Feb 02
Two people jumping into a pool of Kool-Aid

Drink the Kool-Aid, but don’t chug it. A skeptic’s guide to mission statements.

Over the years, the “drinking the KOOL-AID” expression has become a shorthand for cultish conformity. It’s a reference to the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in which people lost their lives after buying into a cult mentality.

Skepticism, the enemy of blind adherence, is a handy defense mechanism. It probably could have saved lives in Jonestown. And it’s an appropriate filter for thinking about how people will absorb the company mission.

Today’s millennial workforce (which was taught critical thinking before learning the alphabet) will reflexively scrutinize everything put in front of them. They were brought up to question authority. Regarding their feelings at work, a survey from Price Waterhouse company Strategy&, found that only 28% of all employees feel connected to their company’s purpose and more than half weren’t even “somewhat motivated,” passionate, or excited about their jobs.

Recent news stories about companies in which charismatic, but self-deluded leaders have brought employees (many with handsome stock incentives) dangerously close to marching off ethical cliffs with them, have further built up that cynicism muscle.

And in a 2021 study, 91% of millennials said they expect to change jobs every three years. That doesn’t sound like a generation betrothed to their company’s long-term plan. It suggests a more mercenary mindset.

All that brings us to a fittingly skeptical jumping off point to consider how to do an effective mission statement for a workforce that isn’t all that into commitment.

As a veteran of translating mission statements into communications, sometimes participating in task forces to create them, and occasionally authoring them, I’ve seen their value in creating a baby step toward a North star. When they reflect the true heart and soul of the company and its people, they’re useful.

One role of the mission statement is to get each of us thinking about the value of our actions, what we can accomplish collectively and individually. Collectively as colleagues working together, and individually in what each of us brings to the table and how the mission relates to our own personal values. (Because individuals don’t leave their personal values at the door.)

Obviously, a good mission statement requires vision, but equally important, it requires empathy and emotional intelligence. It must know its audience. That’s where skepticism becomes an empathetic impulse and why skepticism is our friend.

It should also be noted that they’re often written with the dual function of inspiring confidence in investors, adding yet another audience with another mindset to the challenges of writing one with clear purpose.

And all that said, the words of a mission statement alone are no substitute for the broader work required to nurture the seeds of productivity and satisfaction. The mission statement simply sets the table for further, more tangible actions needed to create shared ownership of a company’s purpose.

Because let’s not kid ourselves that a piece of inspirational copy, sitting there passively, is going to do anything but collect dust on your company’s About page. It’s just copy, co-authored by a corporate cult member with stock options, or maybe an outside brand consultant. And it’s probably a pretty corny piece of copy at that.

With all this healthy skepticism working against the mission statement, here are a few thought starters toward writing one that human beings of sound mind, living in our skeptical age can swallow. Feel free to add your own suggestion in the comments.

Finally, it must be said, despite our collective cynicism, most of us want to be part of solutions, a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to work for companies that generate positive impact along with profit.

So maybe this is actually the perfect moment to ignite a sense of mission in people…respectfully and empathetically. And even democratically, by just encouraging us to ignite it in ourselves.

Eric Gutierrez is a Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Hey