Mission Statements are the Most Useless Assemblies of Words, Ever

This is what you think is going to happen when people read your mission statement. I've got news for you: it isn't. Also, the whole "hands-in" think has always kinda creeped me out.

This is what you think is going to happen when people read your mission statement. I’ve got news for you: it isn’t.
Also, the whole “hands-in” thing has always kinda creeped me out.

Does your workplace have a mission statement? If so, can you tell me the last time you used it? Can you even tell me what it says? I bet not, even if you’re the one who wrote it. Mission statements are like nipples on guys. Everybody has them, but nobody really knows what the hell for, because they don’t produce anything. They’re present (mission statements, I mean) in every line of work from fast food to military units to banks, when the missions of those organizations couldn’t be more clear (kill people slowly, kill people quickly, and take people’s money, respectively).

My workplace has them. Two of them, actually, one for each half of the organization. They’re full of soaring superlatives like “perfect” and “seamless” and “exceptional”. They attempt to sum up, in one buzz-word-laden sentence, the whole point of life, the universe and everything. At least so far as our organization is concerned.

And they’re completely and utterly worthless, like every mission statement that’s ever been written. Actually that’s not true, because the time spent writing them, printing them on things, and trying to drill them into our heads in meetings could well have been spent doing something meaningful and productive. So they’re less than worthless.

Let me explain. Mission statements are a waste of time and money for all involved. If you have to remind your people why they’re there, there’s a good chance you’ve hired the wrong people. They know what you do, that’s why they applied to your company. Unless you’re in the conscription business, there’s a pretty good chance that your employees knew exactly what the mission of your organization was before they even walked in the door for the first time. And if you have to be reminded why you’re there, you’re likely in the wrong business.

I’d like to meet the guy who first came up with the idea of a mission statement. I can just picture him, sitting around in his cube one day, not doing his job, and trying to think of ways to get other people to do theirs (and probably his). In between fiddling with his stapler and trying to stick pencils in the ceiling tiles, he stumbled on a way to waste a colossal amount of time, while still giving the appearance of doing work. How about cleverly restating the obvious in a way that makes it sound complicated and important! He’d write a mission statement! And from that boredom-induced moment, an entire industry was born. I’m not kidding. There are actually companies whose mission it is to write mission statements for other companies.

And people wonder why the economy is sluggish.

Setting aside for a moment that just about all of them are poorly written, catchphrase-laced gobbledygook, they simply don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Most people won’t remember their company’s mission statement because they don’t need to. It doesn’t help them do their work, it doesn’t influence their job performance one way or the other, so it gets filed with all of the other corporate culture nonsense that almost every organization seems to find necessary these days. The employees who need that sort of external help with their focus or motivation already aren’t paying attention, and the ones who are paying attention probably don’t need the help. In other words, your carefully crafted, focus group tested, HR blessed mission statement is going to be rejected by the people who need it, and embraced by the people who don’t. Mission statements tilt at windmills in the most absurd possible way.

Companies the world over are trying to put the cart before the horse with issues like these. They look at wildly successful companies like Google or Apple, and marvel at the “culture” they’ve created there, as if it was something you can just download and install. What they don’t understand is that vibrant, effective, dynamic, successful companies become so by hiring people who are those things, and then allowing them to be so. You will not create those things by hiring suit-wearing blobs who look good on paper and fulfill HR’s dreams of what your workforce should look like, and them telling them to be vibrant and dynamic.

Years ago I worked for an IT department in a major national bank. We had mission statements at every level of management. And we had newcomer conferences where they pumped you full of catchphrases and tried to tell you how special you were to the company. All the while they were paying their workforce an average of 20% less than the industry standard, and everyone knew it. The results were staggering turnover and burnout rates, as the people who were good enough found jobs elsewhere that paid them what they were worth. What was left was largely people who couldn’t make it anywhere else, and new people who hadn’t burned out yet. So much for instilling corporate culture. It was bad enough that my wife actually bought me an Office Space kit.

I have an alternative proposal for anyone considering slathering the walls of their workplace with a mission statement. Instead of insulting your employees’ intelligence by telling them why they came to work that morning, spend that time taking care of them. Recruit and retain the sort of people who reflect what you want your company to be, and your company will become that. And if nothing else, I would like to introduce a management concept I’m calling The Dilbert Rule. If an action you are about to take would make for a really great Dilbert comic strip, maybe you should rethink it.

About Pete Hitzeman

A 30-ish runner, rider, racer, cyclist and Air National Guardsman. And, as you may find here, a sometimes-writer.
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