Mission Statements: Vital or Vacuous?

Published: Jan 24, 2019

A rock, blade of grass or plastic bracelet has little meaning unless it's tied to something bigger—usually when it's symbolic of a concept, way of being or a philosophy. The rock might be a remembrance from a walk on the beach with a loved one, the blade of grass may represent what your workgroup does for the environment and the bracelet might be symbolic of helping others stay cancer-free. When something becomes symbolic, it can capture your attention and ultimately be a motivator and even a rationale in your life and in the lives of others.

On an organizational level, mission statements are also about meaning. They aren't necessarily symbols per se, but they help answer the question "Why are we here?" Great mission statements are short and easy to commit to memory. They communicate in just a few words the organization's focus and why it exists. When an important decision needs to be made, the mission serves as a guide. It should get used consistently to depict the company's philosophy.

There are a number of spoofs and jokes about how to develop a mission statement. For example, there's the "Chinese menu"-type formula of picking one standard phrase from column A, one from column B and combining them to form official-sounding, yet vacuous and arbitrary, mission statements. You get the statement without any real meaning attached to it.

Those spoofs make a great point about empty verbiage conceived or communicated out of context, but I think people miss the mark when they assume the simplicity of a well-written mission statement means that it is not inspiring just because the words seem ordinary or over-used. The problem arises when your mission statement doesn't convey the intended meaning or when employees don't find the mission statement inspirational for some reason.

Let's take a classic mission statement like Disney's original one: "to bring happiness to millions." When Walt Disney used it and painted word pictures of what the mission could look like when achieved, employees were inspired.

Yet, such a phrase can have an empty or trite ring to it when it's placed out of context. The trick is to make sure there is plenty of context, just as a symbol needs a context. An inspiring mission statement involves telling good and true stories about how it has served as a beacon to others, ways that employees go the extra mile every day to stay true to the mission. I worked with a large company that brought employees together to tell stories about how they saw others doing things to embody the company's mission statement. The room was filled with roundtables with eight to ten people sitting at each. People at the tables shared their mission stories, and then each table selected one story to share with the larger group. The emotion in the room was high as people laughed, cried and took pride in being part of a company that displayed its commitment to a broader purpose in everyday life. They learned of internal heroes who went to extremes to align their actions with the mission.

So, if your mission statement no longer inspires, determine why it has somehow been deprived of its greater meaning and context. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Find ways to breathe meaning into it, renew your commitment or change it. Otherwise, it won't be able to serve its real purpose of being an authentic touchstone that aligns, inspires and helps provide meaning to our work lives.