Sensemaking is the process through which individuals and organizations give meaning to events or situations. The sensemaking perspective became prominent in organizational studies since its introduction by Karl Weick in 1995. It has since been expanded and applied to multiple contexts, including immigrant work integration. The process of sensemaking allows people to develop a plausible explanation for their situations and use this understanding to motivate action. According to Weick (1995), sensemaking is like ‘a good story that holds disparate elements together long enough to energize and guide action plausibly enough to allow people to make retrospective sense of whatever happens’ (p. 61). To explore the role of sensemaking in QIs’ work integration, let us look at Olga’s story.

Olga12 is a recent Canadian immigrant originally from Ukraine. She has a Ph.D., international work experience, and lived in multiple countries before immigrating to Canada. Olga has impressive academic credentials, a substantial work record, and can speak multiple languages. Yet, it took her more than a year to find commensurate work in Canada that recognizes her educational caliber and extensive work experience. Based on her previous work for an international organization, she hoped to find a position in their Canadian subsidiary. When that did not work, she was unsure which opportunities she should pursue. She explains:

I didn’t know which positions I should apply to. First of all, I started to look for job opportunities in universities...But then people started to explain that I would need to get [another] Ph.D. here… When I went to [university], [a professor] said to me… you don’t want to spend five years, because even if you spend five years in Ph.D., the employment opportunities will not be open to you. There is no guarantee.

Olga decided to give up on building a career in a Canadian university and instead began volunteering for an emotional support organization. She also joined an employment program for immigrant newcomers, which provided training and networking opportunities. While she valued learning about the process of applying for jobs and practicing for job interviews, she was struggling to find job opportunities that were commensurate with her qualifications and skills. She explains:

In the beginning, they [staff in the employment program] didn’t know in which area I would fit... I was just no, no, no. My level and [finding] the right fit [were] challenging for them as well. I must admit that I was a really hard client in these terms.

Olga went through numerous selection processes within governmental bodies but was unsuccessful. She reflected on her journey:

It is challenging to go through all these stages. Because at some points, when I was not successful with [one employer], I was a bit, not a bit, but very disappointed because I invested a lot of time. And there was a three-month process of selection, and I really hoped I would get the job. But then, eventually, I failed, but it was a good learning experience for me.

Eventually, Olga managed to find a job through the connections she established while in the employment program. After all these efforts, Olga was offered a higher position than the one she had interviewed for.

[The program] organized an info session with their representative, he is my colleague now, and he explained what the job was about. Because it was not a clear description of the job position, and even the title was different. There was no [job] description, and I think the way they approached the selection process was really humane because they were selecting people, they were not looking for[positions]…

My manager said that she heard about [the employment program], and she wanted to help other people to give this opportunity, and so that’s why they considered [the employment program] as a pool of candidates. Because there was no description, I didn’t try to fit into the job description. […] They were open and flexible, so I just showed all the skills I have during the interview, and they also were looking for my language test results and my writing skills. It turned out that they looked for an analyst, but I ended up getting the higher position, Senior Advisor.

Olga expressed that the support she received from the employment program and her mentor were critical in helping her find a job that would utilize the full range of her educational and work experiences acquired before moving to Canada.

I was coupled with a mentor. She explained to me the techniques they apply, how to answer the interview; she reviewed all my answers... And also, the [program] recruitment specialists were providing a lot of support… It’s just taking some time and a long journey to find a job, and it’s not easy because when you come here, you just don’t realize it... It took me one year and a half, almost, to get the job.

During our last conversation, Olga talked about being happy with her position as she felt she could apply all her skills, and the job was a good fit for her. She added that she felt supported by her manager and colleagues. Olga’s eventual employment outcome is a success story in immigrant work integration, but her journey to attaining commensurate employment was not easy. When she wanted to give up and settle for what felt to her like lower-level work, the support from her husband helped her stay positive.

When you’re in transition, you don’t know what will happen… I’m happy about where I am now. And I’m happy about the achievements. And I’m happy about my performance, so it sounds like a success story, but it was quite a chore for me. At some point in time, I decided that okay, I would not go for a high position because there was no point. I need to start from the beginning…I had support from my husband, who said, you don’t want to do the same that you did before. You want to be recognized… this kind of support also is really helpful.

Olga’s situation is like that of many other QIs who immigrate after acquiring education and work experience in other countries. She had to cope with disappointments, make sense of her options, and decide on actions to find a way forward. She did not go through this process alone; her sensemaking was informed and influenced by others from whom she sought support and advice. She relied on her husband for emotional support to persevere, professional employment support to prepare for job applications and interviews, as well as mentors and professionals in her new city to understand her options. She volunteered at different organizations to meet people, learn local socio-cultural norms and values in the workplace and beyond, and enhance her range of skills to fit with the local labor market. In addition, she tried to make sense of the oftentimes variable assessments of her skills made by others, including support and employment organizations, as well as employers—all the while navigating a new cultural and regulatory environment.

While there are many ways to understand Olga’s situation, circumstances, and journey, we argue that sensemaking is a useful lens to explore the overall process and actors involved at multiple levels of the work integration complex of QIs. The sensemaking perspective allows us to uncover the social-psychological processes that contribute to individual and organizational decision-making and outcomes, rather than focusing exclusively on the outcomes themselves. Sensemaking, therefore, allows us to understand Olga’s success story in tandem with her complicated and long journey toward her Canadian job. It recognizes her interpretations and actions, as well as those of other relevant stakeholders, that led to her successful outcome.

2.1 Properties of Sensemaking

As a concept, sensemaking is distinct from interpretation because it goes beyond how text or information is read and understood to include how it is constructed (Weick, 1995). As such, Weick identifies seven properties of sensemaking that distinguishes it from other processes such as understanding or interpretation. Sensemaking is grounded in identity construction, retrospective, enactive of sensible environments, social, ongoing, focused on and by extracted cues, and driven by plausibility rather than accuracy. We explore these properties in detail below.

2.1.1 Grounded in Identity Construction

Sensemaking starts with the sensemaker. Making sense of what is ‘out there’ is closely related to the sensemaker’s identity or understanding of ‘who I am.’ Our identity is in flux, continuously being reworked to accommodate our individual experiences as well as our experiences with others. How we see ourselves in a particular situation influences how we make sense of these situations and the information we learn in connection with our interactions with others. Olga’s perception of herself as a highly qualified professional informed her decision to refuse some of the jobs suggested by the employment support organization and be ‘a really hard client.’ The interview for her current job reinforced this perception while she worked with others to define a job description that utilizes her full potential. As a result, her current narrative of success further reinforces her identity as a competent professional.

2.1.2 Retrospective

Sensemaking is about giving meaning to action, but people can only give meaning to an action after it is completed. Weick uses the image of a ‘stream of experience.’ While we are embedded in it, it is experienced as a flow; however, as we try to make sense of it, it is labeled and bracketed into distinct events. This process of labeling and bracketing is only possible retrospectively, as one reflects upon an experience. For example, Olga recounts her journey to her current job with coherence, identifying key events (a meeting with a university professor, a failed job application, the support of a mentor, and the encouragement of her husband). However, as she acknowledged, ‘[w]hen you’re in transition, you don’t know what will happen.’ The sensemaker can only look back and make sense of the experience after the key events have occurred.

2.1.3 Enactive of Sensible Environments

The word ‘enact,’ in this third property of sensemaking proposed by Weick, signifies that people produce part of the environment they face. As a sensemaker reacts to an environmental cue, they contribute to the environment they have to respond to. The environment presents sensemakers with situations or stimuli out of their control. Still, sensemakers have the agency to respond to these cues in ways that reinforce or resist environmental pressures, and in turn, contribute to or produce the environment they face. Employment counselors presented Olga with job opportunities that she chose to decline or pursue. By applying or not applying to these jobs, she influenced her subsequent experiences and the job opportunities that became available to her, including her current position that she molded during the interview process.

2.1.4 Social

Sensemaking processes are influenced by others, whether present or imagined. As we interpret the world around us, we consider what others have told us and what we believe they think or expect of us. In the case of immigrants, the social aspect of sensemaking is very prominent as immigrants’ social relations in the country of origin and the receiving country can significantly influence how they make sense of themselves and their work opportunities. Olga identified the important role of mentors and local advisors in guiding her career choices, as well as the emotional support provided by her husband, all of which facilitated her waiting for the right opportunity.

2.1.5 Ongoing

Sensemaking never stops. We are constantly immersed in a flow of activity and constantly making sense of ourselves and our environments. In this flow of activities, we isolate moments or cues to inform our sensemaking efforts and gain a sense of coherence. Olga was immersed in a flow of actions, including career counseling activities, submitting job applications, conversing with locals and family members, reflecting on her career goals, and so on. Amidst this flow of activity, she identified pieces of discrepant information (e.g., the need to take another Ph.D. to qualify for academic jobs or an unsuccessful job application) to reflect further and organize her experience. The ongoing property of sensemaking also suggests that our sense or story keeps changing as we experience and accommodate new information. Olga’s career narrative would likely be very different before she secured her current job or if she were still looking for suitable employment.

2.1.6 Focused on and by Extracted Cues

Extracted cues are ‘simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring’ (Weick, 1995, p. 50). They are the bits of information or experience we use as a starting point to make sense of the whole picture. Weick uses the word seed purposefully as a metaphor to capture the indeterminacy and open-ended nature of the process of sensemaking. These extracted cues can be interpreted in multiple ways, and how they are interpreted depends on the context of the cue. For example, when the employment support staff offered Olga lower-skilled job opportunities (a cue), she interpreted it as a shortcoming of the staff or process. She took away from these interactions that these jobs would not be appropriate for her because of her high level of qualifications and her course of action was to decline them. A different immigrant may have interpreted the same cue differently, perhaps as an assessment of the only option available to them, and acted accordingly.

2.1.7 Driven by Plausibility Rather Than Accuracy

Sensemaking is not about accuracy but plausibility. The outcome of sensemaking is a coherent and reasonable sense that serves as a springboard for action. In this process, we may distort or eliminate information to achieve a sense of plausible coherence. The focus on plausibility rather than accuracy explains why people’s sense of the same situation is different and leads to different actions. Olga concluded that an academic career was out of reach for her. This conclusion was plausible but not necessarily accurate. Yet, it informed Olga’s decision to focus on non-academic jobs.

After revisiting Olga’s sensemaking process with these properties in mind, we can say that Olga relied on the support of many individuals (social) to decide which jobs to apply to (enactment). She was successful in finding a good job (cue) and constructed a narrative (retrospective) of her career trajectory (ongoing). This narrative is coherent (plausible) and preserves her identity as a competent professional (identity construction). Chapter 3 will explore how this sensemaking process varies for immigrants and, in turn, has implications for work integration.

2.2 Levels of Sensemaking

When we encounter a situation that is different from what we expect—a discrepancy—the process of sensemaking becomes explicit. A discrepancy presents a break in the flow of experience; we need to make sense of what is going on so we can resume our activities. Immigration is a major disruption in the flow of experience, and many circumstances are likely to be different than expected and require explicit sensemaking efforts. This is true not only for immigrants but also for the organizations that receive them as part of the work integration process (e.g., employers, support organizations, educational institutions, and professional organizations). These organizations need to make sense of different career trajectories, skillsets, cultural styles, and work cultures and practices to assess, recruit, and manage international talent.

Canadian scholars Helms Mills et al. (2010) propose a critical sensemaking perspective as an extension of Weick’s (1995) original theorizing. An overarching and implicit assumption of Weick’s conceptualization of sensemaking, including the properties discussed above, is that sensemaking is a democratic process whereby all voices are relatively equal and important. Helms Mills et al. (2010), in their use of ‘critical’ as a qualifier of sensemaking, aim to highlight the role of power, knowledge, structures, and past relationships in influencing the sensemaking process. They focus their discussion of critical sensemaking on the role of organizations, which they argue privilege some identities over others and marginalize those that do not fit preferred identities. The critical sensemaking perspective positions sensemaking within a broader economic, political, societal, and cultural context. To make sense of discrepancies, we look for reasons that will allow us to understand what is going on and act. These ‘reasons’ are found in institutional frameworks, organizational premises, plans, acceptable justifications, and cultural traditions (Weick et al., 2005).

Sensemaking informs individual and collective understandings of truth and reality, and it simultaneously informs and is informed by perceptions, experiences, expectations, understandings, and beliefs. Thus, sensemaking happens at multiple levels of subjectivity (Weick, 1995; Wiley, 1988), with important implications for immigrant work integration, as summarized in Table 2.1 and explained below.

Table 2.1 Levels of sensemaking and QI’s work integration

2.2.1 Individual Level

When individuals are confronted with surprises or discrepancies and need to construct new meanings and assemble new responses, they engage in intra-subjective sensemaking. In the context of immigrant work integration, individual sensemaking is particularly important as we consider individual immigrants’ attempts to make sense of the labor market and how they are perceived by potential employers during their efforts to find employment. For example, Olga’s discovery that her doctoral education would not be valued in the local market posed a discrepancy, which she needed to make sense of to assess and decide upon appropriate career actions. Olga decided to forego an academic career and focus on governmental and industry positions.

Individual sensemaking is also happening with non-immigrants as they engage with the issue of immigrant work integration. For example, counselors need to make sense of their client’s skills and potential, and recruiters need to decide if an applicant is qualified and able to perform a job. A full examination of the sensemaking processes of the many actors involved in the immigrant integration complex is beyond the scope of this book. We do, however, discuss immigrants’ sensemaking in Chapter 3.

2.2.2 Interactional Level

Individuals create new meaning through communication and interaction with others. To resolve the discrepancies associated with employment barriers and make sense of their surroundings, immigrants must access local interpretation schemas (Glanz et al., 2001; Nardon et al., 2015), making them highly susceptible to being influenced by others. Immigrants interact with many individuals in the receiving country in their process of work integration: career counselors, recruiters, mentors, other immigrants, professionals, and members of the community.

Many of these interactions happen as QIs go about their lives in the new country. However, some of these interactions are particularly meaningful due to these individuals’ positions and power to influence QIs’ professional situations. Individuals in positions to provide career advice, such as mentors, coaches, trainers, representatives of hiring organizations, and career counselors, are imbued with power and legitimacy (Hallett, 2003) and may significantly impact immigrants’ sensemaking and consequent career actions. The process of sensemaking that happens within an interaction can be thought of as intersubjective. Olga’s sensemaking of her career options was influenced by her interactions with mentors and advisors. Her decision to abandon an academic career was influenced by a conversation with a local university professor. The interactional level is explored in more detail in Chapter 4.

2.2.3 Organizational Level

Sensemaking also happens at the level of social structures (generic subjective), which includes organizations, as well as other organized activities. At this level, roles and rules construct an abstract generic self that replaces individuality. Individuals are imperfectly interchangeable as they fill roles and follow rules. In times of stability, organizations function by relying on social structures and individuals following scripts and rules. In standard situations, different individuals filling that role would arrive at similar conclusions. For example, when a recruiter follows an organizationally mandated recruitment process with a standard interview protocol to fill a job description, the process of deciding who is a good candidate is abstracted and generalized to minimize individual biases and preferences. However, in times of change and discrepancy, individuals interact to construct meaning intersubjectively. For example, when recruiters work with immigrant talent, the same scripts and rules might exclude them from opportunities. Recruiters, employers, and immigrants would need to construct different scripts and rules intersubjectively to understand the transferrable skills that constitute global talent. Thus, Weick (1995) argues that sensemaking at the level of organizations is a mixture of inter- and generic subjectivities.

Olga had faced many rejections and learned that her degree would not be accepted for an academic career. These assessments were often based on generalized rules, such as the preference of many business schools for PhDs from accredited institutions. Olga’s current employer, however, deviated from generic recruitment practices and abstract assessments of a good candidate for a job. As she explained, the hiring manager was open to exploring her skills and potential and then deciding on a suitable position for her rather than following the standard job description matching protocol. The organizational level is explored in more detail in Chapter 5; we discuss the role of organizations in QIs’ work integration and how generic subjective sensemaking is represented in crystallized organizational practices that directly impact immigrants’ ability to engage in the workforce.

2.2.4 Institutional Level

The institutional level (extra-subjective) is expressed as abstract or idealized frameworks that guide behavior. The institutional context is constituted of the macro-environment in which organizations and immigrants operate, including laws, rules, and norms that impose constraints, representations, and logic principles on individuals (DiMaggio, 1997) and may influence the availability and attractiveness of different courses of action (Elsbach et al., 2005). At this level, societal narratives and cultural knowledge are de-personified, normative (the way things should be), and taken for granted. This level also includes master narratives around immigrants and integration. Master narratives can be understood as shared cultural scripts, which reinforce norms and guide individuals on how to be good members of a given culture (McLean & Syed, 2015). Master narratives are essential in guiding who belongs in society and who is worthy of integration. We introduce and engage with a few master narratives informing immigrant work integration in Chapter 6.

2.2.5 Interdependence of Levels of Sensemaking

While we address these levels of sensemaking independently, they are closely connected—each level of sensemaking influences all other levels. For instance, immigrant sensemaking informs and is informed by interactions with local agents. Local agents, in turn, are informed by the organizations they represent, whether they are in a supportive or employing role, and the respective rules, policies, guidelines, procedures, and behavioral norms they abide by. At the same time, their engagement with immigrants can alter organizational processes, for example, through the hiring of immigrants or learning about their specific challenges and providing new opportunities. As seen in Olga’s case, her hiring manager deviated from the general rules of hiring and purposefully engaged with immigrant support organizations to identify international talent; the organization and some of its practices are likely to be changed as a result. Organizations are embedded in a macro-cultural and institutional context and, as such, are influenced by taken-for-granted assumptions and narratives, as well as rules and resources. As more immigrants join a society and make themselves heard, we can anticipate changes in master narratives about immigrants and integration, influencing rules and assumptions at the institutional level.

2.3 The Road Ahead

This chapter discussed the potential of a sensemaking perspective to understand QIs’ work integration. Using Olga’s story, we discussed how the properties of sensemaking (grounded in identity construction, retrospective, enactive, social, ongoing, focused on and by extracted cues, and driven by plausibility) allow us to understand the process by which immigrants make sense of their situations and engage in career actions. We also discussed how different levels of subjectivity (individual, interactional, organizational, and institutional) are implicated in the process of sensemaking and immigrant work integration.

Looking at immigrant work integration through a sensemaking lens allows for an exploration of the ways multiple independent actors (including immigrants themselves), through an ongoing process of sensemaking and sensegiving, produce and reinforce structures that are implicated in immigrants’ various employment-related activities. While sensemaking refers to creating meaning, sensegiving refers to the process of ‘attempting to influence the sensemaking and meaning construction of others’ (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 442). As immigrants attempt to enter the local labor market, they are exposed to multiple agents, such as career counselors, event speakers, trainers, mentors, recruiters, and others within their social and professional networks, who attempt to influence immigrants’ understanding of the labor market, which in turn impacts their behaviors, actions, and outcomes. It is important to note that some actors hold more power than others and will have a more significant influence on immigrants’ sensemaking (see Chapter 4).

A sensemaking perspective highlights the complexity of QIs’ work integration. Several processes happening at individual, interactional, organizational, and institutional levels are implicated in the process of work integration. Small changes may have large effects due to the interconnectedness of multiple levels of sensemaking and the various actors involved. Moreover, a critical sensemaking perspective builds on Weick’s (2005) original conceptualization to highlight the role of agency—the capacity for individualized choice and action.

In the context of immigrant work integration, agency is exercised by immigrants, as well as individuals in the community and within an organization who play a more active role in QIs’ overall journey toward finding commensurate employment that uses the full potential of their education, previous work experience, and skills. As we will see in the rest of this book, this perspective calls for a questioning of crystallized social structures, rules, and policies that are taken for granted. Critical sensemaking opens possibilities to move away from the way things are supposed to be and instead calls for individuals in various levels and positions across organizations in the government, not-for-profit, and for-profit sectors to take a more active role in shaping the structures and master narratives that shape integration to create more success stories like Olga’s in a reasonable time frame.

In the next chapter, we employ a sensemaking perspective to explain how QIs of similar backgrounds can have widely different outcomes based on how they make sense of their identities and situations to determine actions.

2.4 Key Points

  • Sensemaking is the process through which individuals give meaning to situations and is a useful theoretical lens to understand QI work integration.

  • Sensemaking has seven properties: grounded in identity construction, retrospective, enactive of sensible environments, social, ongoing, focused on and by extracted cues, and driven by plausibility rather than accuracy.

  • A critical sensemaking perspective positions sensemaking within a broader economic, political, societal, and cultural context and highlights the role of power, knowledge, structures, and past relationships in influencing the sensemaking process.

  • Sensemaking happens at multiple levels of subjectivity: institutional (extra-subjective), social structure (generic subjective), interactional (intersubjective), and individual (intra-subjective). Each of these levels has implications for QI’s integration.

  • The various levels (individual, interactional, organizational, and institutional) are interconnected and influence each other.


  1. 1.

    Olga is a pseudonym. For anonymity purposes, we assigned pseudonyms to refer to all our research participants. We have also altered identifying details such as city and employer and made small grammatical adjustments when quoting participants for ease of read.

  2. 2.

    Olga’s story is derived from an ongoing project investigating the experiences of immigrants with doctoral education as they adjust to the realities of high barriers to secure academic positions and explore career alternatives. In this project we have conducted interviews ranging from 60 to 90 minutes with 9 immigrant women. Findings from this study are in preparation for publication.