When companies don’t treat employees with the values they espouse, the evidence says there’s a problem. But what’s the purpose of a mission statement anyway?
Only 16 per cent of Australian employees feel “completely informed” about their employer’s corporate mission, and only 22 per cent feel the same about their organisation’s values, a new survey from Reward Gateway suggests.
The research, which surveyed 500 workers and 250 senior decision-makers, also found that 42 per cent of staff don’t agree their employer recognises them when they demonstrate the values of their company.
So is it a failure of leadership communication or is it that there’s a disconnect between the priorities of workers and employers? Apparently the former. Turns out 88 per cent of senior decision-makers say that their organisation is transparent with employees about how they plan to achieve the company mission. But only 21 per cent of employees say they strongly agree that they trust their employer to communicate information openly and honestly.
HRM has written before about communicating well with staff. Including an article about employee recognition, what a mission statement should contain, and how to use one to increase engagement. But perhaps there’s a more intrinsic difficulty with mission statements.
A mission is not a business plan
The idea that a company should even have a “mission” is relatively new. It’s hard to pinpoint when it started but by using Google’s Ngram Viewer (which tracks word usage throughout history) you can see that the word “mission statement” starts being written in the 40s but really takes off in the 80s. Those were the heady years when politicians began waxing poetic about companies.
Today, mission statements are frequently ambitious to the point of utopianism. Like these snippets explaining the purpose of various companies:
- “…to unleash the potential in every team and help advance humanity through the power of software” (Atlasssian)
- “…to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious business” (Warby Parker)
- “To create a brilliant connected future for everyone” (Telstra)
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that we experienced a cultural shift towards thinking (and believing?) that a company’s goals had to have meaning beyond the profit motive. And in many ways it’s good. It’s positive that we believe institutions should do more than focus on their own bottom line.
The challenge is that such social expectations come with a risk of virtue signalling. Are some companies creating mission statements mostly because they’re expected to have one? And maybe “utopian” statements emerge because they’re not tied to a business need, or restricted by business practicalities.
Regardless of how it happens, if lots of mission statements aren’t actually central to their organisations, it explains why the survey found so many employees who felt they were exhibiting their organisation’s values and not being rewarded.
The cynical view
Clearer statements tend to refer to what the company hopes to do for its customers and its own market position. Westpac’s seems like a relatively grounded example: “To be one of the world’s great service companies, helping our customers, communities and people to prosper and grow.”
It seems smart to acknowledge that you are a business, but quite a few companies don’t. For instance, Google’s is: “To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. You can see why people like it. It’s snappy, and neatly (if idealistically) frames what the Google’s search-engine does.
But what it doesn’t tell you is how Google generates most of its money – advertisements. The tech giant makes about a third of the world’s digital ad revenue (around $70 billion a year). It also doesn’t explain other Google projects. You have to wonder if – before it became the separate company Waymo – Google’s self-driving car division looked at the mission statement and thought “Wow, we’ve gotten way off-track”.
Head in the sky, feet on the ground
The same survey mentioned above suggests some companies should be investing in better communication of values – it found 91 per cent of employers think it’s critical to the success of their business that employees understand their mission.
An even bigger problem is when a company doesn’t so much fail to meet the goals of its mission statement, but rather behaves in a way that directly contradicts it. After all Lehman Brothers and Enron had pretty inspiring statements and we all know what happened to them.
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