From Ritual to Reality

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Academy of Management Journal 2010, Vol. 53, No. 6, 1474–1498.

FROM RITUAL TO REALITY: DEMOGRAPHY, IDEOLOGY, AND DECOUPLING IN A POST-COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT AGENCY
´ ANDRAS TILCSIK Harvard University
Decoupling—the creation of gaps between formal policies and actual practices—is ubiquitous in organizations. Yet little research has examined how decoupling unfolds over time. This qualitative case study of a post-Communist government agency develops process models of what precedes and what follows the decision to decouple. I show that the demography and ideology of powerful organization members influence whether decoupling occurs, how it unfolds, and whether it is sustainable. Further, I suggest decoupling may carry seeds of its own decay: under certain conditions, the decision to decouple can trigger demographic changes that eventually erode decoupling.

In institutional theory, decoupling refers to creating and maintaining gaps between symbolically adopted formal policies and actual organizational practices (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Decoupling occurs in a variety of organizations. Corporations frequently adopt executive incentive programs that they use only limitedly, or not at all, in practice (Westphal & Zajac, 1994). Governments create environmental policies but often fail to enforce them (Schofer & Hironaka, 2005). Schools embrace formal standards symbolically but decouple them from the actual routines of teaching (Meyer & Rowan, 1978). Even radical social movement organizations adopt socially acceptable procedures and use them to mask their actual, controversial activities (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992). Researchers have produced valuable insights into why organizations engage in decoupling. A common theme in this research is that decoupling is a response to institutional pressures—that is, pressures to comply with regulations and norms about how organizations should be structured and operated. In the face of institutional pressures to adopt particular polices or



References: December APPENDIX C FIGURE C1 Decision Makers with Direct Responsibilities over Fund Allocation, 1997 and 2007a a Gray boxes indicate that in the given year the position was filled by an employee who had joined the Agency during the Communist era (i.e., before 1990). This chart does not include secretarial positions with no decision-making power.

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