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Sarah Kieran

Email Address: 
Dr Juliette McMahon and Dr Sarah MacCurtain
Working Title of Thesis: 
Bridging the Middle Management Canyon: A multi-level, real time study of the critical role of middle management in the interpretation and enactment of strategic change.

The middle manager’s role in change is crucial as they are the ‘filter’ by which change is interpreted, accepted and operationalised. The critical nexus between the leadership’s desired strategic message and middle managers’ interpretation and enactment of it can best be summed up in the concept of ‘organisational sensemaking’, the dialectical process which guides the schema change necessary for sustainable strategic change and the focus of this PhD scholar’s research. Middle management sensemaking has been shown to contribute to strategic decision making (Balogun and Pye 2008), actions and performance (Thomas et al. 1993), issue selling (Dutton and Ashford 1993, Dutton et al. 2002), strategic issue interpretation, direction (Barr 1998, Thomas and McDaniel 1990) and strategic action (Barr 1998, Dutton et al. 1983) yet the area is still under researched (Balogun 2006).

This study’s ‘deconstructing’ of middle management sensemaking is generating highly translational research outcomes which will significantly progress theoretical understandings of sensemaking; beyond its stages/processes (Weick 2011, Gioia and Chittipeddi 1991) and build on work identifying its triggers/outcomes (Maitlis and Lawrence 2007, Bartunek et al. 2006), providing organisations with an understanding of how to enable effective middle management sensemaking. Findings to date signal that corporate organisations continue to struggle to deliver strategic change which leads to intended performance outcomes. Middle managers in particular are struggling with the vital cognitive elements underpinning strategic change. Despite leadership teams’ acknowledgement that middle management workload, change fatigue and disengagement is negatively impacting their change commitment, decision making and performance, preliminary findings to date reveal that leadership teams do not fully support and enable sensemaking among middle managers to the point that one could pose the question: do organisations want their middle managers to make sense of strategic change or just ‘get on with it’?

Research is currently being conducted in three leading Irish corporations; two multi-national medical devices organisations and an indigenous, semi-state utilities organisation. A high level of access and commitment has allowed for a unique mixed-method, multi-level research approach exploring sensemaking from within organisational teams at leadership, middle management and employee levels. Firstly, research explores the impact of leadership behaviour above middle management sensemaking activity through in-depth interviews with their CEO, HR Director and Business Unit Leader. Most significantly however, the research then employs an innovative, diary-based technique to gather findings which isolate and detail the tangible behaviours and activities which middle managers engage in as they attempt to interpret and enact strategic change as it actually happens.

Publications/presentations to date: 
  • Irish Academy of Management 2013, Presentation and Conference Paper, The Critical Role of Middle Management in Strategic Change.


  • International Labour Process Conference 2014, Presentation and Conference Paper, Do you want us to make sense of this? The role of Organisational Leaders in enabling Middle Management Sensemaking.
Strategic Change
Middle Management
Details of any scholarships/funding received: 
Kemmy Business School Scholar
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