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The OCR Glossary

Legacy Organizational Identity

Ian J. Walsh

Legacy organizational identity represents a shared claim by former organizational members that defines “who we were as an organization.” It perpetuates the lasting meaning of defunct organizations by projecting the central and distinctive characteristics that composed their identities from the past to the present. Commonalities and distinctions are visible between identities of intact organizations and legacy identities of defunct organizations. First, both draw on core identity elements that represent an organization’s central character. Through legacy identities, these elements persist beyond an episode of organizational demise. Second, organizational leaders serve an important role in interpreting and shaping them. Finally, both provide scripts for social interaction and guiding behavior by projecting a “way of life.” Much like organizational identities of active organizations, legacy organizational identities serve as important touchstones in anchoring and shaping contemporary understandings of organizations’ reputations. In the case of defunct organizations, legacy identities serve a particularly important purpose in propagating the reputations of organizations that can no longer actively manage them. This entry provides a review of the content of legacy identities and how they are constructed and perpetuated.

Legacy organizational identities are embodied in “defining artifacts” or organizational elements that deeply influence collective sensemaking about an organization. While legacy identities can come to be broadly understood by outsiders, former members of an organization serve as important caretakers who promote and secure what they value through their institutional guardianship. Through this guardianship, members sustain a legacy by perpetuating values, practices, and objectives that were crucial sources of value during their membership.

When organizations are being shut down, leaders have an opportunity to engage in meaning making that triggers the creation of legacy identities. The ways in which leaders take advantage of these opportunities shape whether and how an organization is remembered as an entity. Leaders are well-known carriers of organizational identity and thus are instrumental in the emergence of legacy identities. Leaders engage in two forms of sensemaking that give rise to legacy identities: sensebreaking and sensegiving. Through sensebreaking, leaders convince members to come to see organizational life, and their participation in it, in the past tense. This experience of sensebreaking evokes an experience of subtractive identity change, cognitively detaching members from an organization and leaving them with some degree of concern about what has been lost. Leaders’ sensebreaking is reinforced through symbolic actions associated with demise, such as the shuttering of physical spaces and the dispensing of iconic symbols of organizational life. The ensuing sense of loss leaves members seeking ways to reestablish a sense of the collective self.

Whether it be formal or informal, leadership in the aftermath of demise refocuses members’ attention on shared central and distinctive traits of the organization, thereby initiating the restabilization of organizational identity in the form of a legacy. When leaders respond to this emerging need for meaning, they foster the development of legacy identities through sensegiving that reaffirms the positive character of the organization and individuals’ identification with it. Sensegiving amid organizational demise reminds organization members about the timeless value of those organizational characteristics about which they cared deeply, thus shaping a new, if retrospective and nostalgic, understanding of the contemporary meaning of the organization that has ceased to exist.

Legacy identities may be preserved by leaders’ and members’ engagement in sustenance activities, through which they create new organizations that carry forward the valued elements of organizational life. These ex morte ventures may serve as explicit vehicles for promoting a legacy organizational identity by continuing to enliven its central and distinctive characteristics, such as work processes, products, or relationships. Through their sensegiving and engagement in sustenance activities, leaders restabilize shared understandings of an organization’s identity, albeit in a firmly retrospective manner.

Legacy organizational identities are deeply rooted in an organization’s past but carry forward the organization’s most defining characteristics into the present day, thus suggesting that they are important channels for sustaining organizational memories when the organizational structures that produced them have dissolved.

Howard-Grenville, J., Metzger M. L., & Meyer, A. D. (2013). Rekindling the flame: Processes of identity resurrection. Academy of Management Journal, 56, 113–136.

Lawrence, K. E., Cecily, R., & Locander, W. B. (2011). Ethical scandal, legacy identity, and relationship outcomes: Sensemaking of the innocents. Corporate Reputation Review, 14, 97–113.

O’Mahony, S., & Lakhani, K. R. (2011). Organizations in the shadow of communities. In C. Marquis, M. Lounsbury, & R. Greenwood (Eds.), Research in the sociology of organizations (Vol. 33, pp. 3–36). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

Walsh, I. J., & Bartunek, J. M. (2011). Cheating the fates: Organizational foundings in the wake of demise. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 1017–1044.

Walsh, I. J., & Glynn, M. A. (2008). The way we were: Legacy organization identity and the role of leadership. Corporate Reputation Review, 11, 262–276.

See Also

Corporate History; Leadership’s Role in Reputation; Meaning; Organizational and Corporate Image; Organizational Identity; Organizational Renewal; Revisionist History; Sensemaking Theory

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