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The OCR Glossary


Nils Brunsson

Organizations are generally expected to act according to the decisions and presentations of their management. But organizations may also talk in one way, decide in another, and act in a third way. Organizational hypocrisy can be defined as a situation where organizations act contrary to their talk or decisions.

Hypocrisy is a response to a world in which values, ideas, or people are in conflict—a way in which individuals and organizations handle such conflicts. Conflicting demands on an individual or organization are reflected in an inconsistency between talk, decisions, and actions. Hypocrisy is a way of trying to satisfy some demands by talk or decisions and others by action. For instance, a company could try to satisfy environmental concerns by producing visions or plans or make decisions about environmental protection while satisfying demands for profitability by continuing to use polluting production processes. To act consistently with what is said and what is decided would be to satisfy one interest while leaving the others completely unsatisfied.

According to standard administrative wisdom and traditional decision theory, management talk and decisions in one direction increase the likelihood of organizational action in the same direction. But in situations of conflicting demands, it is easier to act in one direction if either the talk or the decision indicates the opposite; that is, the likelihood of an action decreases the more it is talked about and the more clear decisions are made about it. Its likelihood increases if what is said and what is decided are in opposition to it. Talk and decisions in one direction compensate for actions in the opposite direction, and vice versa. Talk, decisions, and actions are not “de-coupled” or “loosely coupled” but “coupled,” although in a way opposite to what is usually assumed.

Hypocrisy can be expected to be particularly common when conflicts are extensive or strong or when they are emphasized. Politics in democratic states tends to generate hypocrisy. But most other contemporary organizations are exposed to conflicting demands. For example, modern companies should be profitable, provide employment, offer a good working environment, provide their employees with decent wages, give good service to their customers, and contribute to a sustainable physical environment. Companies shall demonstrate “corporate social responsibility.” Such responsibility is fertile ground for hypocrisy, and hypocrisy becomes an important source of legitimacy for organizations.

Hypocrisy may be used as a conscious strategy by managers for whom the legitimacy of an organization is important. But organizational hypocrisy also arises without anyone having intended it. Hypocrisy is not only an active answer to conflict; it also arises as a result of conflict. For example, a decision about a certain action can be the very impetus for its opponents to make active resistance that prevents the implementation of the action. And those who favor the decided action are pacified if they believe that their preferred option is now well under way. Or hypocrisy arises although people intend the opposite. For example, it is not unusual to set goals in areas where the organization is weak, in areas in which it has not succeeded in satisfying a certain interest through action. Such goals are, by definition, examples of hypocrisy, for they express what is not being done, but the purpose of setting goals may be to harmonize talk, decisions, and actions, at least in the long run.

This entry on hypocrisy examines people’s attention to talk and decisions, metahypocrisy, stability and instability, and problematic hypocrisy as they relate to corporate reputation.

Attention to Talk and Decisions

Hypocrisy is meaningful only if people value not only organizational actions but also organizational talk and decisions. Modern organizations produce a great deal of talk and decisions. Organizations are seldom secretive about their visions, programs, and important decisions; on the contrary, these are often published. Modern corporations have communication departments that specialize in explaining the what and why of current strategies and decisions to external and internal parties. Politics revolves, to a large extent, around ways of talking and of presenting decisions. And organizations rarely need to go begging for attention—mass media interest is high for organizational planning, strategies, programs, opinions, and decisions. Talk and decisions generally reach wider audiences than actions do. As Niccolò Machiavelli noted, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”

Some people may think that talk and decisions have a value per se and are, therefore, attentive to organizational talk and decisions. Others may value organizational actions only. But if people of the latter category believe in standard decision theory, they are anyhow likely to pay attention to talk and decisions; they then assume that talk and decisions about an action they like increase the likelihood of that action being taken. In this case, hypocrisy will “work” precisely because people do not believe in it. If these people abandoned their belief in standard decision theory and converted to a belief in the theory of hypocrisy, the latter would not work anymore.


For those who want to make organizational hypocrisy work, there is reason to actively support standard decision theory, convincing people that there is no hypocrisy, that their organization works according to the traditional model and does not produce hypocrisy. Doing that is in itself a form of hypocrisy but on a higher level—a “metahypocrisy”—the posture that a hypocritical organization is not a hypocrite. For instance, metahypocrisy may consist of a description of the (hypocritical) organization that is not uncommon: as one coherent actor in which the visions and decisions of management are not merely talk but permeate all actions, where actions constitute the fundamental task of the organization and where talk and decisions have as their sole purpose to create the corresponding action.

The idea that talk, decisions, and action shall be consistent is not only a common assumption but also a widespread norm in society: Neither persons nor organizations should be hypocritical. A further reason for producing metahypocrisy is to avoid being censured by that norm, to avoid gaining a reputation for being hypocritical. Metahypocrisy can be understood in a way similar to basic hypocrisy. The norm that makes hypocrisy unacceptable is another demand on individuals and on organizations that is above and beyond all other demands placed on them. If the other demands are contradictory, sometimes the only solution is hypocrisy. The demand that one should not be a hypocrite is contradictory to the sum of the other demands: One should not be hypocritical plus one should be hypocritical. This contradictory demand can be met with hypocrisy in the same way that hypocrisy is used to meet other contradictory demands, but this raises hypocrisy to the level of metahypocrisy: One continues to be a hypocrite, but one claims that one is not. The less consistency there is in talk, decision, and action in an organization, the more likely it is that there will be an accusation of hypocrisy, and the more important it is to assert that there is no hypocrisy.

Stability and Instability

Hypocrisy often involves a time horizon: Talk and decisions that compensate current actions often concern what shall be done in the future, even in a distant one. Adding a time dimension makes it easier to create a tolerance for the discrepancies among the present talk, decisions, and actions. But a time dimension may make hypocrisy unstable—there may be a strong pressure for finally implementing at a later time the talk and decisions produced in a previous period. There is a risk that the conflicting demands cannot be met with hypocrisy any more.

On the other hand, there are also factors that stabilize hypocrisy. For instance, in a distant future, implementation may be avoided because people have forgotten the old decisions or think that the situation has changed too much for the old decisions to be relevant. And the new situation can be met with a new set of inconsistent talk, decisions, and actions. Alternatively, any possible reminders of previous decisions may be met with renewed hypocrisy. One example of renewed hypocrisy is to make a new decision to actually implement the previous decision in the near or distant future while implementation is still lacking. Another example is when a previous decision is implemented but is now compensated for by talk and decisions in the opposite direction.

Problematic Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy has a problematic side when organizations are to be controlled from the outside and from the top down. This is in conflict with the standard formal construction of organizations, according to which people at the top of the organizational hierarchy have the right to exercise power and do so by making decisions that should then be implemented in action. People choose political organs that have the task of deciding what the government should do. Shareholders choose a general meeting that, in turn, chooses a board of directors, which has as its task to run the company through the decisions it makes. Potential conflicts are to be dealt with in the decision-making process only, and should the structure work as intended, there can be no hypocrisy.

More generally, the existence of hypocrisy poses a difficulty for all those who want to influence the actions of an organization via its formal decision-making system, whether they are decision makers or internal or external lobbyists. If there is no risk of hypocrisy, lobbyists can work through talk and decisions. They can attempt to induce organizations to talk in accordance with the action that they wish to see implemented, and they can attempt to convince them to make decisions to that effect, thereby increasing the likelihood of the desired action actually taking place. If, however, there is a risk of hypocrisy, such attempts can become counterproductive. If the lobbyists succeed in convincing the decision makers to make the right decision, there is a risk that they will lose the chance of seeing the desired action actually carried out. Awareness of the chance or risk of hypocrisy is an important insight for both external lobbying groups and those who want to influence the actions of their own organizations.

Hypocrisy can be seen as morally problematic. But the relationship between hypocrisy and morality is an ambiguous one. While many would agree that one should not strive for more hypocrisy, a complete lack of hypocrisy has been defined as fanaticism, as too strong a commitment to one’s values. And, just like sin, hypocrisy can even be seen as a prerequisite for sound morals. If the managers of an organization do not allow themselves to profess and propagate higher values than those portrayed by organizational actions—that is, if they do not allow for hypocrisy—then they run the risk of not having very high morals at all. Hypocrisy makes it possible to talk and make decisions about high values, even for those who do not act in accordance with these values—for instance, to decide on environmental goals and plans even if the production or the products of the company are heavily polluting. If only the few who act in accordance with high values are allowed to support them, substantially fewer people can express their support. As François de la Rochefoucauld put it in his Maximes (1678), hypocrisy can be seen as “a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Morality does not necessarily gain from the cessation of hypocrisy.

Brunsson, N. (2002). The organization of hypocrisy: Talk, decisions and actions in organizations (2nd ed.). Copenhagen, Denmark: Copenhagen Business School Press.

Brunsson, N. (2006). Organized hypocrisy. In N. Brunsson (Ed.), The consequences of decision-making (pp. 111–134). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edelman, M. (1971). Politics as symbolic action. New York: Academic Press.

Krasner, S. (1999). Sovereignty: Organized hypocrisy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lipson, M. (2007). Peacekeeping: Organized hypocrisy? European Journal of International Relations, 13(1), 5–34.

Machiavelli, N. (1999). Il principe [The prince, G. Bull, trans.]. London: Penguin Classics.

Shklar, J. (1984). Ordinary vices. London: Belknap Harvard University Press.

See Also

Corporate Social Irresponsibility; Corporate Social Responsibility, Communication of; Ethics of Reputation Management

See Also

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