Organizational Rituals: Features, Functions and Mechanisms

Aaron C.T. Smith, Bob Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


This review identifies the defining features of rituals and their functions in organizations, culminating in two key claims. First, organizational rituals can be described on a spectrum based on the fullness and degree of their expression. Complete or 'full' organizational rituals possess a greater number and intensity of ritual features than 'ritual-like' activities. The efficacy of an activity corresponds to its alignment with the features of full rituals. Ritual-like activities are therefore less powerful and more frequent organizational events than full rituals. Second, it is theorized that rituals work through three mutually reinforcing mechanisms: cognitive capture, emotional anchoring and behavioural prescription. It is proposed that rituals work by channelling (1) cognitive content, (2) affective responses and (3) behavioural activity toward the cultural expectations of organizations and their members. Organizational rituals may be characterized as standardized, rule-bound, predictable and repetitive behaviours undertaken in conditions demanding explicit performance expectations. Rituals are physically enacted to conform to a specified and invariable sequence, and are invested with added significance through a combination of formality and symbolism. Nine inter-dependent functions of rituals are specified, which are to: (1) provide meaning; (2) manage anxiety; (3) exemplify and reinforce the social order; (4) communicate important values; (5) enhance group solidarity; (6) include and exclude others; (7) signal commitment; (8) manage work structure; and (9) prescribe and reinforce significant events. These functions underline the role that rituals play as communication and learning systems, drawing attention to what is important and helping to funnel the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of organizational members. Organizational rituals are particularly important because they not only illuminate organizational behaviour, but also entrench or challenge existing cultural values.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-133
Number of pages21
JournalInternational Journal of Management Reviews
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


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