Mission, vision, and value statements have become ubiquitous across the business landscape as leaders attempt to establish aims for their organizations and convey expectations about ethics and principles to employees, customers, and other stakeholders. These statements are often intended to unify workers around an organizational culture that reflects presumed common values and beliefs. They also function as codes of ethics using ideas such as commitment to diversity or integrity to characterize expectations about the behavior of individual employees and the organization as a whole.
In general, the idea of creating these statements is regarded as positive and one can find many websites that pontificate on the inspiring qualities of particular statements. There is often a tacit assumption that such statements, if done well, necessarily help to unify an organization’s employees and, thus, strengthen the organization by creating loyal, committed, happy, and productive workers.
Unfortunately, reality isn’t quite that simple.
Often missed in the push by leadership to create these statements is the potential for the ideas they contain to divide employees or reduce morale. An example will be illustrative.
I teach a one-day seminar on ethics, leadership, and culture and several years ago was asked to do so at a museum. One of the things I typically do to prepare is request the mission statement of the organization so that we can discuss it in the seminar. The museum provided a mission statement that represented core values such as leadership, excellence, accessibility, and diversity and tied these to the holdings and purpose of the organization. Seems like a good approach, right?
In the course of the discussion, however, it became clear that the organization was broken into two distinct camps—the academic camp who worked on the upper floors of the building and the front-line employees who worked below and met guests, cleaned floors, and provided security. The statement is quite abstract and reflects the ideas of the academic side of the organization, because they are the ones who wrote it. As the conversation emerged, it became clear that the building itself was viewed as symbolically representing the divided staff—the upstairs people who do things like writing mission statements were seen as remote by the downstairs people who interact with the public. Not surprisingly, the demographics of the organization reflected the same division at a racial level.
Terms like “diversity” and “leadership” were interpreted differently by the two groups, with the upstairs people seeing them as aspirational and the downstairs people seeing them as reflecting the disconnect between leadership (upstairs) and workers (downstairs). In other words, the statement had come to symbolize the stratified status hierarchy of the organization, evident through occupational and racial disparities in participation at the leadership level. And morale was low, because downstairs people felt left out of the crafting and executing of professed mission and values that were supposed to unify the institution around common aims and principles.
If this were the only example, I might assume it was unique to that organization, but it has come up often. It even arose when I gave the same seminar for facilities managers at my own university—the mission of the university as advancing “society through research, creative activity, scholarly inquiry and the development and dissemination of new knowledge” was perceived as failing to include or reflect the importance of staff in keeping the institution operating and functioning to achieve those ends. I think that perception was reasonable. And, although I have no idea how that statement was created, I suspect it came from high levels of the administration.
The point of this is that these statements are not interpreted uniformly by members of an organization. The word “diversity” might be seen as aspirational for one group in an organization while being seen as symbolic of blindness to racial or gender inequalities by another group. Words like “integrity” can have variable meanings across individuals in an organization. When we see the word “integrity,” does it mean that we act in accordance with organizational rules and policies? Do we prioritize our personal religious beliefs over organizational aims and principles? Do we place the needs of the customer over the necessity to earn business and turn away customers who might benefit from a different company’s products?
At my university, discovery—defined as “expanding knowledge and human understanding”—is listed as a core value. I am convinced everyone connected to the university is engaged in supporting that value. But if staff do not believe that their interests are represented in the mission statement of the organization, in what ways might they interpret a core value of discovery? It might be seen as a value that excludes those members of the academic community who are not engaged directly in academic work like teaching and research.
Aspirational mission and value statements may sound good in terms of setting goals, but if they are not accompanied by concrete and visible efforts to achieve those aspirations, they will quickly be viewed as symbolic of an organization’s failures or may become seen as expressing or reinforcing divisions within an organization rather than bringing people together. A single word, such as “integrity,” is highly unlikely to be interpreted in the same way among all members of an organization or among members of different groups that make up an organization.
One solution to this problem is to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged in the creation of mission and value statements. Top-down approaches are almost guaranteed to generate feelings of division, rather than unifying employees, because people at leadership levels often cannot see the organization from the perspectives of those working on the front lines. And if you really want to know if your mission and value statements are of any value, the best thing to do is ask personnel from all levels what they think about these statements—anonymously. You might be surprised at just how different those interpretations can be.
J.W. Traphagan is a professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures. Follow him on Twitter: @john_traphagan.