With corporate culture under scrutiny, mission statements actually matter

They should be more than just PR or window dressing
A mission statement can help build a cohesive culture, but only if you do it right (Pixabay)
Listen11:04

If you work for a large organization, you've probably come up against the "mission statement". We've done them ourselves here at Spark. And if it's got you rolling your eyes, you're not alone.

Still, it's no surprise that some tech giants, under intense criticism lately, are rethinking those pithy statements of purpose.

Last June, Facebook changed its mission statement from "making the world more open and connected" to the more purpose-driven "give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."

In the midst of its overhaul of its corporate culture, Uber got rid of ex-CEO Travis Kalanick's "values" in favour of new "cultural norms".

But are these defining statements just a PR exercise, or can they actually be part of real organizational culture, and culture change? Furthermore, what do we even mean by mission/vision/values statements?

Professor Marvin Washington's work focuses on organizational and institutional change (University of Alberta)

Marvin Washington is a professor and department chair in the management department at the University of Alberta. He specializes in organizational and institutional change.

"A mission statement really should be 'why are we here?'...a vision says 'how are we going to operate?'...Things that we care about would be values," he explained.

But he said it's no surprise they are frequently confused. "Basically different consultants privilege one over the other...and we really don't have meetings where we all come together and agree," Washington said, laughing.

I have this dry cleaner I go to...She never talks about a mission statement...Whenever there's a question, she has an answer- Marvin Washington

Ideally, these statements exist in organizations that are large enough to need these touchstones. "I have this dry cleaner I go to...She works all the hours. She never talks about a mission statement...Whenever there's a question, she has an answer," Washington explained.

In a larger organization, they can provide clarity. "And that's how we move to mission, values, culture…It was really how do you help workers where they can't have direct access to the boss, or in some cases, to the boss's boss's boss's boss."

In the case of tech companies, Washington argued it's part of a transition from young, entrepreneurial businesses, to fully mature companies. "They have to deal not with attracting employee number seven, but maintaining some sense of understanding in this really complex world we've created."

But if these statements can be part of real organizational culture, and real cultural change, why are we so cynical about them?

The manager of the workers now has to answer questions about a document she didn't even create- Marvin Washington

Washington said all too often he sees a senior leadership team go off for a week, debate, and come up with something they believe in, only to present it as a finished memo, with no participation from the rest of the employees.

"These words don't mean as much. And what's worse, the manager of the workers now has to answer questions about a document she didn't even create," so the document—and the mission—gets set aside and ignored.

I need to spend time talking to employees, and I mean really talking to them- Marvin Washington

Real cultural change within an existing organization requires communication and patience. "I need to spend time talking to [employees], and I mean really talking to them, not send emails, not a one hour team meeting where I announce the start of some new 'change management campaign', and definitely not where I hire a consultant to come and do it instead."

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