Organizational Sacred Cows

Status Quo Bias
Knowledge Center

Devayani Vyavaharkar
Student (University), India

Organizational Sacred Cows

The future effectiveness of organizations is contingent upon organizational change. Organizations need to bring about and adapt to external and internal change factors now and then or even continuously if they wish to keep their doors open.
There are many factors such as downsizing , new leadership, innovation, productivity concerns or new competitors that can urge organizations to change. According to Kriegel and Brandt (1996), the very first step to organizational change involves the sacred cow hunt.

Organizational Sacred Cow - Introduction

Organizational sacred cows refer to practices or behaviour patterns that have been in organizations for a long time. The term 'sacred' is subjective and different for every organization. A practice or a policy that is "sacred" for one might not be considered sacred for another organization. Sacred cows are used despite being ineffective in the longer run. Their continued use can reduce productivity, creativity and innovation, ultimately becoming costly to individuals and organizations. The term is an organizational metaphor. Sacred cows could be seen as a form of organizational status quo bias.

Transformation requires the organization to challenge everything, consider new facts, data and engage in innovative thinking. If the organization refrains from leaving past behaviour patterns and developing a future orientation, organizational change may become very challenging. It might no longer be necessary for organizations to avoid bumping into those sacred cows in the current times, which was once considered a top priority in the past. Hence, there is a need to engage in a sacred cow hunt as an organization-wide attempt to eliminate those practices that do not serve any useful purpose.

Three Types of Sacred Cows in Organizations

Kriegel and Brandt (1997) focused on 3 types of sacred cows commonly found in organizations:
  1. The Paper Cow refers to those forms and reports that constitute unnecessary paperwork and cost the organizations time, money and effort to prepare and distribute them regularly. To determine what types of paper-work constitute a paper cow, organizations should consider how it increases the productivity and efficiency of their employees. Another practice would be to review all forms and reports that are printed annually and to determine whether they are truly needed and, if yes, then whether they are needed in the paper format. For instance, in 2018, the Bank of America started making efforts to recycle their used papers and tried ways of eliminating paper cows by cutting back on every day in-house paper use, and thus reduced their paper consumption by 32 per cent. see also: Transition to a Paperless Office: Best Practices
  2. The Meeting Cow refers to the length and number of meetings that are held. Often the question arises on whether the extensive hours, energy and money that employees spent on planning, preparing and attending meetings is really necessary. Excessive meetings result in reduced productivity, information overload and increase inefficiency. To eliminate the meeting cow, companies can force individuals planning a meeting to consider the benefits of each meeting against its cost and necessity.
  3. The Speed Cow refers to unnecessary deadlines that employees are often forced to meet. Sometimes, it becomes a priority to complete given assignments within some particular, limited time. However, unnecessary deadlines cause employees to work faster, decrease the quality of their output, keep them from other - perhaps more important - work, and result in increased stress and strains. See also: Time Management
For organizations to implement change effectively, it is necessary to get rid of such organizational sacred cows. This can be accomplished by initiating organization-wide sacred cow hunts to eliminate them to ensure smooth functioning.
Apart from the 3 organizational sacred cows described above, several others hamper organizational progress in different ways.

⇒ Can you think of any other organizational sacred cows that you have come across? Do mention them in the comments below.

Aamodt, M. G. (2016). I/O applications workbook: Industrial/organizational psychology: an applied approach. (pp. 504-505) Cengage Learning
Kriegel R.J. and Brandt D. (1997), "Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers: Developing Change-Driving People and Organizations", Warner Books, Inc.
Challenging Sacred Cows that Inhibit Successful Transformation. Social, Agile, and Transformation. (2016, May 16)
Robbins, S. P. (1983). Organization theory: the structure and design of organizations. Prentice-Hall

  Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

Sacred Cow is a Metaphor

What I like in particular about this term ("Sacred Cow") is first of all that it's a good metaphor for things out of the...

  wicks were
Student (MBA), Kenya

Indispensable Cows

Given a chance I would add another type of sacred cow and tag them as the 4. Indispensable Cow. This category of sacred...

  Sashi Rao
Management Consultant, India

A Further Sacred Cow!

Let me add one more, which I call the 5. Procedural Cow. What I mean is continuing the way things have been always done...

  Timothy Hamooya
Student (MBA), Zambia

Indispensable Cows

@Wicks were: Yes I agree some long term employees can be a problem. Especially when they know that they have connection ...


Shoot the Cow?

Maybe a new term 'Shoot the Cow' should be introduced? This refers to the leadership mismanagement in orgs which leads t...


En Español:La Vaca de Papel y la Vaca de la Reunion

La Vaca de Papel: no beneficia al patrocinador, mucho menos al empleado, roba tiempo y eficacia en el rendimiento de la ...

  Miguel Fernandes

Be Careful with Shooting the Cow!

The term "Shoot the cow" may be strongly rejected by the organization itself. This is not based on the intrinsic goal to...

  Zoltan Zentai
Director, Hungary

6. Personal Cows

A sacred cow could also be a person or several persons in the organisation. For example we may have colleagues in a comp...

  Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

Avoid the Term 'Shooting Cows'

I agree with Miguel Fernandes that there is always a personal risk involved when trying to get sacred cows out of the wa...

  Vasant Pawar
Director, India

Loyal Cow: 'Loyalty' - the Credential of a Sacred Cow

A major variant of the people cow is the 7. Loyal Cow. For business owners, loyalty from employees is paramount. At tim...

  Helen Strong
Business Consultant, South Africa

Renaming the Ones Who Cannot be Reached

@Wicks were: Perhaps, in line with the origin of 'sacred cows' Indispensable cows are 'Untouchables?' Nobody dares harm ...

  Ekechi Festus
Management Consultant, Nigeria

Sacred Cows in Government in Developing Countries

Sacred Cows within the context of the conversation abound in the public sector in some developing countries. It is commo...

  Santhosh Hegde
Consultant, India

Procedural Sacred Cow

@Sashi Rao: Yes I agree to your procedural sacred cow - many organizations continue to resist change through their once ...

  Osman Abdel-Rahman
CEO, Ghana

Organizational Space Cow

Yes, and I will like to add: 8. Space Cow. Some spaces in organizations can be "reserved" for some people or certain th...

  Srinivas Vedula
Business Consultant, India

Sacred Cows - Why they Exist?

Before we comment on what procedure/process/review mechanism/employees group needs to be changed, we need to understand ...

Manager, South Africa

Sacred Cows' Influence to the Culture of Any Organisation

The culture of an organisation will remain no matter how negative it is, as long as the sacred cows remain. Whatever sac...

CxO / Board, India

Sacred Cow Form the Culture of the Organization and Need to be Addressed Carefully

Very interesting topic, the author has brought up here for discussion. Extremely pleased to see first 3 category of cows...

  Jan Leys
Senior executive, Belgium

9. External Stamp-of-Approval Cows

With External Dtamp-of-approval Cows I mean that (Top) management is seeking approval of external consultants, overrated...

  Javier Elenes
Business Consultant, Mexico

Updating, Reenigineering Procedures Underlying Sacred Cows

@Jaap de Jonge: Indeed, we should not shoot procedural sacred cows; it's better just to "UPDATE" the key procedures, "RE...

Business Consultant

The 10. Cash Cow - the Most Sacred One

In this cash cow, retained profits are not used for company growth. Instead, companies with this cow are over-leveraged ...

Management Consultant, Malaysia

Sacred Cows in Developing Countries

@Ekechi Festus: I highly agree with you. You nicely summarized this disastrous cow-situation in developing countries. I ...

Teacher, India

The Hybrid Organizational Cow

A good thought could perhaps be that ordinary cows can be transformed into a more modern "Hybrid Cow". With changed bus...

  Helen Strong
Business Consultant, South Africa

11. Origin or Source Cows

Often one will find that organisations are reluctant to accept a new idea or innovation that comes from the 'wrong' peop...

  Gibson M. Mwawasi
Business Consultant, Kenya

Origins or Source Cows

@Helen Strong: I concur with this argument. Conventional institutional structures put emphasis on the position rather th...

  Justina Princess Ezeuzoh


@Jaap de Jonge: This metaphor "Sacred Cows" is so pungent as it takes my mind to the Sacred Cows syndrome going on in Ni...

  Garth Nowland-Foreman
Partner, New Zealand

Put the Cow 'out to Pasture' Instead

@Miguel Fernandes: Yes, much better to put the 'sacred cow' 'out to pasture' - a restful and easy retirement, but out of...

  Isaiah Maisiba
Manager, Kenya

Involve Drivers of Sacred Cows in Change Management

A useful leadership technique is called "co-opting". Whenever the need to upgrade the sacred cow is sensed, involve the ...

  Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

12. Status Quo Cow

This time you truly wowed me... Thank you all members that contributed to this discussion for your amazing views! I thi...


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