The language organizations use in mission statements and other internal communication has a direct correlation to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforcement actions, researchers have found.
“We kept noticing these references to acting first and asking questions later ... implying that that type of pursuit of goals had something to do with unethical behavior, but they really didn't realize that they were touching upon ‘regulatory mode theory,’” Dana Kanze, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, told HR Dive.
Kanze was lead author of a study released late last year and recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review with her co-authors discussing their findings.
A causal relationship
Regulatory mode theory distinguishes an organization’s mindset on a spectrum between two poles — locomotion and assessment — with the former being the urgent pursuit of goals and the latter using thought and consideration before taking action. Kanze and her co-authors found that companies with overly “locomotive” language in their mission statements are more likely to face EEOC enforcement actions.
“There's a reason why every company has a mission statement; it is a cultural artifact,” Kanze said. “They're tangible and intangible manifestations of culture, and it's really one of the only things that we have to do textual analysis on, but it's emblematic of the way in which a company pursues its goals, and that gets woven into a company's day to day activity in so many different ways.”
The researchers conducted two separate evaluations. First, with a sample of 559 franchises, they used text analysis to determine where a company’s mission statement stood on the spectrum and then cross-examined that list with a database of EEOC actions from 2007 through 2017. They concluded that “franchises whose mission statements emphasized locomotion (‘just do it’) over assessment (‘do the right thing’) were significantly more likely to be charged with discrimination.”
Secondly, after identifying a correlation between locomotion and discrimination, the researchers conducted a set of controlled experiments to determine if there was a causal relationship between the two. They enlisted 717 U.S.-based online participants to act as franchise managers, presented them with either a high-locomotion or high-assessment mission statement for the company, and then asked which action they would take on a number of scenarios.
“For each scenario, participants had to choose between one option that directly violated EEOC regulations and another option that was a viable alternative recommended by the EEOC,” wrote the authors in HBR. “We found that the locomotion mission statements quadrupled the odds that participants would choose an illegal course of action.” In follow-up questioning about the factors in their decision making, subjects who read the locomotion mission statement said they felt the need to make a decision as quickly as possible.
A balanced approach
While companies may want to avoid being known for discrimination or other negative workplace experiences, locomotion mindsets drove the explosive growth of today’s corporate titans, with Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra being a typical example.
“There's been 20 years of research on it that shows locomotion is associated with a lot of really favorable outcomes for companies overall,” Kanze noted. “Our sample was consistent with the fact that it did predict growth and longevity. … By all accounts, locomotion is supposed to be this really positive type of way to pursue your goals and indicative of transformative leadership.”
The authors, therefore, do not suggest employers eschew locomotion language altogether, but rather incorporate both types of language in a balanced approach, which they say “motivates conscientious action.”
“Whereas past interventions have tried to say [not to] make any mention of bottom line mentality ... this is actually a really interesting finding that allows you as a company to continue to embrace those bottom-line goals,” Kanze said.
Business leaders may want to evaluate their messaging in job postings, onboarding materials and internal training documents, for example. “Motivational messaging is working implicitly, we have to weave [assessment language] into the fabric of how these organizations are motivating employees to make decisions,” Kanze said, pointing out that creating supplementary ethics codes or punishing one person to set an example is not enough.
“If you are growing in this manner at all costs, you're not thoughtfully considering and evaluating all of the potential ramifications,” Kanze said. “Fortunately, what we've seen is that the Facebooks and the Ubers of the world have actually amended their models and missions themselves.”