Temporal Dimensions of Hypocrisy

By Lars Thøger Christensen.

Hypocrisy is a serious charge for social actors, especially organizations and politicians, whose profession depends on perceptions of sincerity and credibility. To call someone a hypocrite is to challenge his or her moral integrity and to indicate that the object of the accusation cannot be trusted. In spite of their seriousness, however, hypocrisy charges are frequent occurrences in public debate. Whereas the notion of hypocrisy used to refer specifically to the practice of engaging in the very same immoral behavior for which one castigates other actors, today it is likely to be mobilized whenever gaps, imbalances or disparities between one set of activities and another can be observed and claimed. Hypocrisy, in other words, has become an expansive arena.

Hypocrisy charges have become dissociated from moral preaching and refer today more broadly to perceived inconsistencies between talk and action.

For organizations, such inconsistencies are countless. This is especially the case when their talk concerns complex activities that extend far beyond the immediate present and involve dimensions of the organization’s past and future. Organizations, for example, are often accused by stakeholders for inconsistencies between their current ideals and their former practices. Similarly, stakeholders frequently reject future-oriented goals with reference to present-day activities. Since hypocrisy charges can be damaging to one’s reputation, however, organizations are likely to counter such challenges by reasserting some sort of consistency between their past, present and future. While such endeavours tend to attract criticism, they are quite common practices in contemporary organizations.

Influenced by an expanded understanding of hypocrisy, many organizations are engaged in practices of consistency management.

Instead of admitting the existence of inconsistencies, disjunctures or dilemmas among different dimensions of their practices, organizations engage in “communicative acrobatics” in order to navigate in the unruly waters of their past, their present and their future. Examples of such acrobatics are aspiration, deferment, evasion and re-narration.

Aspiration denotes organizational ambitions camouflaged as accurate self-descriptions. While aspirations might come across as more credible if they were presented as future-oriented goals, the combined desire to improve the organization’s reputational standing and motivate internal audiences towards better practices implies that such self-descriptions tend to be formulated as if they reflect already existing practices.

Deferment refers to delays, extensions or suspensions of organizational action towards better futures. While such delays may be accepted in some contexts, they are likely to be met with suspicion when they involve responsible or sustainable practices. Organizations that find themselves behind schedule or not yet able to evidence the results of their initiatives, must therefore engage vigorously in justifications.

Evasion describes organizational attempts to bypass, neglect or otherwise distance themselves from dubious or irresponsible decisions and behaviors of their past. Since the past is frequently evoked by critics to dismiss the credibility of current organizational goals and visions and to support charges of hypocrisy, it is crucial for many organizations to stress that what used to be common practice has been terminated long time ago.

Re-narration refers to attempts by organizations to mobilize and reedit their past in self-flattery ways. As a particular practice aimed at retroactively editing the past in the interest of the present and the future, re-narration involves selecting and rearranging specific events and symbols of the past into an idealized picture that can be used as a resource to guide and justify current practices and future goals.

These are just a few examples of organizational attempts to bypass hypocrisy charges in the shape of inconsistencies or tensions between their past, their present and their future. Interestingly, such attempts tend to reproduce hypocrisy in new forms – forms, which are just as likely to attract attention and criticism. As such, hypocrisy has potential to do something to organizations and society over time.

The combination of hypocrisy and stakeholder criticism has performative potential.

Many aspirations, for example, are hypocritical because they exaggerate organizational abilities and accomplishments. At the same time, they have performative potential to the extent that they mobilize employees and NGOs to demand better practices. Also, aspirations may inspire similar aspirations among competitors such that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Similarly, while deferment practices may relieve the organization from immediate pressure to do exactly as they say, they simultaneously indicate that organizations are sensitive to their social standing and hold on to their future-directed ideals and goals.

Such sensitivity might be used by stakeholders to demand further explanations and updated timeframes. By holding on to long-term-ideals and goals, even when they are difficult to implement in full, organizations seem to acknowledge what is right and what they ought to do. Similarly, even if evasion may be a tempting way out for organizations when facing negative publicity about their past, such practice indicates that organizational actors are aware that certain practices no longer are acceptable.
Finally, the fact that many corporations seek to re-narrate their past indicates some awareness that change is called for and that organizational endeavors are being vigilantly observed by others.

Without hypocrisy, organizations may relieve themselves from pressures to become better.

None of this is to suggest that hypocrisy automatically generates better practices. Rather, it is a call to investigate further how hypocrisy in the shape of inconsistencies can be mobilized to perform in the interest of society.

Suggestions for further readings

Brunsson, N. (2003). Organized hypocrisy. In B. Czarniawska & G. Sevón G. (Eds), The Northern lights – organization theory in Scandinavia (pp. 201-222). Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press.

Cho, C. H., Laine, M., Roberts, R. W., & Rodrigue, M. (2015). Organized hypocrisy, organizational façades, and sustainability reporting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 40, 78-94.

Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2013). CSR as aspirational talk. Organization, 20(3), 372-393.

Haack, P., Schoeneborn. D., & Wickert, C. (2012). Talking the talk, moral entrapment, creeping commitment? Exploring narrative dynamics in corporate responsibility standardization. Organization Studies, 33(5-6), 815-845.

About the Author

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

By the same author: License to Critique: Inoculating Standards against Closure.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash.