Organizations and Tradition

The essence of tradition is sequential pattern, a sequence of related meanings that are received and transmitted over time. The meanings can be related by association to common themes, in the contiguity of presentation and transmission, or in descent from a common origin (Shils 1981). For example, pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has maintained a company “credo” since the 1930s. The credo has been changed multiple times during this period, but similar themes, the style of education and communication, and the connection to its origin have remained. Thus, Johnson & Johnson has a business philosophy tradition. This tradition can be seen in the way managers thought about and reacted to the Tylenol crisis in the early 1980s.

Tradition is anything but unitary or static. Indeed, its form and content are continuously changing. Tradition represents an accumulation of experience that is continuously updated or corrected as new experience challenges accepted beliefs or practices. For example, in 1975 James Burke, then a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, held a series of ”challenge meetings” to reinvigorate the credo and bring it into line with current business and social realities. These meetings brought out the fact that the credo was seen differently by different people. Tradition, in organizations as in societies, is a complex and diversified object, for many reasons. At this point, it is enough to say that a tradition is not one thing, but exists in numerous variations. There are always elements of different ages that are given different weights by different people; and even if given the same weights, the elements are often interpreted differently. Here the sociology of tradition meets political sociology, because dominant powers always try to reduce the manifoldness of tradition to a form that supports and legitimates their base of power. Tradition is always part of political life and conflict in organizations.

Rationality against Tradition

Tradition plays a role in organizational life and politics in a second way in addition to being a bone of contention. Traditions are usually tacit. People follow them unthinkingly. Many times organizations follow traditions most unthinkingly just when they think they are most rational and scientific. Actions are not traditions. Traditions are the patterns of thought and belief that surround the field of action where passion and calculation dominate. Traditions define the ends, standards, rules, and even means that are part of the social context of action. Traditions as tacit knowledge can enter into organizational life by stifling learning or creating resistance to organizational change. For example, at DEC Corporation a tacit ”engineering culture” developed that made it impossible for managers to focus fully on the needs of customers who desired “simple” or technologically unsophisticated products (Schein 2003). Tacit assumptions were never part of strategic reviews and perceptions arising from tacit assumptions were defended as unchallengeable. DEC’s cultural inflexibility led to its downfall as managers and engineers obsessed with sophisticated technology ignored the huge growth in demand for personal computers.

By and large, people who study organizations have seen tradition as the enemy of organizational health and success. Tradition has been seen as an irrational (unthought) force that undermines organizational rationality and effectiveness. Indeed, much of the study of organizations in the twentieth century has been aimed at ridding organizations of traditional (tacit) forces and replacing them with ever higher levels of rational thought. Early on Barnard wanted to keep the irrational emotions of workers, but to do so under the rational control of rationally superior executives. When it turned out executives could not meet these superior levels of rationality or control the minds of employees even when they did, Dalton (1959) launched a broad based attack on traditions in organizations – what he called ”moral fixity” – in an effort to increase organizational rationality by removing all traditional constraints on action.

This did not increase organizational rationality either. Crozier’s and Kanter’s data on organizational behavior a decade later is quite consistent with Dalton’s. Next came psychological and social psychological attempts to increase the rationality of organizations by addressing the problem on the individual and small group level. A prominent example is Argyris and Schon’s double loop learning model. They draw a distinction between the individual’s ”espoused theory” of action and the ”theory in use,” the latter containing all the tacit (traditional) elements of decision and action. By educating the individual to recognize the tacit dimension of behavior, it is hoped that this dimension can be brought under conscious (rational) control. Traditional elements can then be chosen or rejected according to their rational contribution to organizational goals.

The history of the study of organizations in the United States can mostly be characterized by this unending attempt to remove tacit knowledge (traditions) from organizational decision making and life. Indeed, Schein’s (2003) study of DEC Corporation’s demise concludes that ”innovative cultures” must periodically be dismantled if organizations want to stay innovative, because over time tacit culture will engrain itself and undermine organizational adaptability and change. Interestingly, Schein argues the only way to ”dismantle” a culture is to change the people. He appears to have given up on decades of organizational change and development literature purporting to know how to change the organizational culture by developing the people.

Culture (tradition) need not be seen as so inflexible. And in any case, tradition cannot be removed from human life. Schein’s (2003) suggestion to change the people to rid the organization of the stultifying effects of inflexible traditions would only result in the exchange of one set of traditions for another. One weakness in the literature on ”organizations” is its heavy focus on organization level ”cultures” at the expense of the societal culture of which the organization is an example. Some brief comments are sometimes made about profession level and society level cultural influences, but the lion’s share of attention goes to the relation between organizational ”culture” and organizational goals. However, many times changes in leadership and/or organizational mergers and acquisitions fail to achieve the freeing of traditional (cultural) constraints so strongly desired. The reason for this is that ”new” leaders often cannot change or even communicate with organizational personnel. In any case, any potential leader not only represents a limited range of cultural knowledge, but also any ”new” knowledge he or she has will still need to be adapted and applied. The original organization and its leaders also have this potential for adapt ability and change based on their traditional knowledge.

One exception to the lack of attention to supra organizational cultural forces that influence cultural development on the organizational level is the ”new institutionalism.” In this tradition, ”institutions” are seen as industry, profession, and society level abstractions that operate on the preconscious, cognitive level, providing routine prescriptions for individual and collective behavior. The new institutionalism can be helpful in the study of tradition in organizations because its focus on supra organizational ideational influences on behavior brings into view the broader social and historical context from which traditions in organizations originate. But the new institutionalism’s commitment to macro structures deemphasizes the centrality of family life and the long socialization human beings go through in the process of becoming socially functional and emotionally integrated. Traditions are first learned and personal identity first established inseparably from the warmth and coldness of family relationships. By focusing on the autonomy of macro structures and the impersonal cognition that results from them, the new institutionalism deemphasizes the centrality of filial relations in the transmission of traditions. This results in an insensitivity to conflict because the complexities of individual development and historical specificity are overshadowed by the generalities of social structure. This can be seen in Vaughan’s (1996) study of the Challenger disaster where homogenizing, preconscious macro forces override local leadership, power relations, and emotional dynamics at the Marshall Space Center in explaining the decision making process.

Tradition as a Platform for Rationality

To exist, an organization must be continually reenacted (Feldman 2002). Its statements about its goals, plans, activities, and identity must be repeatedly resaid. The reenactments and resayings are guided by what individual members remember about what has happened in the past, what roles and responsibilities they had in the past and expect to continue to have in the future, what they remember they share with others about what they and others must do and not do, and what they remember about their rights and duties and the rights and duties of others to act in certain ways (Shils 1981). In addition to memory, some parts of some of this information are recorded in written documents such as job descriptions, strategic plans, formal directives, and informal agreements. Hence, organizations are complex webs of formal and informal knowledge, much of it tacit, that regulate social interaction and make it possible for collective action to take place in a more or less shared and coordinated way. This system of knowledge is maintained to considerable degree in organizational traditions.

The fact that the vast bulk of the organization studies literature sees these systems of know ledge, especially the tacit components, as drags on rational goal seeking behavior misunderstands the workings of rationality as well as tradition, especially the essential contribution tradition makes to rational action. Without guidelines and constraints organized and maintained in tradition, creativity and goal seeking would not be more rational but less. Managers would have no way to evaluate their plans and actions and would strike out in many sterile directions, having no organized body of knowledge to give them the benefits of previous experience.

Managers without traditions are akin to novices. Having no platform to orient themselves and from which to start, they would have many more false starts than managers working from established traditions (Shils 1975). The most talented would only discover what others have already discovered. It would take the most powerful and disciplined minds to find their way to essential information in what would be a disorganized and disorderly state of knowledge. The less powerful minds would be lost or misled much of the time. Even geniuses would be constrained in a world without traditions, because they could not possibly rediscover all that traditions, maintained and cultivated by whole communities, past and present, would provide, thus limiting the full utilization of their capacities.

Traditions provide the intellectual and experiential platform by which rational thought and actions can be formulated, critically reflected upon, and advanced. Rationality is an unfolding within traditional knowledge. More to the point at hand, shared understanding is essential for individual and organizational effectiveness. Traditions maintain the knowledge that makes shared understanding possible.

The Ubiquity of Traditions in Organizations

The survival of traditions in organizations from the attack on traditional authority by forces of rationalism, or what Schumpeter overly optimistically called ”creative destruction,” can be attributed to several reasons in addition to the necessary role tradition plays in developing knowledge and organizing cooperative effort. First, much of the acceptance of traditional beliefs is due simply to the massiveness of their existence. A newcomer to an organization has her hands full just to try to work effectively in the ongoing processes and systems already in place. The idea that she would create the knowledge she needed for every decision or action just when she needed it is out of the question. She has neither the time, the resources, nor the approval of her superiors to review all organizational procedures and processes. On the contrary, she must find a way to act acceptably and organizational traditions offer her a readymade and legitimate model. In addition, most people are affected psychologically by the fact that many people around them are working with a common stock of knowledge. The newcomer assumes the legitimacy of this knowledge out of respect for the many and for the ongoing ”success” of the organization. The sheer pervasiveness of traditions in organizations is probably the most central reason for their acceptance.

A second reason tradition is so widely accepted is that most people do not have the imagination to create new guidelines for the situations they encounter. In the face of the overwhelming challenges a world with even limited traditions would pose for most people, traditions ”permit life to move along lines set and anticipated from past experience and thus subtly converts the anticipated into the inevitable and the inevitable into the acceptable” (Shils 1981: 198). Thus tradition provides answers for the scarcity of information, the limits of intellectual capacity, and the moral and psychological needs of the individual.

The need for collective and individual identity is the third reason people in organizations are powerfully drawn to traditions. It is true individuals vary in regard to how much they internalize an organizational identity, but all individuals do so to some extent if for no other reason than to effectively participate in the life of the organization. For many others, however, a more intensive identification with the organization is sought. At the old ”Ma Bell” telephone system, for example, employees referred to each other as having ”Bell heads.” Individuals seek organizational traditions to designate themselves as members of the organization. They need to do this to make sense of and give a rationale for their life in the organization. The Bell heads” understood the organization as a public service organization and this justified the sacrifices that were demanded of them to maintain telephone service in times of natural disasters. Only traditions, generalized and refined over time, provide the integration of diverse experiences around a unifying theme or set of beliefs. It is this integrative process that is able to provide the individual with self designation in the transindividual organization.

The motivation for seeking organizational identity is complex. Postmodernists and critical theorists have called attention to the brain washing” that takes place in organizations through the intimidation of power and the socialization into organizationally self serving values such as materialism and hierarchical status. But there is another reason: individuals identify with organizations to transcend themselves as individuals in an effort to associate themselves with important and vital things. For the Bell employees this was helping the weak and needy in times of disaster. Important and vital things are not fashions but beliefs or perceptions that have a depth in time. To have a depth in time, these beliefs and perceptions must be encapsulated in traditions. Without this attachment to important and vital things whose existence transcends not just the individual but his contemporaries as well, organizational identity is weak and shallow, making it vulnerable to manipulation and degradation, as was demonstrated, for example, in the moral collapse of Enron’s culture.

The need for moral culture is the fourth reason tradition is essential to organizational life. Contemporary organizations such as Enron demonstrate clearly the problem people have in an environment without moral limits. It is not just the interpersonal dishonesty, lying, deception, unbridled aggression, manipulation, and theft. In Enron’s case, one high ranking finance executive at the center of the scandal committed suicide. To say individuals seek to transcend themselves through identification with the organization as a means to order and justify their experience implies the profound moral effect organizations can have on their members. In some organizations – churches and schools, for example – a transcendent realm is sought where sacred values can be reflected upon and cultivated in order to seek help in knowing how to live and even why to live. Hence, organizations maintain and inculcate the most basic and long standing values that constitute the broader society.

These traditions promulgated by churches and schools are, in a more attenuated form, the same traditions found in most organizations. Nonprofit organizations, for example, are “mission driven” and the mission is the cultivation and practice of moral values. Take for example the Red Cross, which provides assistance to victims of disaster, or the Sierra Club, which seeks to safeguard the natural environment. In the for profit area, the record is more mixed. Many businesses merely pursue profits with little regard for anything more than obeying the law to avoid indictments, fines, and jail or the great economic costs of severe stake holder backlash. But even in the for profit area, socially responsible” businesses contribute to the maintenance, cultivation, and practice of some of the most central moral values in our society: Levi Strauss & Company, for example, pulled its business out of China partly because of human rights violations; and the sporting goods maker Patagonia pulled its mountain climbing products off the market because they were damaging the natural environment.


As long as we desire to act collectively, we will need organizations; as long as we need organizations, we will utilize structures of authority; as long as we create structures of authority, authority will enmesh itself in tradition to stabilize and prolong itself. This is not, though it often becomes, a mere power grab” by the possessors of organizational authority. Authority and the traditions that maintain it are a necessary requirement of social organization. For those who seek to correct abuses of power (or to exercise power themselves), the cause of organizational change” seems right and just. But when changes so undermine the structure of traditional authority, there is little left to oppose the march of power or its total enactment in an Enron type regression to total exploitation and greed. In these situations, few have the sense or the courage to challenge the powers that be, no matter how corrupt. Indeed, in the Enron case, even the moral leaders and legal experts on the board of directors supported and formally approved management behavior. It is here that traditions in organizations have their most vital role to play: to maintain and cultivate the moral standards by which interpersonal relations and collective action can be limited and regulated. Tradition, because of its partial autonomy from the structure of organizational power through its depth (legitimacy) in time, is most well suited as a force to limit the abuse of power in organizations.


  1. Dalton, M. (1959)Men Who Manage. Wiley, New York.
  2. Feldman, P. (2002)Memory as a Moral Decision. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ.
  3. MacIntyre, (1981)After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.
  4. Schein, E. (2003)DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.
  5. Shils, E. (1975)Center and Periphery. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Shils, E. (1981) University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Vaughan, D. (1996)The Challenger Launch Decision. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Back to Sociology of Organizations