Sensemaking and Psychological Safety

by compasspartnership

Sensemaking and Psychological Safety

by compasspartnership

by compasspartnership

When we engage in dialogue with others, we watch what they say and do whilst simultaneously observing how they respond to our words and behaviours. We add these observations about them and the world around us to our existing ideas, continually adapting and changing as a result of these interpretations. In the moment, this can sometimes even lead to changing how we see ourselves in a social group based on other’s responses in the dialogue we are having with them.

This is sensemaking. The process of both interacting within our social environments, creating it, or influencing others in it, and in turn, being affected by it. It illustrates the notion that ‘we are what we do.’

Why sensemaking is critical to innovation

Individuals play a key role in constructing the very situations they are attempting to understand or unravel.  This process is critical to innovation. It is fundamental to how we approach discussions and debates, notions and concepts, brainwaves and intentions; factors from which most innovations begin. This kind of sensemaking is critical when people seek to unearth new ideas, often in highly charged, possibly risk-oriented environments.

What do we do when sensemaking? 


  • We constantly adapt our identity or our perception of our identity and how we are positioned in relation to others. This is known as ‘the looking glass self’ – “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.”
  • We reason from cause to effect retrospectively, rather than working backwards from the effect. This often makes us prone to errors from our own bias and expectations, cultural influences or social pressures. There may be certain types of triggers we respond to, even certain types of people we revere or are intimidated by.
  • We constantly and consistently extract social cues from others through what they say and do and how they are interpreting us and the situation.
  • We “story our worlds” – when sharing stories, we attend to what is most captivating, concentrating on the plausible as it fits with our world view or what’s happening in the moment.

One of our favourite quotes is variously attributed to Alan Greenspan, the American economist: “I know you believe you understand what you thought I said, but I am not sure you realise what you heard is not what I meant.”

Creating a safe sensemaking environment

The truth is if you do not create a safe environment where people are free to question ideas, question themselves and others, their competencies and understandings, you are losing so much; ideas, solutions, creativity and enterprise – the core elements that deliver competitive advantage through innovation.

Without a true psychologically safe environment, moments of sensemaking will be held back because little will be held up to the light and questioned. This results in the stagnation of reactions and feelings, and as such skills, knowledge and expertise bias become suppressed.

If you want to engage with sensemaking you need to think about:

  • Understanding your own values and purpose and staying grounded
  • Self awareness of your own personal biases and when these might be triggered
  • Self control in how you respond to other people’s critical evaluations of your ideas and yourself
  • Guarding against environmental factors and pressures that negatively influence your experience and what’s happening
  • Using your skills of inquiry
  • Checking your assumptions about other people’s behaviours
How would your commercial world feel with a more open and innovative team?
What would higher productivity mean to you and your team?
Want to know more about how we can help? Contact us for an informal discussion.