When CEO Dara Khosrowshahi began his revamp of Uber’s troubled corporate culture, he started with the company’s stated core values. The result: Gone are phrases like “always be hustlin'” and “principled confrontation” from the startup’s early days. In their place, Uber now promotes values like “do the right thing” and “ideas over hierarchy.”
While it’s tempting to see such statements as corporate window dressing, new research suggests they may actually have real effects.
Dana Kanze, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, with Stockholm School of Economics’ Mark Conley and Columbia University’s E. Tory Higgins, studied the impact of companies’ mission statements on discrimination claims made by employees. They found a strong connection: companies that define themselves overwhelmingly by language Kanze describes as fitting within the “act first, ask questions later” attitude of some startups were more likely to have Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints filed against them by workers. Companies that lean toward thoughtfulness or balance the act-first language with some more measured verbiage were subject to fewer violations. The research was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“We found that the language of corporate mission statements can predict organizations’ involvement in EEOC cases of discrimination,” Kanze explains. The cases in the dataset include gender, racial, and age discrimination.
The act-first language that leads to those discrimination complaints is referred to by researchers as “locomotion,” or statements that “prioritize urgent action.” According to a dictionary the professors developed, words that fall into the category include “act,” “dare,” “can’t wait,” “fast,” “change,” and “momentum.” Locomotion’s counterpart is called “assessment” language. Examples include “observe,” “question,” “thorough,” “truth,” and “consider.”
While Kanze cites Uber as a compelling real-world example of a company where that language prioritizing action overwhelmed the organization’s values, the study itself didn’t evaluate the ride-hailing giant. Rather, the academics examined franchises with thousands of workers, such as McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, Cinnabon, and others—which together employ 6% of the U.S. labor force.
Like Uber, McDonald’s has faced a public reckoning over sexual harassment; 25 women who worked in its restaurants filed sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints with the EEOC in May. The researchers found a high level of “locomotion” language in the McDonald’s mission statement. In 2017, its growth plan said the company would “move with velocity to drive profitable growth.” Move, drive, and speed are all part of the researchers’ action-language dictionary.
7-Eleven had equally stark findings. Its “locomotion” score was well above the average for companies in the study, thanks to a mission statement that promises to “give the customers what they want, when and where they want it.” 7-Eleven had two EEOC incidents in 10 years, with other examples not included in the data because the EEOC didn’t directly file suit.
Companies with no EEOC violations were inclined toward the more thoughtful language of assessment. GNC, the health and nutrition brand known for selling vitamins and supplements, “demand[s] truth in labeling,” and takes a “rigorous approach to ensuring quality.” That language, Kanze and her team determined, is more think-first than act-first; GNC had no EEOC violations.
In addition to evaluating existing company mission statements in light of historical EEOC data, the researchers ran an experiment in which participants acted as franchise managers and received company motivational messaging that was manipulated with bias toward one language extreme or the other. In those scenarios, they found a causation between whether someone would act in a discriminatory way and the language a company used to describe itself. The mission statements influenced decision-making in a way that at times counteracted companies’ nondiscrimination policies.
The lesson from both components of their study, the researchers say, is not for companies to strip act-first ideas from their core values. They point to Cinnabon as an example: a franchise whose mission statement is balanced between the two kinds of language—both “keeping true to values” and “only we can deliver”—and that has not received any discrimination complaints pursued by the commission.
“The takeaway is not to take out all locomotion in mission statements. Those things helped propel Uber to a meteoric rise,” Kanze says. Rather, companies should “[embrace] a more thoughtful approach to their motivational messaging,” the authors write. Move fast, but think deeply too.
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