The Potential Pitfalls of Developing a Mission Statement for Your Organization

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By JW Traphagan 5 minutes Read

Mission, vision and value statements have become ubiquitous in the business landscape as leaders attempt to set goals for their organizations and convey their expectations of ethics and principles to employees, customers and others. stakeholders. These statements often aim to unify workers around an organizational culture that reflects assumed common values ​​and beliefs. They also function as codes of ethics using ideas such as a commitment to diversity or integrity to characterize expectations regarding the behavior of individual employees and the organization as a whole.

In general, the idea of ​​creating these statements is considered positive and one can find many websites who pontificate on the inspiring qualities of particular statements. It is often tacitly assumed that such statements, if properly made, necessarily help to unify employees and thus strengthen the organization by creating loyal, engaged, happy and productive workers.

Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple.

Often in the leadership push to create these statements, the potential of the ideas they contain to divide employees or lower morale is often overlooked. An example will be illustrative.

I teach a one day seminar on ethics, leadership and culture and several years ago I was asked to do it in a museum. One of the things I usually do to prepare is to ask for the organization’s mission statement 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 linked them to the funds and purpose of the organization. Sounds like a good approach, right?

During the discussion, however, it became clear that the organization was split into two distinct camps: the varsity camp which worked on the upper floors of the building and the frontline employees who worked below and met guests, cleaned up the rooms. floors, and provided security. The statement is quite abstract and reflects the ideas of the academic side of the organization, as they were the ones who wrote it. As the conversation began, it became clear that the building itself was seen to symbolically represent the divided staff – people upstairs who do things like write mission statements were seen as distant. by the people downstairs who interact with the audience. Not surprisingly, the demographics of the organization reflected the same racial divide.

Terms such as “diversity” and “leadership” were interpreted differently by the two groups. In other words, the statement had come to symbolize the organization’s layered hierarchy of status, evident through professional and racial disparities in participation at the executive level. And morale was low, because the people below felt excluded from developing and carrying out the mission and professed values ​​that were meant to unify the institution around common goals and principles.

If this was the only example, I could assume it was unique to this organization, but it came back often. It even appeared when I gave the same seminar for facility managers at my own university – the university’s mission of advancing “society through research, creative activity, scientific research and development. development and dissemination of new knowledge ”was seen as not including or reflecting the importance of staff for the institution to continue to function and to function to achieve these goals. I think this perception was reasonable. And, although I have no idea how this statement was created, I suspect it came from high levels of administration.

The point is that these statements are not interpreter uniformly by members of an organization. The word “diversity” can be seen as an aspiration for one group in an organization while being seen as a symbol of blindness to racial or gender inequalities by another group. Words like “integrity” can have varying meanings depending on the individual in an organization. When we see the word “integrity”, does it mean that we are acting in accordance with organizational rules and policies? Do we prioritize our personal religious beliefs over organizational goals and principles? Do we put the needs of the customer above the need to win business and turn down customers who might benefit from another company’s products?

In my university, discovery, defined as “the expansion of human knowledge and understanding”, is listed as a core value. I am convinced that all those connected with the university are committed to supporting this value. But if staff don’t believe their interests are represented in the organization’s mission statement, how might they interpret a core discovery value? This could be viewed as a value that excludes members of the academic community who are not directly engaged in academic work such as teaching and research.

Ambitious mission and value statements may sound good in terms of goal setting, but if they are not accompanied by concrete and visible efforts to achieve those aspirations, they will quickly be seen as a symbol of the failures of a society. organization or may become seen as an expression or strengthening of divisions. within an organization rather than bringing people together. It is very unlikely that a single word, such as “integrity”, will be interpreted the same among all members of an organization or among members of the different groups that make up an organization.

One solution to this problem is to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged in creating mission and value statements. Top-down approaches are almost guaranteed to generate feelings of division, rather than unifying employees, as people at management levels often cannot see the organization from the perspective of those working on the front line. And if you really want to know if your mission and value statements have any value, the best thing to do is to ask staff at all levels how they feel about those statements, anonymously. You might be surprised at how different these interpretations can be.


JW Traphagan is Professor of Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing uncertainty: the jazz of the future, this 13th century Buddhist monk and the invention of cultures. Follow him on Twitter: @john_traphagan.


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