Making sense of change through framing and sense-giving

Thursday, November 5, 2015 - 13:19

By Dr Samantha Johnson, AIM Senior Research Fellow

Change and middle management go hand in hand.  Middle managers play a pivotal role in bringing staff along during organisational change.

A recent study looked at change and how middle managers can support the change process.  This study identified sense-giving as an important and effective approach to managing change.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of sense-making.  It’s about making sense of messages.  Sense-giving is about framing messages in such a way as to influence how people make sense of information. 

The process of sense-giving can be particularly helpful to generate a level of change readiness.

The change readiness literature presents a 5 stage process to support change readiness:

  1. Discrepancy. Identify the discrepancy between the organisation’s current and desired states.
  2. Appropriateness. Explain why the change is appropriate and the right change to make; clearly identify what the proposed change will address the drivers of the change and meet organisational needs.
  3. Efficacy. Build efficacy in people and build their confidence in their ability to work with the change.
  4. Valence. Identify the positive and negative outcomes of the change; and highlight the benefits and positive aspects for everyone involved.
  5. Principal Support. Show that senior manages and leaders are committed to the change and are prepared to put time, money and resources behind the change, and adopt it willingly themselves.

These 5 steps are quite straightforward.  The challenge is to identify how to do them and embed them in everyday management. 

This is where framing comes in.  We can frame messages in such a way as to achieve each of these steps of change readiness.  This becomes the process of sense-giving. It’s a deliberate and well managed communication strategy designed to influence people’s perceptions and interpretations during change and encourage them to embrace change with greater optimism and willingness.

The following table presents the five steps to change readiness, explained above, and three framing approaches:

1) Diagnostic framing                     2) Prognostic framing                     3) Motivational framing

Along with a simple three strategy approach to messaging that helps frame messages that generate readiness:

1) Explain                                           2) Energise                                        3) Enact

 This is a helpful communication framework for managing and leading people through change.

Change readiness steps




Diagnostic framing

Explain: Rationale behind the change, why it is needed.  Identify, or diagnose, the problem and the need for change: identify the problem and its symptoms and causes.  Provide analysis.


Prognostic framing

Explain: What needs to be done to resolve the problem, what is the appropriate course of action.  Explain how the problem will be resolved. Provide direction.







Motivational framing

Energise: Translate information, inspire ideas and stimulate action.  Urge people into action, convince them to engage and participate. Reassure people, encourage positivity and optimism in their ability to manage change, in future stability and in management support.


Energise: Offer people support to build their confidence in their ability to work with the change. Encourage people to believe in their own abilities, build self-efficacy and confidence in people. Identify why and how the change is good for the organisation and for its employees.  Identify the negative consequences for the organisation and its employees if the changes are not adopted.

Principal support

Enact: Adopt regular actions to support words and messages.  Actions such as listening attentively to people and be responsive and available (don’t be dismissive or appear impatient).  Practice what you preach – ‘walk the talk’ and show your commitment to the change, in a positive manner.

Managers who generate change readiness through careful framing of messages and the strategies such as those identified above, also relied on emotional intelligence, mindfulness and political skills. 

Mindfulness is displayed by understanding the environment and strategic issues. Having good technical expertise and a good understanding of the people being managed.  These managers are actively engaged in the present, while still noticing new things and being sensitive to the context around them. They are sensitive to their staff and understand the worries and concerns they experience.  They maintain order amid chaos and can generate thoughtful adaptations to uncertainty.

Emotional intelligence is displayed by managers who encourage staff to share their emotions about change, they engage with staff on an emotional level and are not afraid of dealing with emotions in people.  They empathise with staff and reassure them to settle them. They are not dismissive.

Political skills are displayed by managers who are socially astute, relate well to people and behave in situationally appropriate manners.  These managers are genuinely disarming and charming and inspire trust, confidence, sincerity and genuineness.  

This is a straightforward reminder of what is required for effective change management.  The concepts and ideas are complex, but the strategies are practical and worth a try.

Reference: Frames and Actions: Middle Managers’ Sense-giving of Change Readiness Sentiments.  Varma, V; Harris, S., Armenakis, A., and Field, H.  Paper presented at the Academy of Management Annual Conference, USA, 2013.