Business People

Can mission statement language influence workplace discrimination?

 

Whether it’s a just few sentences or a full paragraph outlining the way your organization pursues goals like delivering on time or anticipating customer needs, a mission statement is a guide to how a company operates and the values it holds dear.

 

Research led by Dana Kanze from London Business School now shows that your mission statements can also motivate your employees to embrace or disregard ethical standards—the decisions they choose depend upon the language you use.

 

Read the original publication: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2019.04.002

 

Read the Harvard Business Review article:  https://hbr.org/2020/02/research-organizations-that-move-fast-really-do-break-things

 

Read more from Dr Kanze in Research Outreach

 

Image credit: Raw Pixel /Shutterstock

 

Transcript

 

Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today. In this episode, we’re looking at recent research which draws on motivation theory and investigates the psychological mechanisms that underlie workplace discrimination.

 

The work has been led by Dana Kanze, from the London Business School, along with co-authors Mark Alexander Conley from Stockholm School of Economics and Tory Higgins from Columbia University. Dr Kanze and her colleagues wanted to know whether the language that companies use in their mission statements can help to predict discriminatory employment decisions. To read their original academic article, just check the show notes for this episode for links.

 

Whether it’s a few sentences that commit a company to offering the fastest turnaround in the business, or a paragraph that describes how the company ‘goes the extra mile’ to thoroughly satisfy customer needs, a mission statement is a guide to how a company operates, and the values it holds dear.

 

But this research shows that mission statements reveal so much more. It shows that how a company motivates its employees to pursue organisational goals can also influence ethical violations such as workplace discrimination.

 

The background to the research lies in the psychology of motivation, specifically Regulatory Mode Theory. According to this theory, people are motivated to pursue goals in different ways, following two modes of self-regulation – locomotion and assessment.

 

Those motivated to take a locomotive approach to goal pursuit tend to be quick to make decisions and take decisive action. Those motivated to take an assessor approach tend to evaluate and compare goal options to ensure they make the right choice.

 

Regulatory Mode Theory has primarily been studied in individuals, but Dr Kanze and her co-authors wanted to find out whether it also applied at the organisational level to see how organisations could induce employee behaviour.

 

In particular, they wanted to know whether managers induced into locomotion mode are more likely to discriminate by disregarding ethical standards, and whether managers induced into assessment mode are less likely to discriminate by pursuing goals with thoughtful reflection of considerations such as ethical standards.

 

The research team performed an archival study of franchise businesses across the USA. Franchises were chosen because they are fast-growing, span a variety of industries, and employ a sizeable proportion of the US workforce. These employees include a high proportion of lower-income workers who are recognised as being more susceptible to workplace discrimination.

 

Focusing on a ten-year period between 2007 and 2017, the researchers created a multi-sourced dataset of 559 franchises by drawing on data from Entrepreneur Magazine as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that tracks incidences of discrimination of any type. This included, for example, discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender, pregnancy, race, religion and sexual harassment.

 

Having obtained the cases of franchise discrimination and the mission statements of the respective franchises, Dr Kanze and her team conducted a series of linguistic analyses by running the mission statement text through a linguistic word count tool. To do so, Dr Kanze and her colleagues created and validated a regulatory mode dictionary with the help of the world’s leading regulatory mode scholars, arriving at 34 terms associated with locomotion and 34 terms associated with assessment.

 

Words and phrases such as ‘dare’, ‘change’, and ‘can’t wait’ indicate a locomotive mode of goal pursuit. Conversely words and phrases such as ‘examine’, ‘compare’ and ‘reflect’ indicate an assessment mode of pursuing goals.

 

For example, a mission statement that prioritizes locomotion might begin: “We provide solutions quickly because your business can’t afford to wait.”

 

On the other hand, a mission statement that prioritizes assessment might begin: “Our company is consultative, meticulously collaborating with you, from imagination through installation.”

 

The research team’s regression results were significant. Franchise businesses with mission statements containing a higher frequency of locomotion terms and a lower frequency of assessment terms were not only significantly more likely to be named in employee discrimination violations but were involved in significantly higher amounts of separate incidents of discrimination as well. These results held when accounting for type of industry, the gender of the CEO, the number of years since the company’s founding, as well as the number of employees and franchise locations.

 

Dr Kanze and her research team wanted to go further and find out whether mission statements high in locomotion as opposed to assessment can actually cause discriminatory behaviour.

 

They conducted a series of controlled online experiments in which a total of over 700 participants were given mission statements for franchise businesses they were to imagine working for. Participants were randomly assigned to a mission statement for a business with either a high frequency of locomotion language or a high frequency of assessment language, or to a control condition of a mission statement containing neither locomotion nor assessment language.

 

Participants were then presented with a series of employee scenarios and asked what decision they would choose if they were in a managerial role in that company.

 

The employee scenarios were taken from real cases involving age, disability, and pregnancy discrimination brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, one case involved an older worker’s software skills, another one involved a disabled worker’s food preparation, and yet another involved an applicant’s inquiry about maternity benefits.

 

The results decisively showed that the regulatory mode of mission statements directly affected the likelihood and incidence of discriminatory decision making by participants in the managerial role.

 

Notably, participant-managers who were exposed to mission statements high in locomotion language displayed a significantly higher tendency and incidence of discriminatory decisions than those who were exposed to mission statements high in assessment language.

 

In fact, rounding the odds ratio to the nearest integer, the researchers observed that locomotive mission statements approximately quadrupled the odds that participants would choose a course of action that violated EEOC regulations.

 

Further investigation indicated that the results held true, even when accounting for such relevant factors as participants’ age, relevant work experience, and familiarity with workplace discrimination policies.

 

As to how this effect is operating, the research team found significant support for a mediation path running from exposure to mission statements through the consideration of ethical standards and on to discriminatory decision making. In other words, participants exposed to mission statements high in locomotion rather than assessment reported feeling the need to act quickly, with minimal time and effort, and this perceived need took their attention away from considering ethical standards.

 

Dr Kanze argues that understanding the systemic antecedents of employment discrimination is fundamental to reducing its prevalence in the workplace. And although her research focused on US franchises, she believes the findings across the archival and experimental studies are relevant to businesses of varying sizes across industries and locations, given her research team’s robustness checks and supplementary analyses.

 

Dr Kanze sees the studies’ findings as being particularly important for disruptive tech ventures as their fast-paced goal pursuit may leave them vulnerable to unethical activity.

 

Take the example of ride-hailing firm Uber. In 2019 it agreed to pay more than $4 million to settle a workplace gender discrimination claim brought in the United States, amidst other ongoing discrimination allegations against the company.

 

The company’s former CEO and senior vice president of global operations, billionaire investor Ryan Graves, recently said the company should have taken time to reflect on its mistakes. Dr Kanze points out that this type of reflection is emblematic of pursuing goals in assessment mode.

 

Graves explained that it didn’t happen, because “there always seemed to be another goal, another target, another business or city to launch”. Dr Kanze says this shows the company historically sought to motivate employees with a great deal of locomotion.

 

While Uber’s mission statement is “to bring transportation – for everyone, everywhere”, its website now also proclaims that the company is building a culture within Uber that emphasizes “doing the right thing, period”. Again, Dr Kanze views this new emphasis is a clear indication the company intends to increase its assessment going forward.

 

But actively building that culture is the key. Dr Kanze and colleagues’ research suggests that it’s not enough for employers to simply draft anti-discrimination policies that then gather dust on the proverbial shelf or appear in the investor relations section of your corporate website. Companies have to ensure that this language is embedded in all their employees’ day to day activities through motivational messaging like that of their mission statements.

 

Dr Kanze recommends managers access her research team’s dictionary of locomotion and assessment terms that is accessible on linguistic inquiry and word count software website LIWC.net as well as featured in the research paper itself in order to diagnose and amend their mission statement language, offsetting high locomotion with higher assessment as needed.

 

Such small tweaks can bring about deep change. Dr Kanze argues that taking a more thoughtful approach to messaging by accounting for regulatory mode language can help managers make subtle linguistic interventions that have significant impact.

 

Dr Kanze and her colleagues’ studies suggest that motivational messaging has a powerful influence on managers’ day-to-day HR decisions, from hiring, firing, promotion and duty assignment, to wage-setting, hourly allocations and even the nature of verbal and physical interactions.

 

In conclusion, businesses with language that stresses a strong locomotive over assessment mode of goal pursuit are significantly more vulnerable to cases of workplace discrimination, with serious implications for a company’s employees as well as its reputation and profitability. US employers pay over $500 million a year in direct monetary costs to victims of discrimination and then incur a number of other ancillary charges, like over $60 billion a year in employee turnover costs alone that are related to workplace discrimination.

 

Dr Kanze stresses that, rather than merely motivating employees to get things done, companies should motivate them to get things done, in the right way. Locomotion can motivate action, but locomotion combined with assessment motivates conscientious action.

 

Thanks for listening, and joining us today. For more about Dr Kanze and her colleagues’ work, use the link in the description to read her original journal article. A summary is also available in the Harvard Business Review, linked to these notes.

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