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Mission Impossible

Are office manifestos really
worth the time?

Ever since Tom Cruise wrote an idealistic mission statement in the film Jerry Maguire, the idea of creating an office manifesto to improve customer service and boost sales has boomed in workplaces around the country. "I'm a skeptic," says Russell Roberts, Ph.D. "People spend large sums of time and money coming up with them, but I wondered if they served any real purpose."

The answer? Sometimes. Roberts, an economist at the Olin School of Business at Washington University, believes that mission statements can serve two good purposes. First, they tell employees that their real purpose is not to make money. "Of course, they do want to make money," he explains. "But, ironically, if you focus on that, you'll do a bad job." Highlighting customer service is a more indirect--and successful--way of bringing in the bucks.

Second, company slogans show workers that they're selling not just objects, but an idea. Roberts notes that Steelcase, an office furniture company, aspires not to provide the best desks but, more generally, to "transform the way people work." Smart, says Roberts, because if the company stops selling furniture, they can find another way to "transform" consumers' lives--allowing the company to stay in business.

But most important is leadership that truly believes in the mission statement, says Roberts. If top officials don't live by the motto, it won't filter down to staff or customers.