03–
10:06
Surveillance officers take
position on the train to
direct the incoming
firearms officers
Ivor stops the carriage
door from closing and
directs the incoming
officers towards JCM
Ivor, C2, and C12 Ivor shouts ‘he’s here’ pointing to JCM
[communication and material cue]
Ivor’s expression confirms the suspect, in line with
the set strategy
JCM rises from his seat
when officers approach
him
Ivor, C2, and C12 JCM stands up, Ivor sees a potential to defuse the
situation and pushes him back into his seat
[material cue]
C2 and C12 see the act as an aggressive tactic and
see a bulky jacket, lean over Ivor and fire eleven
shots in total [material cue]
Ivor hints at a possible alternative to a critical
headshot
C2 and C12 enact Kratos protocol
C2 and C12feel a great deal of fear and appear to
panic when they fire their shots [material cue
and emotions]
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2011), yet we also inductively and openly coded the emotional turmoil that the police
officers experienced in these extraordinary circumstances. In addition, and consistent
with recent research (Huy, 2002; Walsh and Bartunek, 2011), it is important to note that
we identified emotions based on individuals’ expressions and statements recorded in the
inquest proceedings.[1]
The third lens focused on materiality (Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Orlikowski, 2007;
Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011) and highlighted the role that
materiality played in the sensemaking of police officers. More specifically, we focused on
three material aspects: the physical setting or material circumstances in which officers
found themselves at various points; their physical demonstrations and gestures towards
one another; and the material objects that they had at their disposal such as guns, hollow
point bullets, and video and film equipment. This analysis drew out the crucial role
played by these material cues, such as the picture of one of the suspects and the
possibilities offered by various locations (e.g., on a bus and in the underground station)
in the sensemaking of police officers about possible approaches and armed interventions.
In the third stage of our analysis, we took a further step and reflected on the strength
and boundaries of these alternative explanations, both separately and in combination to
draw out an emergent process model. This resulted in the identification of novel process
explanations: communicative grounding (the establishment and reinforcement in communi-
cation of a common framing that makes it hard to question, let alone suspend or abort
an agreed-upon course of action); emotional contagion (the continuous reinforcement and
spreading of negative emotions through communication and social interaction that
overrules reflective thought); and material anchoring (the grounding of conceptualized and
expressed frames and emotions in perceived material circumstances and artefacts).
These emergent processes interacted in the case, amplifying the collective commit-
ment of police officers to the framing of de Menezes as a terrorist suicide bomber. In
turn, we re-examined the data’s fit/misfit with the emergent theoretical understanding
and checked for completeness in the trail of evidence. In doing so, we attempted to draw
out the transferability of the findings and to extend existing theory on sensemaking,
including prior work on commitment, materiality, and emotions.
FRAME COMMITMENT IN THE STOCKWELL SHOOTING
Context
Two weeks prior to the shooting, the city of London had woken up to a series of
coordinated suicide bomb attacks in three underground stations and a bus, killing a total
of 52 commuters and 4 suicide bombers, and injuring many hundreds of civilians. The
explosions, also called the 7/7 bombings, constituted one of the largest and deadliest
terrorist attacks in London. Around noon on 21 July, another terrorist cell attempted to
explode bombs on three underground trains and a bus. Later that day, Commander
McDowall, the Deputy National Coordinator for terrorist investigations, held a meeting
with his command team. Because the bombers were still at large it was decided that a
specialist firearms team would be on stand-by 24 hours a day to assist in the manhunt for
these suspects. Commander Dick was appointed as the designated senior officer (DSO)
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to lead the manhunt because she had had previous experience with policing large civic
operations and had been one of the first senior officers to receive training for ‘Kratos’
operations. Kratos was, and still is, the code word for policies and tactics that were
developed for dealing with suspected terrorist suicide bombers. Operations under
Kratos, the ancient Greek word for might or strength, allow for pre-emptive police strikes
before terrorist crimes and casualties can occur. To incapacitate or kill a suspected
terrorist, police officers can fire a critical headshot (rather than the standard practice of
firing at the torso), but only when authorized by a DSO. Under Kratos, there is also no
need to provide a verbal challenge to the suspect, as this would alert him or her to the
presence of the police.
The strategy that Commander McDowall set for the operation involved covert sur-
veillance carried out by surveillance teams, whilst the direct approach of any suspect
targets was entrusted to special branch (SO12) and specialist firearms officers from
SO19, the Metropolitan Police’s firearms department. SO12 is the unit charged with
national security and counter-terrorist operations; it involves trained officers who would
not necessarily use lethal force. SO19 (or CO19) is a unit of highly trained firearms
officers who provide firearms-related support. Figure 1 displays the central actors
involved in the operation, including the main lines of communication between them
(most of the police officers on the ground, including surveillance and firearms officers, are
Control room 1600 New Scotland Yard
(Metropolitan Police Headquarters)
Support staff
between 20 and 30
'PAT'
Surveillance Monitor
'JAMES'
surveillance loggist
'RALPH'
Firarms Team Leader
C2
Mobile vehicle
C12
C5
Firearms team (SO19/CO19)Red and Grey Surveillance Teams
C6
'KEN'
'FRANK' 'GRAHAM' 'LAWRENCE'
'MALCOLM' 'HARRY' 'IVOR'
Commander
DICK
Designated Senior Officer
Detective Chief
Inspector C
Ground Commander
TROJAN 84
CO 19 Tactical Adviser
Mr ESPOSITO
TROJAN 80
CO19 tactical adviser
Ass. Commissioner
MCDOWALL
Gold Commander (not
involved after 9:20)
Mr PURSER
(stationed at CO19 base)
On the ground
Figure 1. Actors involved in the anti-terrorist operation and main lines of communication
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referred to by codenames to protect their identity). The operation and potential use of
the Kratos protocol presented an unprecedented situation for Commander Dick as well
as for the other officers in the control room and on the ground. In addition, although
individual officers enjoyed close working relationships within the surveillance and fire-
arms teams, they had not previously worked together (6–8 October transcripts) and had,
as far as the records show, not been involved in the events associated with the initial
bombings on 7 July.
The events unfolded as follows: At around 2:05 on the morning of the shooting, the
control centre at New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police,
received information from one of its forensic teams. The team had found something in
a rucksack that carried an unexploded bomb: a gym card with the name Hussain Osman
and a photograph. Subsequent investigation at the gym returned the address of 21 Scotia
Road in South London as his residence, a building with multiple residential flats. The
photo was compared with CCTV footage from the day before, and it was established
that Osman was one of the failed bombers. At 4 o’clock in the morning, Commander
McDowall developed a strategy to control the premises at that address through covert
surveillance, and to follow any person leaving those premises until it was felt safe for
special branch (SO12) or specialist firearms officers (SO19) to challenge and stop them.
The first of the two surveillance teams took up position just after 6 o’clock in the morning
and had been supplied with a copy of the picture from the gym card (see Figure 2: copy
of evidence D00419 and D441).
At around 7 o’clock in the morning, Commander Dick arrived at New Scotland Yard.
Commander McDowall briefed her on the strategy. The firearms team came on duty at
7:00, booked out their weapons, and received two briefings before they made their way
to Scotia Road. At 7:45, they were first briefed by their tactical adviser, Trojan 84, who
told them that they might have to use ‘unusual tactics’; a reference to the possibility of a
critical head shot being ordered, and that they should trust the information that they
were given, a reference to the central command structure of a Kratos operation. The
firearms officers had also been issued with grain hollow point bullets, ammunition
designed for the purpose of immediately incapacitating a suspect with a single shot to the
head. A further briefing followed at around 8:45 and lasted until 9:15. DCI Purser, who
delivered the briefing, referred to the usual police guidelines of reasonable force, but also
tried to prepare the firearms officers for the possible threat they might face that day. One
of the firearms officers, C12, recalls details of the briefing and how it affected his state of
mind (evidence files S353–358):
Mr Purser had used the following words and phrases to describe the group – ‘well
prepared’, ‘up for it’, ‘deadly and determined’. I was left in no doubt as to the type of
suspects we were preparing to intercept. That they were prepared to take their own
lives and others’ lives. The danger faced would be immeasurable . . . To summarize
my thoughts at the time: we were possibly about to face subjects who had training and
had attempted to commit atrocities on innocent human beings with complete disre-
gard for their own lives. They had prepared devices in order to achieve this. There was
a real tangible danger that if we didn’t act quickly, correctly there would be an extreme
loss of life – how would you feel? What would you do?
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The time it took to complete these briefings meant that the firearms team was not
deployed until 9:27, when they got in their cars to make their way to the address. This
delay led the surveillance teams to complain that they did not have the necessary support
to stop all the individual residents who were leaving the address. Furthermore, although
they were issued their own Glock pistols, these were to be used for personal protection
only. After positive identification, they were not to challenge the suspect Hussain Osman
(codename ‘Nettle Tip’). Their job, they had been told, was to ‘contain’ any suspects
leaving the premises – a metaphorical expression their supervisor did not specify, even on
request. The expression had come from Commander McDowall, who had meant that
although the surveillance officers were not supposed to make the stop, they had to
metaphorically contain the threat posed by the suspect at the residence and prohibit it
from spreading further.
Episode 1: The ‘Positive’ Identification
At 9:33, Jean Charles de Menezes ( JCM) left the communal entrance at Scotia Road on
his way to fix a broken fire alarm in North London. A red surveillance team officer
Figure 2. Picture of Hussain Osman for the surveillance operation
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known as ‘Frank’ in a van parked nearby was the first to see him. Frank had a handheld
video recorder with him but was unable to take any film of JCM since – as he explained
to the other members of his team – he was at that moment ‘relieving’ himself into a milk
bottle. But he communicated over a closed circuit radio to his team members that JCM
was ‘worth a second look’, thus framing JCM as a possible target. ‘Edward’, also of the
red team, was parked in a car park opposite, and he described the approaching JCM as
‘North African’. As JCM moved away from Scotia Road, the grey surveillance team took
over from the red team. ‘Harry’, one of the grey team officers, followed JCM on foot and
noticed that he was looking over his shoulder, describing him over the radio to his
colleagues as ‘acting in a wary manner and appearing nervous’. Two other officers,
‘James’ and ‘Ken’, drove past JCM in a car, and both only saw a partial glimpse of his
face. Whilst sitting in the car James took the opportunity to look at the photograph of
Nettle Tip and concluded that JCM was ‘possibly identical with’ the suspect and was in
effect ‘a good possible likeness’. He recorded this in his log (evidence D459) and at 9:41,
James contacted Pat, the surveillance monitor in the Scotland Yard control room. Pat’s
log has an entry stating that an as yet unidentified male was ‘possibly identical with’ the
suspect.
However, because JCM was still not identified, Commander Dick and other officers in
the control room wanted to know whether there was enough ground for a positive
identification. James was called on his mobile and at 9:46 one of the logs in the control
room states that the ‘not identified male was discounted’ and that ‘surveillance teams
[had] to withdraw to [their] original positions’. As a result, the decision was taken to
deploy an arrest team (SO12), and not the firearms team (SO19), to conduct a stop of this
unidentified male for the purpose of intelligence gathering.
In the meantime, JCM had got on a bus at Tulse Hill and was shadowed by ‘Ivor’,
another member of the grey surveillance team. Ivor sat in the disabled seating area in
the front of the bus with JCM a few rows behind him. At 9:43 Harry telephoned Ivor,
who told him that although he had not been able to identify the subject as Nettle Tip,
he did say that he had ‘distinctive eyes’ and was ‘Mongolian’ looking. In the evidence
that he gave to the inquest (22 October transcript), Ivor explained his comments as
follows:
. . . his description was fairly bland. As I have said in the statement, he’s about 5-foot
10, proportionate athletic build with short dark hair and he had some stubble. But
what I noticed [as] particularly striking was his eyes. What I mean by that is that the
eyes appeared not quite but almost oriental in appearance . . . [meaning] almond-
shaped. (22 October transcript, p. 148)
Based on this telephone conversation, Harry then confirmed over the closed circuit radio
that Ivor could not confirm that he was Nettle Tip. At 9:47 JCM got off the bus at
Brixton Road, followed by Ivor. JCM walked towards the entrance of the Brixton
underground station, but saw a notice saying that it was closed for security reasons. He
then returned to the bus stop. Ivor and other surveillance officers transmitted this to
James. At 9:49, JCM got back on the bus. James contacted Pat in the control room
because he wanted to make sure that they had heard about JCM’s movements as he
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thought they looked suspicious and might be an anti-surveillance tactic. Pat then relayed
to Commander Dick and her team that JCM acted ‘nervous and twitchy’.
When JCM had got back on the bus, Commander Dick told Pat to order the
surveillance team to continue. She also instructed Pat to ask James to ‘tell them a
percentage of identification’, in other words, put a percentage on how sure they were that
the man they were following was Nettle Tip. James, however, responded on the basis of
his professional expertise that he thought it was a ridiculous question; he felt that
identification was either fully positive or negative (‘he is or he isn’t’ as he put it) (evidence
D459), but he nonetheless asked around his team over the radio. Because no one replied
he took it that none could assist in a positive identification. Pat then asked James if he
could say anything at all to help answer the question and to assist the Commander in her
decision-making. Pressed for an answer, James replied, ‘for what it’s worth, I think it’s
him’. Upon hearing the reply, Pat communicated to Commander Dick and her
command team: ‘It is him, the man off [the] bus. They think it is him and he is very, very
jumpy’. On the basis of the positive identification, Commander Dick decided to mobilize
the firearms team to make the stop.
Communication. Figurative language created and reinforced the frame of a positive iden-
tification. In the control room, Commander Dick was initially aware that JCM was not
directly identified, following the standard binary identification protocol which suggests
that a suspect is either directly positively identified (either confirmed or discounted in
case it is not the suspect) or not. At the same time, she had been hearing words and
expressions that framed JCM as ‘a good possible likeness’, ‘possibly identical with’, as
acting ‘nervous and twitchy’, and as suspicious in his movements. All these expressions
established the possibility that JCM, in terms of his profile, might be Nettle Tip. Caught
between these competing frames – i.e., unidentified versus a ‘matching’ profile – Com-
mander Dick iterated between these frames with her question ‘for a percentage of
identification’ (see also Table I). The question suggests a scalar image of identified
physical similarity (or lack thereof) as an assessment of the probability that JCM is the
suspect. The image appears discursively motivated by the historical connection between
the lexicon of physical similarity (‘possibly identical with’, ‘a good possible likeness’) and
that of probability or likelihood. Sweetser (1990, p. 46) refers to this as the like–likely link,
suggesting that conceptually we often connect an assessment of physical resemblance to
an assessment of probability (in actions and outcomes). The image itself is based on
addition, with the level of certainty about the identification rising with a higher
percentage.
The ‘percentage identification’ question subsequently primed James, the senior sur-
veillance officer, in his response. Whilst initially rejecting the question in favour of the
binary classification system, he then said; ‘for what it’s worth, I think it’s him’. The
idiomatic expression of ‘for what it’s worth’ by James captures his ambivalence towards
the question but also implies an addition that coherently connects with the scalar image.
The use of the word ‘jumpy’ by Pat in turn may have come from the earlier assessment
of JCM acting suspiciously and being nervous, but is much stronger in its confirmation
of the suspect and the impending danger. Throughout all of the accounts that Com-
mander Dick has given, both written and verbal, to the inquest, she refers to how she was
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‘building a picture’ (e.g., 6 October transcript, p. 75). She clearly aimed for cognitive
closure and tried to align various verbal words and expressions, and the meanings that
these evoked, into a single ‘frame’. The result however is that with her intervention
authority trumped a deference to expertise as well as the importance of founding the
identification solely on direct and immediate observations on the ground (Weick et al.,
1999; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011).
Emotions. The vocabulary reported above suggests both that the team was intent on
inferring the emotional state of JCM based on the behaviour they perceived, and that the
emotional terminology they employed to characterize JCM increased an overall degree
of nervousness or anxiety about the suspect. In particular, Commander Dick seemed to
respond to the expressed emotions of officers around her, who urged her to make a
decision. Pat expressed increased agitation when he relayed the information from the
surveillance officers, and this placed pressure on her to follow suit. Pat’s emotional
expression of JCM being first ‘nervous and twitchy’, amplified into ‘very, very jumpy’,
which suggests that the suspect was nervous and potentially on the verge of reaching his
target for the detonation of a bomb. As Commander Dick later on testified at the inquest,
her sensemaking was strongly guided by the emotional arousal that came across in the
chain of communication, and which she claims was reinforced and strengthened across
the interactions that she had with officers in the control room:
I already knew that he was nervous. I am sorry the word that Mr Cremin [in the
control room] wrote down was: ‘he is very, very jumpy’. I had asked what he was
carrying, I subsequently was told that he was nervous, and I think the phrase ‘agitated’
was used, so at this stage I am building a picture . . . I think I should also add, I never
got an answer to the specific question of what is the percentage or what is the 1 to 10,
but Pat again said at that stage, ‘They think it’s him’, and he said it with some urgency,
‘They think it’s him’, so you know, my level of confidence has gone up again twice, two
more notches because of that. (6 October transcript, pp. 149, 151)
Pat said ‘They think it’s him’ twice and the second time he said it, he said it with some
urgency, as we are getting towards the tube station, Pat said, when I got no [direct]
reply to the percentage question, he said ‘They think it’s him’ with a certain amount
of emphasis and urgency. (8 October transcript, p. 22)
Materiality. The commitment to the frame of a positive identification is also closely linked
with perceived material cues. This is evident in how the picture of the suspect was used
in comparison with the profile of Nettle Tip. This image, as a material object, afforded
certain comparisons and thus also certain interpretations of whether JCM was like Nettle
Tip or not. Entries in the surveillance log indicate that JCM was variously described as
having ‘fair skin’ (evidence D456), a ‘light skinned African male’ (evidence D459) with
‘stubble’ (D456), which could imply that the suspect on the picture may have shaved off
his beard. Besides aiding in the identification, the picture that surveillance officers had to
rely on also anchored their perceptions of JCM. Another type of key instance of material
anchoring was the movement of JCM away from Brixton station. While it could have
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been interpreted otherwise, in this context this movement was perceived as an anti-
surveillance tactic, a selective projection or perception that only made sense in the
context of the surveillance operation and of the earlier verbal framings of him as
potentially the suspect (as acting ‘nervous and twitchy’ and being ‘jumpy’).
Episode 2: The Chase to Stop the Suspect
On the basis of the positive identification, Commander Dick decided to mobilize the
firearms team. Trojan 84, tactical adviser to the firearms team, was told that he needed
to get ‘in contention’ with the bus. DCI Purser was at the base where the firearms team
was stationed and was in direct contact with Trojan 84. When Commander Dick asked
him nervously ‘are you getting this’, ‘are you getting all this?’, he cut her short and said,
‘yes, yes, yes, we are rolling, we are rolling’. Five cars with specialist firearms officers then
set off to catch up with the bus, with the control car at the rear.
At around 10:01 Commander Dick gave the order that ‘if he gets off the bus, I want
him stopped’. There had been some discussion between Commander Dick and others in
the control room at this point as to whether the suspect should be allowed ‘to run’. It was
recognized that the suspect in the bus was heading towards Stockwell underground
station, and the question was whether he should be allowed to continue into the station.
However, all that the firearms officers heard was to ‘stop’ the suspect, which in their
mind meant a confirmation of the suspect and the order of a critical headshot, consistent
with the briefings that they had received in the morning. At around the same time as the
order was given, James transmitted over the Cougar radio – which was audible to all
including his own surveillance team – that CO19, the firearms team, might be making
their way through. ‘All units alert, CO19 coming through’. This was meant to warn
surveillance officers that firearms officers were being deployed, that they had to make
space and secure themselves from being mistaken for a target, and that they had to point
the firearms officers in the direction of the suspect. The firearms officers, in their five cars,
were ordered to ‘get behind the bus’, which was explained as having to ‘hang back
behind the surveillance team behind the bus’ to avoid compromising the surveillance
operation. The surveillance officers then reported that the suspect was getting off the bus.
Trojan 84 thought at that point that he might be behind the wrong bus, and in any event
he told the control room that they were not ‘in contention’. Superintendent Johnston,
who was in the control room, heard the question being asked on behalf of Commander
Dick by Chief Inspector Esposito, who was in contact with the firearms team: ‘What do
you mean you can’t do it? Get yourself there’.
In the meantime, ‘Ken’, one of the surveillance officers, saw JCM get off the bus and
followed him to Stockwell station. He saw him go in and transmitted this over the Cougar
radio. Ken entered the station at 10:02:56 where he saw Ivor, another surveillance
officer. Both of them observed JCM collect a copy of the Metro newspaper, get a ticket
from his pocket, and go towards the entrance barriers to the station. Ivor recorded this
instance in the running log for the surveillance team (evidence D467). Ivor, still unsure
as to whether JCM was the suspect, then asked over the central Cougar radio; ‘Do you
want him lifted?’ Ivor was aware that firearms officers were mobilized and that his own
role as part of the strategy was restricted to surveillance. James relayed this to Pat as, ‘Do
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you want him detained?’ and made it clear that the decision had to be made very quickly.
Commander Dick then decided that SO12, special branch officers, who were near the
site were to do the stop. Pat believed that he relayed the instruction after a very small
delay, but James later said that he never received any response to his question. At
10:02:45, the first cars with the firearms officers arrived at the junction near the under-
ground station. At 10:03, Chief Inspector Esposito in the control room received infor-
mation from Trojan 84 that they were there, and he relayed that information to
Commander Dick, who countermanded her decision that the arrest team (SO12) do the
stop and said ‘SO19 [are] doing [the] stop, do not let surveillance intervene’. After
Commander Dick had given the countermanding order, Pat recorded that the subject
was going down the escalator. At this point, ‘Ralph’, the team leader of the firearms
team, realized that the suspect was making his way to the escalators and possibly already
underground. In response, he asked his tactical adviser, Trojan 84, to confirm whether
this meant ‘state red’. The order was confirmed and Ralph called state red over the radio
to his firearms team, which was effectively an order for his team to perform an armed
intervention.
Communication. The communication between the key officers in this episode included
various expressions, of which the discussion around whether JCM should be allowed to
‘run’ played an important role. The expression confirmed the suspect’s status and
emphasized the need for swift, decisive action to stop him in his tracks. Then the order
by Commander Dick to ‘stop’ the suspect had major implications for the interpretations
and actions that followed. In particular, the firearms officers interpreted ‘stop’ as a
confirmation of JCM as Nettle Tip and in effect as an order to carry out a critical
headshot. As C12, for example, later on explained:
This was an identified suicide bomber to me. Our orders were we were only going to
act or intervene on identified suspects. This person had been identified as a suspect
and therefore potentially had equipment with him in order to cause mass destruction,
mass death. It was from that information that I had been given and from his actions
and what I perceived him to be, getting closer to us in order to give me and my
colleagues and the public the full benefit of any potential blast, that is why I came to
that conclusion that I had to use force as soon as possible. (24 October transcript,
p. 158)
Commander Dick, later on in her evidence to the inquest, suggested that she had used
various phrases and words (such as ‘interception, intervention, detain, arrest, stop,
challenge’) (7 October transcript, pp. 177, 188) to describe her decision to others in the
control room, but had only communicated the ‘stop’ order directly to the firearms officers.
Emotions. The recorded communications during this episode reveal particular emotions
being expressed and amplified in the verbal communication between the commander
and the officers on the ground. Commander Dick’s communications first express
concern and anxiety about the suspect getting away (‘are you getting this’, ‘are you
getting all this?’, and, ‘yes, yes, yes, we are rolling, we are rolling’). The suggestion slightly
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later that the firearms team is unable to follow JCM off the bus elicits what appears to be
an angry command (‘What do you mean you can’t do it? Get yourself there’). The
authoritative and urgent way in which this order was expressed in turn led the firearms
team on the ground to fear that they might be too late to contain the threat posed by the
suspect, and this further reinforced their commitment to the frame of a chase and the
necessity of stopping the suspect in his tracks (24 and 27 October transcripts).
Materiality. These interpretations of chasing a terrorist suicide bomber were reinforced
by material cues and observations and the way these observations were communicated.
When Commander Dick gave the stop order, JCM was moving towards Stockwell tube
station. This station was seen as a potential target destination for an explosion, because
it was the same station that three of the failed bombers had entered the day before. This
material circumstance on the ground selectively led her to perceive JCM as a possible
terrorist bomber, as opposed to reading his movements as the actions of a normal
commuter. In the words of Commander Dick (7 October transcript, pp. 171, 176):
. . . most importantly, although I was not certain that he was a suicide bomber [with]
intent, I thought he very well might have been and I did not think it was – I did not
think it was right at all to allow him to go unhindered without any challenge on to a
tube train.
I thought Stockwell tube could be a destination. I didn’t think early on: oh dear, I hope
he is not going to Stockwell. I thought: he could be going to Dorset Road, he could be
going to Stockwell tube and then I thought: Stockwell tube is the same place as
yesterday [i.e. the failed bombing attempts of the day before].
For the firearms team, their physical location behind JCM and their subsequent bodily
experiences of racing through London and running into Stockwell station grounded the
framed scenario of a chase or pursuit, regardless of the fact that JCM himself was not
actually running. This material anchoring, in other words, strengthened the conceptual
frame of a chase or pursuit, and, as a result, the firearms officers genuinely believed that
they were in pursuit of a running suspect who was getting away. C12, for example,
described his experience as follows (27 October transcript, p. 68):
I remember distinctly running down the escalators and there are two things I remem-
ber. Because on escalators they start off very – the heights are different, and as I
sprinted down them, I nearly fell over, because of the different heights; and I was just
so keen to get there, because I knew we had the time delay; and all I had going through
my mind was: I have got to get to him, I have got to get to him, I have got to get to
him before he goes, and I distinctly remember that.
Whilst the material anchoring of verbally produced conceptual frames may strengthen
the commitment towards a frame, perceived cues may also violate a frame and as such
provide the basis for a reframing of the scenario. Interestingly, when JCM arrived at
Stockwell tube station, Ivor saw him collect a copy of the Metro newspaper, a cue that
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in his perception did not square with the scenario of a suicide terrorist who is about to
detonate a bomb. Ivor effectively became doubtful when he perceived a material cue
(i.e., the picking up of a Metro newspaper) that violated the framing of JCM as a terrorist
bomber. At the inquest he explained his actions as follows (22 October transcript,
pp. 166–67):
The word I actually used, [just] to clarify, and this is an important point, I understand,
the word I used is, ‘Do you want this man lifted?’. What I meant by that was to detain
and arrest him.
The lifting idiom refers to Ivor being able to pick the suspect up and stop the entire chase
from unfolding any further. Ivor’s act also shows that perceived cues may challenge the
expectations associated with a prior established frame, and it thus highlights the tacit role
background information played in the interpretation of the events in front of him.
Episode 3: Containing the Threat
Both Ken and Ivor from the surveillance team were directly behind JCM on the
escalators. About halfway down the escalators they saw JCM begin to run, probably to
catch the next train, and turn left at the first archway entrance towards the platform.
JCM entered the train carriage doors immediately opposite the cross tunnel, turned
right and walked along the carriage to the seat just beyond the next set of double doors
facing the platform, where he sat down. Ken entered through the same set of double
doors and took a seat on the far side of the carriage facing the platform. Ivor turned
right, walked down the platform, and entered the train through the single door beyond
where JCM was sitting. He took a seat on the same row of seats as JCM, but a few
seats away.
C12, who was one of the first firearms officers to arrive at the underground station,
had heard Trojan 84 say something to the effect of, ‘They said that he was to be stopped
getting on the tube, he must not be allowed to get on the tube’. Almost immediately
afterwards, Ralph had declared state red on the firearms team radio network and C12
sprinted towards the station. When C12 got to the entrance, he made eye contact with
C2, which was another reassurance to him that they were deployed and that other
firearms officers were there. C12 then jumped over a ticket barrier, pushing a member
of the station staff out of the way, and he drew his pistol. C2 also vaulted over the ticket
barriers, where he was challenged by the staff and shouted ‘armed police, get back’. At
the bottom of the escalator, C2 and C12 saw ‘Malcolm’ from the surveillance team, who
said to them ‘on the northbound tube’. They went through the cross tunnel archway and
saw Ken standing by the open doorway who pointed to the next set of doors on his right.
C2 and C12 then moved along the platform in that direction. C5 went to the single door
at the left-hand end of the carriage, to ensure that he would be on the train when it
departed.
Ivor saw C2 and C12 coming towards the next set of open double doors and realized
that they were firearms officers. Ivor assumed that they were looking for JCM, and so he
stood up, walked over to the open double carriage doors, and placed his left foot against
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the open door to prevent it from shutting (22 October transcript, pp. 183–84). He leaned
partially out of the carriage, shouted, ‘he’s here’, and indicated JCM with his right hand.
Ivor then turned and saw that JCM had stood up with his hands slightly in front of
him. C12 and C2 interpreted JCM’s movement as a direct challenge. Ivor, in a split-
second reaction, grabbed JCM by wrapping both of his arms around his torso, pinning
his arms to his sides, and pushing him back into the seat where he had previously been
sitting.
As Ivor pushed JCM back, C12 moved in virtually on top of Ivor, slightly behind him,
pointing his gun past Ivor’s head and firing a number of shots. He was aware of C2 to
his left. Both men had been trained that a single shot to the base of the skull would cause
total incapacity. However, the perceived threat and their position, leaning over Ivor,
meant that both fired 11 shots in total. JCM was shot seven times in the head and once
in the shoulder at close range, and died at the scene. As the shots were fired, a civilian
witness (Anna Dunwoodie) sitting opposite JCM on the train observed his final moments
(3 November transcript, p. 17):
I remember that his eyes were closed and I remember that he had . . . you know, it’s
a hard thing to try to explain, but his eyes were closed and he looked almost calm,
which again I hesitate to say that, but . . . I guess he had a gun pressed, and there
wasn’t very much he could do about it.
Communication
The chain of events in this final episode was determined more by the action on the
ground than discussion over the radio. However, Trojan 84’s confirmation according to
which JCM ‘was to be stopped getting on the tube, he must not be allowed to get on the
tube’ had a major impact on the firearms team because of its directive modality. Ralph’s
declaration of ‘state red’ was then the explicit code that the team needed for an armed
intervention. Further, the expression ‘he’s here’ directly confirmed to the firearms offic-
ers that the suspect was there to be acted upon.
Emotions
Reports by the firearms officers confirm that their actions were motivated by strong
emotions and suggest that the arousal and reinforcement of emotions in the previous
two episodes had a significant impact on their decisions and actions on the ground.
While running down the escalators, C2 and C12 reported becoming frustrated and
agitated, fearing that the suspect had already entered the underground system and had
got away. C12 later on described his experience as follows, which illustrates how pre-
vious episodes of sensemaking had intensified his emotional state (24 October tran-
script, p. 101):
I remember or I recall thinking that we were going to have to come up against these
people with a totally unknown threat, the highest possible threat that certainly I have
ever could imagine coming up against. As I have said before, this – the whole journey,
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if I can call it that, was an extremely emotional one for me, both at the time of the
briefing, listening to the briefing and listening to the nature of the threat and
the danger these people posed, and possibly not going home again at the end of the
day.
Importantly, this fear – expressed by the other members of the team, too – seemed to
have significantly reinforced the need to take decisive action to incapacitate the suspect:
Fear was certainly present, but as regards controlling my actions, it possibly had some
effect, yes. I can’t deny that. I felt I was going to die, certainly, and I took action in
order to stop that. (C12 in the 27 October transcript, p. 133)
It also seems that the final actions of C12 and C2 reflected heightened emotions. In fact,
knowing full well that one shot to the head would have been sufficient, both fired multiple
shots, in an attempt to ensure that the presumed suicide bomber would be definitely
incapacitated.
. . . the threat was such I couldn’t take any chances. I just couldn’t do it. I am there to
protect the public, and I have there, for all intents and purposes, a suicide bomber, and
if I don’t act and if I don’t act immediately, we could all die. (C12 in the 27 October
transcript, p. 132)
A similar kind of fear seemed to motivate Ivor to engage in extraordinary action as he
grabbed JCM in his arms. He explained it as follows (22 October transcript, p. 187):
Assessing that I may be dealing with a terrorist subject, and naturally fearing for the
safety of the public on the carriage, the armed officers and myself, I grabbed Mr de
Menezes by wrapping both my arms around his torso, thereby pinning his arms to his
side.
Within the space of a few seconds, Ivor had shifted from a frame of suspecting JCM’s
innocence to impromptu action to defuse the situation. In doing so, he risked his own life,
as he could have easily been hit by a stray bullet.
Materiality
In this episode, a number of material cues suggested to the firearms officers that they
were deployed and were about to find themselves face-to-face with a terrorist suicide
bomber. One such cue was the eye contact that C12 established with C2:
The eye contact with Charlie 2 was of immense importance to me at the time because
I didn’t know where the other firearms officers were. All my knowledge at that time
was that we were the only vehicle there ready to respond. So when I saw Charlie 2 at
the entranceway it was certainly a reassuring thing that another firearms officer was
there. (24 October transcript, p. 133)
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Meanwhile, Ivor appears to have interpreted the situation differently. He initially
followed standard protocol by pointing to the suspect, but he then took the unprec-
edented step of bear hugging the suspect and pushing him back into his seat. As a
surveillance officer he should have confined his role to clearing the way for an armed
intervention. Instead, he chose to physically detain the suspect, as an alternative to
an armed intervention and to allow more time for a positive identification. Ivor later
on described his sensemaking at the time as follows (23 October transcript, pp. 188,
207):
When I saw the CO19 officers on the platform, I could only assess that the intelligence
picture had changed, and prior to me coming into the station, we were dealing with
a man possibly identical with somebody who had been involved in an attack the day
before, and I could not rule out that he may be carrying arms or explosives. That was
the basis of my concern . . .
. . . he was possibly identical with Nettle Tip, but he may have been an associate from
the same address, and therefore it would have been a possible option to continue
surveillance of him with a view to him leading us to other members of the team or
premises associated with it . . .
C2 and C12, however, understood Ivor’s act to be a response to an aggressive move by
JCM. When C12 arrived in the train carriage he saw JCM advancing towards him and
felt that the blue denim jacket he was wearing appeared ‘bulky’ (24 October transcript,
p. 152), suggesting to him that an explosive device could be concealed under his clothing.
He also interpreted JCM’s move as a physical act of aggression:
. . . it was his continued movement towards me, that I thought this is almost like the
point of no return, this is it now, something is going to happen. (27 October transcript,
p. 139)
I thought, ‘He’s going to detonate. He’s going to kill us’. I had no alternative. I must
shoot him before he kills. In my mind I had no choice. (24 October transcript, p. 156)
C12 was not able to interpret JCM’s movements as simply the natural inclination a
person has to stand when pointed out, especially when men with guns were advancing
towards him. It also transpired later on that the jacket was an ordinary denim jacket and
had not been zipped. Whilst C12 was perceptually alert to cues in his surroundings, he
interpreted these in a way that was, conceptually, driven by the already established
framed interpretation of JCM as a suicide bomber. This also meant that cues or prompts,
such as the acts of Ivor, were not responded to in real time.
DISCUSSION
A Model of Committed Sensemaking under Pressure
Our analysis demonstrates how communicative, emotional, and material factors together
led to an increasing commitment to framing JCM as a terrorist suicide bomber. In this
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section, we propose a theory about the key processes at play, present an integrated model
(Figure 3), and then detail the implications of our analysis for sensemaking research in
general.
Communicative Grounding
Communicative grounding refers to the stock of shared presumptions that are estab-
lished in ongoing communication, as common ground, and which in turn fuels inferences
in a pragmatic and goal-directed manner (Clark, 2006; Grice, 1989). Thus, common
ground involves knowledge common to a group of individuals, as well as the additional,
recursive notion that the participants are aware that they share the knowledge they share
(Clark and Marshall, 1981). In our case, individual officers did not automatically know
what the others knew and what others deemed to be the appropriate course of action, as
part of their coordinated activity. Hence, they had to build up common ground between
them, one consequence of which was that their ongoing sensegiving and sensemaking
was subsequently channelled into a particular direction.
This overall process involves three important sub-processes (see Figure 3). First, the
process of communicative grounding essentially implies a sequential organization,
because acts of sensemaking and sensegiving are contingent on preceding contributions
to the dialogue (Sacks et al., 1974). As such, earlier acts of sensegiving, as instances of
linguistic framing (see Figure 3), place a strong claim on how individuals, as part of a
collective, subsequently and cognitively make sense of their circumstances. Second, the
initial provisional frame that is established through sensegiving is likely to be repeated
and reinforced in the course of communication in a contingent way. That is, current
instances of communication connect with past instances of sensegiving and sensemaking
but also fuel inferences for future sensegiving and sensemaking in a certain direction.
Emotional arousal:
the activation of an
emotion
Linguistic framing:
invoking a cognitive
frame, or schema
Grounding:the
repetition/reinforce
ment of a frame
Joint orientation:shared
presumptions as a basis for
inferences
Contagion:the
repetition/reinforce
ment of emotions
Emotional state:shared
emotions as a basis for
inferences
Material anchoring:
correspondence between cues
and a cognitive frame or emotion
Commitment:strong
and collectively shared
beliefs
Communicative grounding
Emotional contagion
Figure 3. Escalating commitment in sensemaking under pressure
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Third, the collective nature of the process, and the involvement of individuals in it, has
the effect that it binds the actors to the shared frame that has been built up. As such, it
provides a strong relational bond among a collective to the shared presumptions that
have been established.
Thus, acts of sensegiving and sensemaking around specific frames accumulate, or stack
up, in the course of ongoing communication (Clark, 2006). They build on each other,
which also means that earlier instances of sensegiving, and thus earlier cognitive frames
‘settle’ as part of the ongoing communication, something that was aptly demonstrated
with the language used for profile matching (e.g., expressions such as ‘good possible
likeness’ and ‘identical with’) in the identification of JCM (see also Table I for details on
this process). The result of this process is that a joint commitment towards a framing and
course of action further on in the process – e.g., Commander Dick’s decision to mobilize
the firearms team – generally have to be discharged to honour earlier commitments –
e.g., the early sightings of JCM matching him to the profile of Nettle Tip. This generally
demonstrates that the very process of collectively building up common ground makes it
particularly hard to suspend or abort an agreed-upon course of action later on in the
process.
Emotional Contagion
Our analysis generally demonstrates how aroused and expressed emotions impact
sensemaking. We also specifically observed across the three episodes in our case a
spreading and heightening of the same emotions over time. We believe that these
particular observations point to a process of emotional contagion where actors influence
each other through expressed emotions and to such an extent that the collective comes
to share the same emotional state. Our case provides a number of specific examples of
how individual police officers took note of each other’s emotions and adjusted their own
emotions accordingly (Hatfield et al., 1994; Pugh, 2001). In groups emotions may spread
in this manner and create a ‘ripple effect’ (Barsade, 2002); emotions are transferred
across actors and come to consume the entire collective and their subsequent
sensemaking. This overall process involves three sub-processes (Figure 1).
First, it starts with the arousal of either positive or negative emotions. Negative
emotions are more conducive to being transmitted than positive ones (Barsade, 2002).
The arousal of such emotions through embodied acts or communication to one another
creates an ‘implicit affect’ (cf. Barsade et al., 2009) that when picked up, primes and
reinforces the same emotion in others, as happened in our case in the identification of
JCM and the need to contain the presumed threat that JCM posed.
Second, the energy level expressed in articulating emotions to others, either positive or
negative, is positively correlated with the strength of its subsequent spread and valence
(cf. Barsade, 2002). This is evidenced in the data, where the emotional expressions
appear to have been more moderate in the beginning but increase in strength or intensity
when repeated. A crucial escalation of this kind took place at the end of the first episode
when Commander Dick presses James to give a ‘percentage of identification’, and James
responds, ‘for what it’s worth, it’s him’. This was picked up by Pat who communicated
that ‘It is him, the man off [the] bus. They think it is him and he is very, very jumpy.’ The
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underlying mechanism for this contagion process is the inherent propensity of human
beings to mimic each other’s behaviour, emotional expressions among them (Hatfield
et al., 1992). Such mimicry is followed by the conscious or unconscious adjustment of
one’s own mood against the expressed emotions of others (Barsade, 2002).
Third, analogous to the process of communicative grounding, the repetition and
reinforcement of similar emotions between actors leads to the spreading and heightening
of emotions into a shared emotional state. The episode leading to the positive identifi-
cation suggests that as a result of emotional contagion, Commander Dick, Pat, and
others in the control room all came to share a degree of nervousness and anxiety about
the possibility of JCM being Nettle Tip. Furthermore, the increasing commitment,
through reinforcement and repetition, to the same emotions created in turn a joint
emotional state of nervousness and fear among virtually all of the police officers involved
in the operation.
The processes of both communicative grounding and emotional contagion interacted
in our case study, and as such, amplified the commitment to framing JCM as a suicide
bomber. Both processes, as highlighted in Figure 3, were also directly linked with
material anchoring.
Material Anchoring
Material anchoring underscores the role that materiality plays in anchoring thoughts or
emotions. Our analysis highlights three types of materiality: the material circumstances
in which the actors found themselves at various points (e.g., locations such as the
underground station), their physical demonstrations and gestures (e.g., behaviour, move-
ments, or positions), and the material objects that they had at their disposal (e.g., guns,
hollow point bullets, and video and film equipment). Critical to understanding the
commitment to the framing of JCM as a terrorist suicide bomber that had to be stopped
is, we suggest, a correspondence between a conceptualization, established through
framing language and expressed emotions, and perceived material cues. Such a corre-
spondence, as a direct anchoring of the frame, strengthens the commitment to the
interpretations and inferences afforded by a framed conceptualization (Hutchins, 2005).
As our case illustrates, material cues, gestures, and objects mediate sensemaking and this
also explains why the overall process became less expert-driven (Whiteman and Cooper,
2011) and more cognitively closed in the sense that a provisional and possible version of
events was in a material sense objectified as the most likely state of affairs. As a result, the
sensemaking of police officers became driven by beliefs and presuppositions, rather than
their expertise or even reflective thought. As an exception, Ivor was able to withstand the
pressures of communicative grounding and emotional contagion and the blind commit-
ment of everyone else towards the framing of JCM as Nettle Tip. His sensemaking and
sensegiving remained expert-driven, but just like Wagner Dodge in the infamous Mann
Gulch fire (Whiteman and Cooper, 2011), he was not able to make the others follow his
sensegiving. The reason for this is twofold. First, Ivor was the person who during the entire
operation remained the closest of everyone to JCM and as such he channels his
sensemaking and sensegiving towards others, rather than being on the receiving end of
others’ sensegiving tactics, including their expressed emotions and any associated pres-
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sures that they place on him. As such, he had a degree of control over his own framing and
sensemaking of JCM, and was not unduly influenced by the acts of sensegiving or
expressed emotions of others. Second, the material cues that Ivor perceived, including the
fact that JCM picked up a copy of a Metro newspaper when he entered Stockwell tube
station, did not anchor or even afford a probable interpretation of JCM as a suicide
bomber. As such, he was not caught in the double bind that the other police officers found
themselves in, where verbal expressions, emotions, and perceived material cues aligned
and thus strengthened the fidelity of framing JCM as Nettle Tip.
THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Our findings shed light on how commitment builds up and escalates in sensemaking
under pressure. Our analysis theoretically specifies the process of commitment building
that Weick (1988, 1993b) initially described in figurative terms as an ‘enacted environ-
ment’. Prior acts of framing established in earlier episodes of communication provide the
source for future expectations and for subsequent episodes of communication (Weick,
1988, 1993b). In subsequent papers (Weick et al., 2005) Weick described the process
again in avowedly linguistic terms when he defines sensemaking and environmental
enactment more generally as an act of turning circumstances ‘into a situation that is
comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard to action’ (Taylor and
Van Every, 2000, p. 40; Weick et al., 2005, p. 409). Yet, it is fair to say that in these later
accounts words and vocabularies are seen to simply cue, as labels, salient cognitive
frames (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005) but do not themselves actively help shape or
construct meaning.
Our results extend previous work on sensemaking in showing that language has a
formative effect on meaning construction, and thus directly impacts behavioural enact-
ments. We have labelled this in our model as linguistic framing, which marks a shift in
focus from considering words as priming the activation or accessing of already existing
frames and their effects to instances of framing in real-time sensemaking and communi-
cation (i.e., the key role that specific natural expressions and improvised utterances such
as ‘a good possible likeness’ played in the creation and reinforcement of particular frames
as part of ongoing sensemaking).
We also provide an explanation of how an initially constructed framing may escalate
from being a provisional interpretation to a collectively held belief that lays a strong
claim on future expectations and inferences. We describe in our model a set of commu-
nicative processes – linguistic framing, reinforcement over time, and joint orientation
development – as enabling conditions for a commitment to build up and potentially
escalate over time. These processes detail the broad picture described by Weick (1988,
1993b) and provide important implications for our understanding of commitment in
sensemaking (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010). These processes together describe how an
initial provisional framing provides a consciously hypothetical frame or schema for
organizing experience and for powering inferences, although over time, and through
repeated reinforcement of the same framing, it may evolve into a more naturalized,
taken-for-granted joint orientation that renders the established reading of the environ-
ment as ‘objective’ and deflects attention to other readings and interpretations. Besides
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this ‘objectification’ of a particular framing, the processes leading up to the joint orien-
tation also bind participants to the collective frame and course of action that has been
established, making it very hard to suspend or abort an agreed-upon course of action.
Through communication and social interaction, commitments earlier on (say of identi-
fying a civilian as a suspect) settle and seed the next steps, and thus in a way accumulate,
or stack up, in the course of ongoing communication. The overall commitment of the
collective increases throughout the process, and accordingly joint commitments towards
a framing and course of action further on in the process have to be discharged to honour
earlier commitments (Clark, 1996).
This path-dependent nature of this process explains, together with the objectification
of a framing, how an overall commitment may escalate (Weick, 1988, 1993a, 1993b),
and may blind participants to alternative courses of action. The currency of these
explanations is, we believe, underscored by their ability to account for past cases of
sensemaking under pressure such as the Mann Gulch fire (Weick, 1993a) and Snook’s
(2000) study of a friendly fire shooting in Iraq. In both cases, the initial framing of a ‘10
o’clock fire’ and ‘hits there’ had prompted conventional scenarios of routine firefighting
and of surveillance tactics in a no-fly zone. Subsequent communication and the move-
ments and behaviours of the firefighters and pilots involved also initially reinforced this
framing and led to a joint orientation and strong commitment to a particular course of
action, although afterwards it appeared that in both cases the framing had not tallied
with reality.
In addition to analysing the formative role of language, we extend the sensemaking
literature through our focus on emotions and materiality. Our model integrates interac-
tions between verbal communication, expressed and felt emotions, and material cues as
they lead to a contraction of meaning. Most sensemaking research attends to language,
emotions, or materiality separately (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick et al., 2005),
although recent research has moved towards incorporating emotions more specifically
(Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010) and to analysing the way in which material artefacts and
cues feature in sensemaking (Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011).
However, there are very few accounts, if any, that combine these various sources and
processes of sensemaking into an integrative picture. This is unfortunate in light of the
repeated calls for research that takes such steps (e.g., Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010;
Porac et al., 2011; Weick, 2010; Weick et al., 2005).
We have responded to this call. In particular, we have foregrounded the role of
emotions, following recent calls for research that incorporates emotions into
organizational sensemaking (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick et al., 2005). The
limited work that exists (Bartunek et al., 2006; Myers, 2007; Sonenshein, 2009) largely
focuses on the arousal of negative emotions such as fear and anxiety at the individual
level. With our study we demonstrate how emotions may be identified and analysed
based on text and language based records (compared to recorded audio-visual data) and
extend prior work by demonstrating how emotions may spread across individuals, and
lead to a joint emotional state. The key insights associated with this process are the way
in which emotions may be expressed and cued to others, through gestures and verbal
expressions. We also theorize how in turn when such gestures and expressions are
reinforced and reciprocated by others, they may lead to a heightening of the felt and
The Contraction of Meaning 729
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experienced emotions of everyone involved, and to a joint emotional state of say, fear or
panic. The process is partly a conscious one with individuals being aware of the emotions
they express to others. Yet, it is also an unconscious or automatic process – as such we
use the term contagion – with the spread and heightening of emotions into a joint
emotional state based on visceral and embodied reactions of individuals to one another.
It may well be, based on comparable cases of organizational change (Huy, 2002; Walsh
and Bartunek, 2011), that such heightened emotions may be tempered through specific
practices of ‘emotion management’ (Huy, 2002) where managers or superiors acknowl-
edge emotions but calm everyone down at the same time. Yet, like commitment,
heightened emotions may act like a double-edged sword; their heightened state in fact
facilitates directed and coordinated collective action, whereas more weakly aroused or
activated emotions may lead to ‘inertia’ and little action (Huy, 2002). In our case study,
this paradox was evident in the lethal and efficient way in which an innocent civilian was
shot.
With this description of emotional contagion we advance the limited, individual-level
work that exists and emphasize the social contexts and effects of emotions. The three
sub-processes of emotional contagion – emotional arousal, contagion (mimicking and
reinforcement), and joint emotional state – together also explain previously highlighted
outcomes of sensemaking such as panic and fear (Weick, 1993a; Whiteman and Cooper,
2011). We also suggest that this process explanation has broader currency for
sensemaking research and may be a lens to explain cases such as the hijacking of United
Airlines flight 93 where emotions of fear and panic first had to spread before the
passengers were able to mobilize each other into taking coordinated action (Quinn and
Worline, 2008).
The process of ‘material anchoring’ also adds to recent research on materiality and
sensemaking. It refers to a correspondence between a conceptualization, established
through framing language and expressed emotions, and perceived material cues. Such a
correspondence, as a direct anchoring of the frame, strengthens the commitment to the
interpretations and inferences afforded by a framed conceptualization (Hutchins, 2005),
and as such it leads to a contraction, or stabilization, of meaning. Recent studies (Stigliani
and Ravasi, 2012; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011) have largely focused on how material
objects and physical demonstrations may afford certain interpretations and inferences.
These studies have demonstrated how material objects or cues may prompt alternative
readings, and may thus engender dynamic and creative inferential thought in the case of
expert sensemakers like designers (Stigliani and Ravasi, 2012) or experienced hunters in
the Arctic (Whiteman and Cooper, 2011). Our analysis, however, suggests that material
cues may not only have such generative potential, but can in highly pressurized contexts
also lead to a contraction of meaning with individual actors combining material cues
with readily available frames.
To illustrate this point, we to return to Whiteman and Cooper (2011), who compare the
ways in which an experienced hunter in the Arctic and firefighters in Mann Gulch made
sense of the material cues that they observed. They argue that greater experience and
expertise of particular landscapes or material environments generally leads to more
resilient sensemaking in that individuals can infer alternative frames or causal models on
the basis of observed cues, and can switch flexibly between alternative readings of those
J. P. Cornelissen et al.730
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Society for the Advancement of Management Studies
cues as a basis for improvised actions. The crew of firefighters in Mann Gulch, however,
lacked the relevant experience of the topography of Mann Gulch and relied on the initial
framing of Mann Gulch as a routine fire. We extend the analysis of Whiteman and Cooper
(2011) by suggesting that social processes of sensemaking may through their commitments
direct how material cues are read, potentially trumping the individual expertise and
experience that may exist at the individual level on the ground. An illustration from our
data is the offer by Ivor to intervene and detain the suspect, which is not responded to by
his seniors who consider the arrival of the firearms officers as materially anchoring the next
step in the pursuit of the suspect. Further research could explore in more detail how
sensemaking based on material affordances is influenced by individual experience and
expertise as well as by collective beliefs and expectations. Such research could also go
further in distinguishing and elaborating on the specific roles of various aspects of
materiality such as material surroundings, bodily gestures, and specific artefacts – and
even their performative or ‘agentic’ role in these processes (Leonardi and Barley, 2010;
Orlikowski, 2007). In our study, we found that the gesturing of an individual cues
intentions and an emotional state to others, and that when synchronized with speech
(McNeill, 2005) it reinforced the commitment to a frame. Yet, in line with Whiteman and
Cooper (2011), further research may focus more specifically on gestures and usefully tease
out the interaction between gestures and speech in various scenarios and their impact on
individual and collective sensemaking (see also Cornelissen et al., 2012).
By integrating analyses on communication, emotions, and materiality in our model,
we also highlight how the interactions between these sources and processes of
sensemaking guide and constrain the cognitive frames, or conceptualizations, that are
constructed and become increasingly established across time. When we see these sources
as signals, we can understand how they might mutually reinforce each other and lead to
a stronger belief in a frame and in turn to a contraction of meaning. Likewise, if signals
contradict each other it harbours the potential for a re-reading of signals and cues, where
individuals alternate between alternative cognitive framings as Ivor did in our case.
Analyses that focus on language, emotions, or materiality in isolation may be seri-
ously limited, failing to recognize the nature of sensemaking individuals as embodied
agents (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Whiteman and Cooper, 2011). One of the main
insights that emerges from our study is that the bodily actions and experiences of
individuals, including their verbal speech and gestures to each other, do not simply
express previously formed mental concepts or broader cognitive frames but are part
and parcel of the very activity in which concepts and conceptualizations of their envi-
ronment are actively formed or constructed in real-time. There is therefore value in
looking at sensemaking agents ‘in the round’ and considering their embodied experi-
ences and actions in full. Such integration provides a much better sense of why
meaning settles, or contracts around one specific cognitive framing, as opposed to
alternative conceptualizations. By considering the interplay between these sources of
sensemaking in future analyses, we will be better able to understand how and why
individuals act mindfully or engage in adaptive sensemaking where they update or
revise their framing as opposed to collectively and steadfastly holding onto a single,
and possibly erroneous, frame (Maitlis and Sonenshein, 2010; Weick and Sutcliffe,
2007, p. 58; Weick et al., 1999).
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Limitations and Boundary Conditions
Although our findings extend prior research on sensemaking under pressure, our study
is limited in a number of respects. We collected and analysed data in relation to a single
organization and operation. We cannot claim that the intricacies of this organization and
operation directly extend to other organizations. However, the findings can be used for
‘naturalistic generalization’, whereby one recognizes similarities between the findings of
the research and the induced theoretical model and that of other cases without making
any statistical inference (Stake, 1995). For example, the impact of episodes of commu-
nication on subsequent commitments to a particular framed interpretation at the col-
lective level offers clear parallels with other cases (Snook, 2000; Weick, 1993a). Our
findings are also tied to our abductive and sensemaking-based analysis of the data. In
contrast, an in-depth psychological or sociological analysis of the same case may lead to
different but complementary insights. The case itself also relates to very dramatic cir-
cumstances, and the detailed process of communication, emotional contagion, and
material anchoring may not always have such a significant and dramatic impact on
organizational actions as it did in the case examined here. Conceivably, in a less stressful
and fast-paced environment, individuals may be able to deliberate or even try alternative
courses of action (Cooren, 2004).
In relation to our case, a final question worth asking relates to the flipside of commit-
ment in sensemaking. A strong commitment to the common interpretation that JCM was
a suicide bomber allowed the firearms officers to carry out their task with lethal conse-
quences and with great efficiency, given the circumstances. But it did not provide them
with enough ‘requisite variety’ to see the cues and the situation they were about to
confront as potentially different from what they believed them to be. Whilst Commander
Dick in her own mind may have been thinking about ‘lots of hypotheticals’ (7 October
transcript, p. 104), she did not directly communicate her provisional attitude, and the
range of possible inferences that this would allow for, to the firearms officers on the
ground. As a result, her thinking was not ‘scaled up’ (Weick and Roberts, 1993) or
‘trans-localized’ (Cooren, 2004; Quinn and Dutton, 2005) to the collective level. In
retrospect, one could argue that had she communicated her provisional attitude in an
unambiguous way, it would have allowed for new emergent inferences to be worked out
by individuals. But even so, her actions may not have been acted upon by the individual
firearms officers who were repeatedly primed and told to believe that they were coming
face-to-face with a terrorist suicide bomber with an absolute disregard for human life. As
such, they were put, according to their tactical adviser (Trojan 84), in an ‘impossible
situation’ (16 October transcript, p. 50). We therefore also hope that our analysis and
explanations shed additional light on how this unfortunate tragedy was able to come
about.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We are grateful for the editorial guidance and very helpful feedback from the editor, Davide Ravasi, and
three reviewers of this Journal. We also appreciate previous comments and suggestions from seminar
participants at the Universities of Zurich and Leeds, Copenhagen Business School, and HEC Paris.
J. P. Cornelissen et al.732
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Society for the Advancement of Management Studies
NOTE
[1] Our study consists of data on the real time communication and actions of police officers, but does not
include audio-visual recordings that would have allowed us to infer more directly emotional displays (Liu
and Maitlis, 2014). And whilst we relied primarily on the real-time sensemaking processes, we did draw
selectively on the post-hoc accounts of police officers describing their emotional arousal (e.g., fear) at
certain points in time. One could argue that based on the timing of accounts it may be possible to draw
distinctions between in situ sensemaking and retrospective sensemaking, with the latter being more prone
to self-presentation biases. However, there are two reasons to assume that such a distinction is not that
significant in our study and that therefore post-hoc accounts are a reliable guide to emotional arousal.
First, individuals often cannot retroactively compensate their original encoding and experiences. There
may be instances where new evidence becomes available that contrasts with the original encoding, in
which case individuals may return to their original account, but instead of fundamentally altering their
account, they tend to reprocess it in a more systematic fashion (Lerner and Tetlock, 1999). Second, all
of the officers were giving evidence under oath, and were thus primed to honestly disclose their
emotional experiences at the time.
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PURPOSE: Our study aims to develop an innovative approach to scientific substantiation and practical balance of interests of cargo owners and transport companies, which will serve as a tool for freight management. METHODOLOGY: A specific algorithm of actions is proposed, which initially provides the creation of a system of indicators to study transportation management. The research methods include a complex method of semantic differential modeling, which integrates correlation-regression analysis, cluster analysis, and expert evaluations. The basis of such a complex method is the integration of three components: i) a system for monitoring the satisfaction of consumers of transport services; ii) the assessment of the density of connections between cargo turnover by type of transportation and the leading transportation indicators; iii) a multidimensional assessment of the homogeneity of factors by / An innovative approach to support interests' alignment in the context of transport management using semantic differential hierarchical clustering. FINDINGS: Semantic differential modeling can serve as an effective tool in strategic planning, not only for transport companies and railway enterprises, but also for those institutions where it is necessary to identify the most important areas of activity. IMPLICATIONS: The use of semantic differential based on the involvement of quantitative methods of mathematical modeling allows increasing the degree of validity of management decisions. The harmonization and balancing of interests in the field of B2B take into account the results of modeling the semantic differential in management. The proposed methodology consists of main indicators of rolling stock transportation and certain economic indicators; we advise to focus on. These indicators were obtained through cooperation with an expert group of participants in the transportation process. Application of the created model allows defining priority directions in the field of freight owners' service by the Ukrainian railways in the dynamics by types of cargo and transportation and substantiating the corresponding management decisions by freight carriers. ORIGINALITY AND VALUE: Innovation is a complex interdisciplinary integration of research methods based on the philosophy of semantic differential, allowing the integration of approaches to harmonize the interests of transport companies and consumers of their services with the results of cooperation in the field of freight transportation. Therefore, the developed innovative methodology can be used not only for railway transport but also for other types of transport and business.
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Ambiguity has been at the core of organization theory for a long time. It is a lens through which organizational scholars have looked at many aspects of organizational life, including decision-making, strategy, change, communication and stakeholder management. This Element presents and discusses the main trajectories in the evolution of this concept and the most relevant theoretical contributions developed around ambiguity. In particular, we elaborate on both the intrinsic perspectives on ambiguity as an inherent part of organizational decision- making processes and the more recent strategic perspectives on discursively constructed strategic ambiguity. In doing so, we illuminate the path ahead of organizational scholars and offer new avenues for future research. This is important given the ever more pervasive presence of ambiguity in and around organizations and societies.
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