Sensemaking and Diversity in High Reliability Teams

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The role of sensemaking processes is evident in studies that show how High-Reliability Organisations (HROs) avoid disasters in complex situations. Sensemaking is the process through which people construct meanings and bring order to unexpected or puzzling events. The petrochemical industry, in general, provides an HRO context. It involves dangerous and complex work yet has fewer than its fair share of accidents. In Saudi Arabia, the petrochemical industry is a multinational industry that operates with and by many joint-venture partners and is reported to have a highly diverse workforce composition. Theories of HROs provide useful guiding principles and concepts that describe and explain how the process of sensemaking can be facilitated in HROs, yet, less acknowledgement has been given to the group diversity within High-Reliability Teams (HRTs) that may yield very different effects on the sensemaking process. To this concern, this research is an attempt to better understand the influence of diversity on reliability-seeking sensemaking processes (RSSPs) and the interplay between diversity, leadership behaviour, and organisational culture on generating this influence. Using a qualitative methodology and a grounded theory-building approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1990; 1994), this research explored perspectives of 17 teams (57 technicians) with both high and low-diversity levels regarding their on-ground work experiences. The data revealed several practices (referred to as reliability-seeking sensemaking processes, RSSPs) that characterise sensemaking processes and which allowed the team to act reliably during unexpected and risky situations. These RSSPs were mainly manifested through the in-group: 1) exchange and generation of alternative perspectives; 2) emphasis on details; 3) showing high team orientation; and 4) collective and careful enactment of team contributions. To relate these findings with group diversity, seven key factors were found to relate the in-group’s dissimilarities with the level/quality of RSSPs, that are: group identification processes (first pathway); and the process of divergent perspectives generation (through cognitive elaboration – second pathway); individual preconceived views (e.g. diversity mindset); leadership behaviour; collective motives to engage; relational quality; and information processing capacity. Examining the role of these factors revealed that the effects of diversity on the collective RSSPs were not due to in-team differences per se, but instead the way in which differences were perceived, processed, and integrated. Results of this study also revealed that leadership behaviour (e.g. fairness, on-ground support, showing trust, and conflict resolution) was a determinant for the diversity-RSSPs outcomes. These results provided important insights into the importance of diversity management on HROs to harvest its beneficial effects on RSSPs.