Why Mission Statements Fail

Why Mission Statements Fail

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Do you wake up when the sun rises?
Or Is it because you already know your kids are awake?

I don’t know what got you out of bed this morning, but I do know that it probably wasn’t your company’s mission statement. There’s a good chance you don’t even remember the mission statement itself, but an even better chance it doesn’t inspire you to jump out of bed and head to work.

The purpose of a mission statement was noble. It was to provide employees with that clear purpose. It was to help become a purpose-driven organization. And we know the research, purpose-driven companies have more motivated employees, they have an easier time recruiting top talent, they drive that top talent to great performance. We know that they have less turnover. We know that they have greater profitability, not just because they’re performing better but because customers respond to purpose-driven organizations. We know purpose-driven companies have a lower cost of customer acquisition, longer tenure of customer loyalty, and higher net promoter scores.

We know that everything works better in a purpose-driven organization.

But mission statements aren’t really providing that purpose. It may have started out with that intent, but somehow the mission statement turned into this meaningless word salad that’s better suited for a 10-K report than for a plaque at the company entrance. It’s hardly a flag worth rallying around. In many cases, a mission statement is something that employees can’t even recite, much less know what all those different buzzwords actually mean.

Consider a few examples:

“The company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term shareholder value while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standard.”

You probably got bored right at the phase “long-term shareholder value.” That’s it? That’s all we are working for? And the rest of the mission statement is basically, don’t get in trouble with the government or the media. There’s nothing here about why the company exists, what it even sells or what service it even offers. There’s none of that. And this is a Fortune 500 company that we’re not going to name for various legal reasons.

Or how about this one:

“Undisputed marketplace leadership.”

Undisputed, okay, how are we defining the marketplace? Is it for the industry? Is it market share of products? Does that include substitutes? And how are we defining leadership? Is it a plurality—just the largest market share? Or is it a majority—50 percent plus one? This is the kind of mission statement that probably sounded good among leaders. They got excited and brought it back to the rank-and-file who promptly responded with confusion.

Consider one more:

“We will continue to build a corporate culture that respects and values the unique strengths and cultural difference of our associates.”

There are parts of this one that are admirable. It’s great to be focused on company culture and respecting cultural differences and the strengths that employees provide. But at the same time, those employees still need a clear idea of what they do and why they do it. Otherwise, how are they supposed to be motivated by this.

Where We Went Wrong

So how did mission statements turn into this Mad Lib of buzzwords and craziness?

Well, in a lot of cases it’s not actually the goal of any leader to have a terrible mission statement; it’s the process that they used to write one. Many companies got their mission statement via something like a focus group, maybe a retreat with senior leaders or maybe a series of meetings from a cross-section of people across the company. From there, they drafted a quick statement of “what we do” and begin to brainstorm different ways to phrase it.

But as soon as they present that draft, people turn into parliamentarians lobbying for their respective interests. As soon as the first attempt is on the whiteboard, people start to act like college English professors debating the connotations of certain words and encouraging people to adopt their preferred word choice.

Eventually, usually when people get tired, everyone starts to compromise for the sake of consensus, and they arrive at a statement everyone agrees on…or at least everyone agrees is good enough. Then they take that statement, get it engraved on a plaque, and hang it in the entry to the home office.

And everybody promptly forgets.

We end up with a mission statement that failed. Not because we didn’t put enough thought into it answering the question. But because we didn’t ask the right question to begin with. (And we’ll cover that question in a moment.)

What Makes A Mission Statement That Works

First, it’s worth examining what we need a mission statement to do. At its core, it needs to do three things for the people who read it—especially for the employees of the organization.

It needs to unify.

It needs to give an aspiration that is so big that it requires interdependence and as a result we put aside our petty differences—what the research would call a superordinate goal. It needs to be so big that we squelch the silos, the politics, the turf wars and we say, “if we don’t get this done, the world will be a worse off place, so let’s get together and let’s work together for it.”

It needs to direct.

It should clearly and concisely let everybody know what good looks like or what “mission accomplished” looks like. To use a term from two of my favorite authors, Chip and Dan Heath, it should pass the “champagne test.” When we read it, we know instantly when it’s time to pop open that bottle of champagne (or sparkling grape juice if you’re so inclined).

And it needs to motivate.

It should make it clear what the stakes are. It should make clear what the costs failure are and how the world will be worse off if we don’t achieve the mission. Or it should make it clear who and how many people benefit if we win. And more than just the shareholders need to benefit.

When you look at the organizations, the revolutions, or the reformations that truly impacted the world, these three things are what their rallying cries had in common.

They were so big that they couldn’t help but unify.

They were so clear in what it was they were working towards that everyone knew what to do.

And they were motivating and inspiring because they drew out of people some larger vision that was worth working towards or worth working for.

Does your mission statement do that?

Does it unify, direct and inspire?

There’s an easy way to know. We covered earlier the importance of the right question. And the best way to know if we have a mission statement that unifies, that motivates, that inspires is to consider if our mission statement answers a simple question:

What are we fighting for?

If we can give employees a clear and concise answer to the question, “what are we fighting for?” then we’ve given them an inspirational purpose that unifies them, that motivates them, that provides clear direction, because we’ll know that we’ve achieved it when we’re not fighting anymore.

It works because people don’t want to join a company, they want to join a crusade.

And if you give them a clear and concise answer to the question, “what are we fighting for?” then you’ve declared that crusade. And you’ve given them a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Thanks for reading. You can get more actionable ideas in my popular email newsletter. Each week, I share educational (and entertaining) videos, articles, and podcasts that will help you and your team do your best work ever. Over 40,000 leaders just like you have subscribed. Enter your email now and join us.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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