by Mignon van Halderen

Never before has the playing field for organisations undergone such a major game change. In this era of transformations, organisations can no longer simply travel from A to B; instead, they are expected to be proactive in establishing a new reality. And that calls for a ground-breaking vision on leadership in communication.

By referring to ‘leadership in communication’, I am turning to those communication professionals who already occupy or hope to occupy a leadership role in an organisation in driving, guiding, directing and designing a new reality. In this article, I discuss my ideas, and explain the demands that putting those ideas into practice places on communication professional as the sensegivers of the future.

Organisations can be more proactive in thought leadership

The playing field in which organisations are currently operating is hallmarked by what is known as a 3rd order change (see block). This fact is imposing ever greater demands on organisations to align their strategy and positioning with points of view that reflect a new future; organisations that are willing to shift their strategy and positioning from ‘I’ to ‘we’ and that, based on their belief in new paradigms, are contributing to innovation with regard to key themes in our economy and society. These organisations are referred to as thought leading and as such set out a pronounced and ground-breaking vision and course. They are organisations that are willing to publicly liberate themselves from existing paradigms that prevail in their organisation, their market or society as a whole, no matter how difficult it may be, and even though it cannot be achieved instantaneously.

Renewi is a good example. In a time when economic value was still very much the prevailing paradigm in industry and society, Renewi opted for a strategy and position based on a completely different paradigm. Namely the idea that waste does not exist. Waste does of course still exist all around us, but based on their vision that waste does not exist, they started building a new reality: the circular economy. Starting within their circle of influence (their vision, their commercial practice and their people), they translated their vision into physical behaviour and actual results. Today, of the 14 million tonnes of waste they process each year, 90% is recycled or reused for energy generation.

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Transformations – 3rd order of change

Every period in history has experienced upheaval and change. Take for example the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the sexual revolution. In that sense, the current era is nothing new. In all parts of our society, the realisation is ever growing that we must go in search of innovation and change with regard to key economic and social themes. In fact, what we are currently dealing with is a sustainability transformation, a digital transformation and an overall value transformation – as reflected in global social unrest and demonstrations.

The term transformation has not been chosen randomly. After all, these are not simply changes but – as outlined in the literature of change – they are 3rd order changes. A 1st order change is brought about by relatively minor adjustments, for example when administrative processes are changed. The original story about the organisation – who we are, what we stand for – remains in place. 2nd order change is a more radical change, for example in the event of a merger: the organisation is forced to reconsider its own identity and added value. 3rd order change is transformational: the old situation changes both in essence and form, in the same way that a caterpillar changes into a butterfly; and that change leads to a new reality, based on new visions and values. Often also referred to as new paradigms.

A 3rd order change is therefore based on an underlying paradigm shift. Effectively, without such a shift, we cannot truly talk of a transformational change. In the period before the COVID-19 crisis, a term like ‘new reality’ was often viewed as vague and abstract. Now, that the entire world has been referring to the ‘new normal’ for more than a year, considering a completely new reality, based on new visions, values, principles and approaches, suddenly no longer seems so woolly. In other words, what we are currently seeing take place is third-order change, and the reshuffling of the underlying old paradigms.

Communication professionals as the sensegivers of the new

Thought leaders have inspiring thoughts and through the power of the imagination they succeed in giving meaning and significance to a new reality, and mobilise themselves and others in the light of that new reality. This process of opening people’s minds and convincing them of new points of view and approaches is the heart of what is known in scientific literature as sensegiving. The American researchers Gioia and Chittipeddi refer to sensegiving in an organisational context as follows: “the process of attempting to influence the sensemaking and meaning construction of others toward a preferred (re)definition of organizational reality” (p.442).

It is in precisely this sensegiving process that communication professionals can fulfil a vital role. Growing numbers of communication professionals are revealing an urge to innovate. They are competent in their field, but sense that based on their professional theory and personality, they have a greater contribution to make than is perceived by the organisations in which they are currently employed.
These communication professionals are often people with a high level of conceptual and sensitive intelligence. Based on their years of experience, they can also call upon a considerable reserve of professional knowledge, analytical skills and strategic thinking. They feel that they (can) mean more than they were expected to provide when appointed to their current position, based on the restrictive framework of their responsibilities.
In this age of transformations, they are able to take on a powerful role as innovators.

Three basic principles reveal how communication professionals can fulfil the role of change agent, based on their capacity for sensegiving:

1. Take up a proactive, binding role in creating a new reality

The leadership guru Stephen Govey argues that every human being has three forms of creativity. The first level of creativity relates to the recognition that you are permitted to create. ‘You are the creator. You are in charge’. The second level of creation is the creativity in your head. The capacity to create something in your mind that you cannot yet see or perceive with your eyes (or other senses). The third level of creativity is in material elaboration. Creative capacity is the ultimate precondition for innovation and progress. As such, providing space for creative capacity is of fundamental importance in demonstrating more thought leadership.

Seen in this light, the role of the communication professional as sensegiver is more relevant than ever. After all, as a sensegiver, you recognise that creations emerge in the minds of people and that such creations must be given space to grow, to come together, to achieve shared meaning and to be further elaborated. Communication professionals who recognise this process of creation understand how they can be of added value, based on their sensegiving role and skills. They do not simply follow the dynamics of change; instead they employ those dynamics themselves, by bringing people together and interpreting new ideas.

These are communication professionals who recognise that they themselves must create the ideal conditions for bringing together the wealth of ideas within an organisation, supplying them with shared meaning, and allowing the mutual enhancing energy of collective creativity and drive to emerge. They understand that their role and added value as communication professionals is shifting from supplying tangible products (communication products) to creating space for and bringing together ideas and human energy, in order to make new things possible. The communication professional as sensegiver brings together everything that is malleable, in a meaningful mould. As a communication professional, you bind together, you dare to trust your senses to pick up signals and, in that way, you help give shape to a collective process of creation. This work approach is also described in the works of Kim Erwin (Communicating The New) and Jitske Kramer (Deep Democracy) and in my opinion ties in far better with the training of a communication professional as a sensegiver.

The Bernhoven Hospital in Brabant (the Southern part of The Netherlands) is an excellent example of an organisation that on the basis of shared leadership arrived at a new, innovative vision as a basis for transformation. Not only the directors of the organisation but also the communication manager, the doctors, the nursing staff and the patients association all played an essential sensegiving role.
For Bernhoven, in 2015, during the transition from two locations to one, the desire emerged to start asking bold questions, on the basis of awareness and conscience: Do we offer the care that is truly needed, and does that care truly match our patients? Is the healthcare model according to which a doctor is paid for each treatment he provides still valid? Is that model actually based on the most appropriate stimulus/motivation? The transformation started with a single question put to as many of the stakeholders as possible, namely: “What would you want if your mother were admitted to hospital?” This simple question had personal meaning for every individual stakeholder, and revealed new points of view, values and principles, that brought all the stakeholders closer together. In part based on the sensegiving role of the communication manager, a shared new meaning emerged: ‘better care through less care’. Based on the power of shared creative imagination with regard to alternative healthcare models, a shared independent will emerged among the hospital’s directors, doctors and the patients’ association to attempt a fundamentally different approach and to truly reorganise the way in which healthcare is provided.

2. Give form and meaning to the new

If you interpret for people what they are doing, and give meaning to those actions, then everything you do will be raised to a higher plane. People feel empowered in what they are doing, if their actions are given meaning. The real point is that people in an organisation are often so busy building that they forget why they started building in the first place. Moreover, people often take insufficient time to reflect on how they can achieve greater clarity and depth in identifying why they are doing what they are doing. As Covey puts it, they forget to sharpen the saw. Communication professionals who take their role of sensegiving seriously must therefore make better use of the dual nature of the power of language. More often than not, language is seen as a tool for putting thoughts into words. It is not without reason that the mentality of communication professionals is based on creating a ‘good story’. In many cases, communication in leadership is used as the keystone for decisions at strategic level, or for passing on communication to all stakeholders. However, what many people fail to realise is that that same language can, or in fact must specifically be used to further give form to, to focus and to renew our thinking. Language not only gives access to all the creative ideas in our mind; it can also lead to new creativity. This essential process is often not taken seriously, but it is in respect of precisely this aspect that the role of the communication professional is shifting from ‘maker of’ of communication products or ‘binding agent’ to that of sensegiver. As argued by Erwin : ‘we need language to express our ideas in ways that others can understand. But we can also vary that language to put ideas back into our own heads, to change our way of thinking. Writing is not just prototyping our expression of thought, it is prototyping our very thoughts themselves (p. 51). It is this transformation from language as a tool to language as a creative force that communication professionals must make in order to deliver greater meaning.

3. Fluctuate between the old and the new

Communication professionals working on new paradigms often experience the challenge of giving sense or meaning to a new reality in a context in which many of those around you continue to adhere to the old reality. This is an area of tension that you as a communication professional do not see as an obstacle but embrace as a central element of your role. The greatest challenge in transformations is that it is not easy for people to let go of their existing paradigms. Not only are those paradigms embedded in our minds, but often also in our hearts. It is a challenge for people to look beyond their old frameworks and even if they do succeed, the temptation is strong to fall back into old patterns. Our brains are limited, and it requires considerable effort to look at things as it were through a new set of spectacles. In addition, we are often also restricted by our ego, and all the related aspects such as desire, attachment and fear.

For communication professionals who view themselves as innovators, it is in this area of tension that they have an important role to play. Not by thinking about strategic steps, processes or communication products, but by focusing far more on interpersonal aspects. In order to transport people into a new paradigm, you must first be willing to submerge yourself in their paradigm. Before being open to understanding your ideas, people first want to be understood, themselves. To return to the words of Covey: next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival: to be understood, to be affirmed to be validated, to be appreciated. By listening to someone with empathy you are as it were providing that person with the psychological oxygen they need (page 219). Only once that need is met can you attempt to influence people with new ideas.
The key to being open to receiving the new lies precisely in the meeting of needs; the oxygen injection. That is the moment at which you can come together to assess whether the interests in someone’s old paradigm may in fact fit perfectly into the new paradigm. Or that the worries and fears they have may in fact be the perfect signal for reaching a better change destination together. Listening is the key to trust and trust is vital for transporting people into the new. And then, at the intuitive moment when you make that leap, transporting them into a broader reference framework, raising them to a higher plane and offering them a new perspective in which they see their own values reflected.

Conclusion

More than ever before, we now need strategic communication professionals who have the analytical, strategic, directive, creative and binding capacity to reveal a new workable reality, and who are able to bring other people on board, to embrace change and innovation. Whether or not you occupy a leadership position, you can take on a leadership role by driving and designing the new. In that process, I see a clear role for communication professionals who are willing to seek the opportunity and who are able to give meaning to their position by listening to what is happening, who give sense to the new without forgetting the essence of the old, who use language as a sensegiver and who take on a proactive, binding role. Communication professionals who embody those capabilities are the sensegivers who truly make thought leading organisations.

Transformations - 3rd order of change
Every period in history has experienced upheaval and change. Take for example the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the sexual revolution. In that sense, the current era is nothing new. In all parts of our society, the realisation is ever growing that we must go in search of innovation and change with regard to key economic and social themes. In fact, what we are currently dealing with is a sustainability transformation, a digital transformation and an overall value transformation – as reflected in global social unrest and demonstrations. The term transformation has not been chosen randomly. After all, these are not simply “changes”, but – as outlined in the literature of change – they are 3rd order changes. A 1st order change is brought about by relatively minor adjustments, for example when administrative processes are changed. The original story about the organisation – who we are, what we stand for – remains in place. 2nd order change is a more radical change, for example in the event of a merger: the organisation is forced to reconsider its own identity and added value. 3rd order change is transformational: the old situation changes both in essence and form, in the same way that a caterpillar changes into a butterfly; and that change leads to a new reality, based on new visions and values. Often also referred to as new paradigms. A 3rd order change is therefore based on an underlying paradigm shift. Effectively, without such a shift, we cannot truly talk of a transformational change. In the period before the COVID-19 crisis, a term like ‘new reality’ was often viewed as vague and abstract. Now, that the entire world has been referring to the ‘new normal’ for more than a year, considering a completely new reality, based on new visions, values, principles and approaches, suddenly no longer seems so woolly. In other words, what we are currently seeing take place is third-order change, and the reshuffling of the underlying old paradigms.

Mignon van Halderen is a professor on thought leadership at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. She also advises organisation on their thought leadership strategies.

References
Bartunek, J. & Moch, M. K. (1994). Third-order Organizational Change and the Western Mystical Tradition. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 7(1), pages 24-41.
Van Halderen, M.D. (2015). Shifting Paradigms – Thought Leadership as Instigator of Societal Change, Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Fontys University of Applied Sciences.

Gioia, Dennis A. and Chittipeddi, K. (1991). Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change innovation. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 12 (1991), 433-448.

Covey, S. (1989), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, …: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Erwin, K. (2014), Communicating The New – Methods to shape and accelerate Innovation, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.