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From Smoke and Mirrors to Walking the Talk: Characteristics and Consequences of Decoupling in the Contemporary World

From Smoke and Mirrors to Walking the Talk: Characteristics and Consequences of Decoupling in the Contemporary World

Patricia Bromley and Walter W. Powell 

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The pervasive spread of rationalizing trends in society, such as the growing influence of managerial sciences and increasing emphases on accountability and transparency, has created significant changes in organizations’ external environments. As a result, there is growing pressure on organizations to align their policies and practices, and to conform to pressures in an expanding array of domains, from protecting the natural world to promoting employee morale. In this context, we reconsider the concept of decoupling as it applies to organizations. Through a review and critique of existing research, we argue that the common understanding of decoupling—as a gap between policy and practice—obscures the rise of a more prevalent and consequential form of decoupling—a gap between means and ends. We describe when to expect both policy–practice and means–ends decoupling, and we indicate promising areas for research. The major consequences of this overlooked form of decoupling are that in an effort to monitor and evaluate activities where the relationship between means and ends is opaque, (a) internal organizational structures become increasingly complex, (b) organizations persist in a state of perpetual reform, and (c) resources are often diverted away from core goals.