TSElosophers meeting 24.2.2022. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Eeva Nummi, Siddhant Ritwick, Otto Rosendahl, Mia Salo

Yue, A. and Mills A. (2008) Making sense out of bad faith. Sartre, Weick, and existential sensemaking in organizational analysis. Tamara 7:7.1, p. 66-80.


Yue and Mills propose a novel approach called ‘existential sensemaking’ to identity construction and organizational analysis by combining Weick’s sensemaking epistemology and Sartre’s phenomenological ontology. They suggest that in situations where the ordinary and ongoing sensemaking process fails, we ‘are presented with an opportunity for existential sensemaking’. This means that we are no longer dealing only with how we make sense of our world (epistemology) but also what the nature of our reality might be (ontology). Consequently, existential sensemaking shifts the focus from social to subjective, specifically, to the individual and their decision-making process in a particular situation. According to Yue and Mills, Sartre’s existential phenomenology with its emphasis on human free will to choose, responsibility, and the individual actor, offers ontological and ethical grounds for existential sensemaking. To illustrate their point, the authors analyze a case of a mountaineering expedition in the Andes, arguably as it captures an extreme situation, a question of life or death, that occurred.

Our discussion

The article prompted a lively discussion. In particular, we appreciated how the writers exploited Sartre’s existential phenomenology in their analysis. Putting the focus on the individual, their freedom, responsibility, and decisions based on ‘good faith’ has key relevance in many respects in practice and may have become – like Yue and Mills argue – too overlooked in social studies often focused on the role of structures. For instance, we discussed what is the meaning of scientific research today and whose concern is it whether we routinely conform to the publish or perish -mentality in academia. Many of us also pointed to the importance of better understanding the subjective perspective and inner dialogue alongside the social view and intersubjective dialogue. These came distinctive by the extreme decision-making moment (of Simon Yates cutting the climbing rope that connected him to his fellow mountaineer Joe Simpson, thus, sending Simpson to an almost certain death) depicted in the case study of the paper.

While the topic of the paper, existential sensemaking, caught our interest, we agreed on expecting more from the article, especially with respect to conceptual clarity and theoretical contribution. What surprised us most was that no key concept was defined, not even existential sensemaking at the core of it. This led us to discuss what the authors actually mean with different notions, for instance, existential, essentialist or non-essentialist individual, ethical behavior, bad faith in relation to sensemaking. An especially intriguing debate emerged from our different approaches to human behavior in an extreme situation, how this relates to our understanding of essentialism and, consequently, to Sartre’s ontological concepts of ‘being in itself’ and ‘being for itself’. To our disappointment, the paper’s contribution to organizational literature remained vague.

Finally, we discussed the connection between existential sensemaking and identity construction process, arguably a central theme in the article. Whereas existential sensemaking seemed to fundamentally refer to the use of free will in decision-making, we could not follow how existential sensemaking was connected to identity construction – not least as that should be necessarily viewed as a process, not only a passing event. Instead of identity construction, we found the paper illustrating an identity break when something radical happens, thus, extending beyond retrospective and ordinary sensemaking and, in this case, calling for existential sensemaking. In accordance with Yue and Mills (footnote 15), we arrived at stressing that extreme or crisis context is perhaps actually not ‘required for the presentation of existential sensemaking’, rather, it might be quite ordinary!

To conclude, we would have hoped this compelling article had received at least one more revision before publishing, especially with regard to definitions and contributions. However, as a conversation trigger, it provided an excellent base. We welcome future research on existential sensemaking!