by Eugen Tarnow
Human resource departments are often responsible for facilitating the creation of mission statements. Why don’t you try my recipe next time you are asked to be the muse in your organization?
Suppose you are the human resource manager of an informal handball team of eleven-year-old boys. Add to it that you know nothing about handball (who does?) but you really want them to win. What do you do? The answer is -- you give them orange jerseys! The orange jerseys function two ways. First, they are a social categorizer: by wearing the same clothes the team members obtain a sense of common belonging. Second, the orange jerseys also suggest that the team is a sports team. The jerseys tie together two fundamental forces in a company, being together with others and accomplishing a goal.
During the last few years I have been involved in writing mission and vision statements for organizations and I have found that many mission statements do not function as well as the orange jerseys. In fact, the statements are often so irrelevant that staff is hardpressed to remember them! Just consider this one:
"Continue our role and responsibility as the industry initiator and market leader for 70 years of bringing useful products to the marketplace while continually rewarding our customers and employees."
Is that a statement that makes you excited about work? As I look at it my eye lids feel heavy. And this statement is not the only one trying to put us to sleep. A boring mission statement is the rule, not the exception.
Yet, it is so easy to come up with better ones. How about improving the one just mentioned and write:
"With the help of our customers and staff
Sounds much better, does it not?
Instead of having to ask staff to memorize a mission statement that puts me to sleep, I have come up with a recipe for how mission statements should be concocted. If you use it, I gurantee that your staff and colleagues will find the product a little more tasty. Here is the recipe:
A mission statement should be a short statement constructed to (1) suggest an action, (2) identify this action only vaguely, and (3) include a social categorization.
There are four reasons for the second criterion. First, a vague statement does not have to be rewritten every time specific goals are obtained. Second, a too specific statement is hard to remember. Third, a vague goal statement can be more inclusive of all organizational interests. Fourth, it can also allow for individually creative interpretations.
Let us apply the recipe to already existing mission statements. Rather than embarrassing my clients, I found sixteen vision statements from a research paper by Larwood et al. They are included in the table below in the left hand column. In the right hand column, the statements have been rewritten using the recipe.
For example: The first vision statement quoted reads: "Lead in bringing interactive entertainment to a mass market." It becomes more effective with a "we" in the beginning. This suggests a team effort that we all want to be part of. Then we abbreviate the statement and make it less specific and end up with "we bring interactive entertainment to the world."
Consider the second vision statement quoted: "Grow technically and geographically into a worldwide, world renowned organization." Here we also need to add a social categorization, a "we will." This second vision statement is also too complex -- taking out "technically and geographically" we end up with the enhanced statement "We will grow into a world-renowned organization."
The third vision statement, "be a survivor and prosper in a heavily and unfairly regulated industry" can also be edited. Including categorization and vagueness it becomes more motivational: "We will survive despite regulations." The other thirteen statements can be similarly transformed, some with symbols other than words.
So let's get technical and look at the 'why' of what's under all of this ...
Let's begin with some background material in social categorization, a fundamental part of our argument.
Freud (1921) wrote in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that "in any collection of people the tendency to form a psychological group may very easily come to the fore" (p. 40). He observed that identification of a single common trait (p. 49) and the acknowledgement of the possession of a common substance (p. 53) could help this group formation.
Social psychologists generalized this concept to "social categorization," group boundary criteria that tell an individual who is “in” and who is “out”. They also experimentally verified the consequences of social categorization.
In one particular type of research study, social psychologists try to minimize the strength of the social categorization to find out at what point does the group formation disappear? How commonplace can you make Freud's "common substance" or "common trait?" The answer seems to be that under many circumstances even the weakest social categorization will lead to group formation, like a ball on the top of a hill will start rolling down as soon as it gets the slightest push. Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, and Flament (1971) told subjects arbitrarily that there were one group of people who overestimated the number of dots they saw on a screen, and another one who underestimated. That was all that was needed for groups to form in the minds of the subjects as evidenced by intergroup competition. The group members never even had to meet. Similarly, in Billig and Tajfel (1973) coin tossing determined the categorization. There have been thirty more studies giving similar results (Tajfel, 1982).
The orange jersey is a particularly obvious social categorizer: by wearing the same clothes the team members obtain a sense of common belonging. But common belonging is not enough to explain why the jerseys made the team play better. The orange jerseys also suggested that the team was a sports team. The social categorization was based on an implied action. The statement of the orange jerseys was “you are in with us by playing sports.” Our underlying hypothesis in this paper is that the orange jersey, a symbol we term a “Unifying Action Declaration,” channels group formation forces into task performance. The everpresent potential of social categorization is purposefully used by tying group membership to an associated action.
The Unifying Action Declaration DefinedWe define a UAD as a short statement constructed to (1) suggest an action, (2) identify this action only vaguely, and (3) include a social categorization. The purpose of the statement is to obtain task performance (by suggesting an action) using group formation forces (by vaguely socially categorizing).
As mentioned above there are four reasons for the second UAD criterion. First, the vagueness suggests a longer lasting goal and thus a longer lasting group (Canetti, 1960, p. 41). Second, the vagueness criterion prevents a too specific group boundary: social psychologists find empirically that categorization along one dimension is just enough to create group formation. Two dimensions are often one too many (see review by Messick and Mackie, 1989). Third, a vague goal statement can be more inclusive of all organizational interests. Fourth, it can also allow for individually creative interpretations.
"We need to re-engineer the corporation," said by a CEO of a company at a meeting is a UAD. It implies that anybody who agrees is in and anybody who disagrees is out. It suggests a plan of action: layoffs and reorganization. It is vague--the words could really mean anything. Other examples of UADs include "we stand for quality," "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others (from Animal Farm by George Orwell)," "as professional psychologists we do such and such," "business as usual is out," "drivers wanted" (from a Volkswagen advertisement), "we bring good things to life" (from General Electric advertisements) and "teamwork." Some of these UADs come with the social categorization implicit ("business as usual is out if you want to be part of our corporation") and some with an explicit social categorization. Note that the vagueness criterion is important: "drivers wanted" sounds intuitively better (for the reasons mentioned above) than "taxi-drivers wanted;" "high-speed drivers wanted" is better than "ambulance drivers wanted;" "as professional psychologists we do such and such" is better than "as professional school psychologists we do such and such."
TABLE 1. Real vision statements changed using the UAD construction.
ReferencesBILLIG, M., TAJFEL, H. "Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behavior." European Journal of Social Psychology, 1973, 3, 27-52.
CANETTI, E. Crowds and power. New York: The Continuum Publishing Corporation, orig. 1960, ed. 1993.
CONGER, J. "Inspiring Others: The Language of Leadership." Academy of Management Executive, 1991, v5:31 45.
FREUD, S. Group psychology and the analysis of the ego, New York: W.W. Norton, orig. 1921, ed. 1989.
LARWOOD, L., FALBE, C., MIESING, P. "Structure and meaning of organizational vision."
Academy of Management Journal , 1995, v38, n3:740 769. See appendix.
MESSICK, D., MACKIE, D. "Intergroup relations." Ann. Rev. Psychol., 1989, 40, 45-81.
REHM, J., STEINLEITNER, J., LILLI, W. "Wearing uniforms and aggression: a field experiment." Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 1987, 17, 357-60.
TAJFEL, H. "Social psychology of intergroup relations," Ann. Rev. Psychol., 1982, 33, 1-39.
TAJFEL, H., BILLIG M., BUNDY, R., FLAMENT, CL. "Social categorization and intergroup behavior." European Journal of Social Psychology, 1971, 1, 149-177.
Eugen Tarnow is a management consultant with a degree in physics (Ph.D. M.I.T., 1989). He has published some twenty-six articles in physics and organizational behavior. Apart from business vision statements, his interests include groupware as a tools for communication and efficiency and the performance of cockpit crews. He is the Director of Consulting with Avalon Business Systems, Inc., a Lotus Notes and Domino consulting agency. He can be reached at (718) 884-5490 (phone) and at firstname.lastname@example.org .