Here we go with a bit of heresy. Over the last couple of years we have turned down several invitations to pitch for Mission, Vision and Values projects. Why? I don’t like taking money under false pretences.
Some time ago I sat down on a rainy Sunday and hunted through the websites of Australia’s top 200 companies to find out what their values were. I could easily find forty of them, so I made a note of what they were and asked one of our researchers to put together a content analysis of what I found. The table above gives the top four. I guess it is reassuring that more than 60% of these organisations stand for “Integrity”, but what does that really mean? Also, does having this statement attached to the company make any difference to anything in the real world? I believe that the answer is “no” in the vast majority of cases.
Desmidt et al in 2011 conducted a meta-analyisis of 20 years of research into mission statements in organisations. They found a very weak relationship between mission statements and profitability, certainly not strong enough to justify the time and trouble of developing them. There have been other studies which have shown very little effect on staff turnover, job satisfaction, engagement or anything else of material benefit. So, why are they so popular? Because they give people a warm feeling. It’s satisfying to get into groups and theorise about what we stand for, although people sometimes get frustrated when the exercise turns into an argument over semantics. Many organisations undertake them with the best of intentions in the belief they will improve things. They do so because that’s what everyone says – the accepted wisdom.
I think in some cases they also give executive teams or CEOs bent on control the illusion that they have control. “Hey, we made a mission, vision, values statement, so we are causing people to behave the way we want.” It is at this level that these undertakings fail most significantly, because they tend not to change people’s behaviour. My view on the topic is a simple one. If you undertake such an exercise you should end up with higher levels of good behaviours or lower levels of bad behaviours.
So why don’t they work? There are two answers to this.
I think that one of the most powerful concepts I have ever learned in psychology is that of proximal versus distal. Proximal means close to me, distal means far away from me. In virtually every area of psychology proximal works, whereas distal doesn’t. For instance if you want someone to change their behaviour the colleague who sits beside the person is going to have a much greater impact than the CEO will. The colleague is proximal, the CEO is distal. Mission, vision, values statements are nearly always distal. Usually invented by people I don’t know at some time in the past. Even if I participated in an organisation wide activity to develop the statement it is still distal, because up to 85% of my wellbeing comes from the team I belong to whereas only about 15% is determined by the organisation. (Cotton, 2011). Organisational MVV statements are not local enough. Also, their effectiveness is gone in no time – say a few months, and no-one is going to go through the grief of refreshing a values statement annually.
- MVV statements are typically conceptual and vague. Integrity? What does that mean? If you say to an employee that they should act with integrity are you really giving them clarity? I don’t believe so. You create clarity with agreements about behaviours. Demonstrable and observable behaviours. Corporate culture is the sum of the behaviours employees observe around them. If we agree that we should tell the truth and commit to doing so I think that is clear. If we agree to turn up to all our meetings on time I think that is clear.
The alternative to the failed MVV venture is local behaviour protocols. Get your work group together and undertake the following activity:
- If you have 20 people in your work group, split them into four groups of five. Ask them to write down on a flip chart the behaviours they think make the workplace better. Practical, observable things such as turning up to meetings on time, telling the truth, talking to people before making decisions which affect them, answering their emails within a day, etc. These are examples of behaviours which have been generated by groups I have facilitated – I am not suggesting you adopt these behaviours. The key thing is that the group develops them – that is what makes them proximal.
- Put the flip charts up on a wall and ask people to vote for the behaviours they think are most important. Encourage them to vote for things they think are clear and observable. Adopt the top vote getters as your behaviour protocol. You will usually end up with between 10 and 20 core behaviours.
- Get the groups to do the same thing about keeping the behaviours alive. Get them to write down ways to ensure we don’t just let these behaviours drift into the past. Things like building them into performance reviews, or having a recognition scheme to reward the behaviours. Get them to vote on the things they think will work best.
- Adopt the methods for keeping the behaviours alive.
- Redo the exercise every year.
- Take the $100,000 that you would have wasted on the MVV exercise and put it to some worthwhile purpose.
Local behaviour protocols do increase positive behaviours and reduce negative behaviours. If you want an overall organisation statement, just take the key themes from all the team statements and create an organisational behaviour statement. I think this final step is overrated, but I understand that people want to do it.
Of course, leader behaviours are key drivers of the behaviours of staff. Click here to find out how to measure leader behaviours which drive a positive culture.
Cotton, P. & Hart, P. (2011). ‘Positive Psychology in the Workplace’, Australian Psychological Society, 33(2).
Sebastian Desmidt, Anita Prinzie, Adelien Decramer, (2011) “Looking for the value of mission statements: a meta‐analysis of 20 years of research”, Management Decision, Vol. 49 Iss: 3, pp.468 – 483