Mission versus Mandate
I did some work recently for two government departments. Despite the inevitable similarities I was struck by one crucial difference in what some might call esprit de corp, or group pride. In one department, the people seemed deeply motivated, commited to their work and generally excited by its challenges. In the other, they seemed beat by the pressure of dealing with a large buearacracy; they felt and acted demotivated.
I was struggling to understand the difference until I started to notice things about their individual work environment that hinted at what might be driving the two different cultures.
On the surface, both departments share indisputable similarities. They were both clearly government insitutions, with large, yet strangely empty offices and an overabundence of confusing reporting lines and titles. Staff from both organisations exhibited the fatigue associated with battling staffing, social and political challenges while also trying to deliver their services.
But where they differed seemed to be in the collective story serving as the backbone to each organisation’s culture.
The first department is an old institution which has stayed relatively intact since its inception. The office was rich in memorabilia and physical reminders of its past and hertitage. It had pictures and display cases dotted throughout the building which evoked memories of a long history and the assumption of an ongoing and meantinful future.
In many ways I doubt that people outside the organisation would actually realise just how important this department’s work actually is. I’m sure that, to the general public, much of their work would seem obtuse, confusing or worthless. This would likely be reinforced by their digital presence and branding, which was out-of-date, limited and missing the vibrant imagery that we’ve come to associated with a modern service.
However, this sort of external perception didn’t seem to matter to the people who worked there. Their culture was being driven by strong interior and shared motivations; a shared story about who they were and what they did, and this was reflected in the sense of purpose that people had in their work. The staff appeared to believe they were working towards a noble pupose. Even though their work had significant challenges, I walked around listening to the apparent passion and motivation the staff had to do good work. No matter the challenge, their levels of motivation seemed powerful and consistent.
In sharp contrast, the other department had a much more up-to-date physical and digital brand presence; with fresh imagery, colours and impact. I think the social value that the Bureau fufilled was much more obvious to the general public, and the department recieved more external rewards and accolades for the services they provided than the other department.
However the environment of the office was utilitarian and bare, and the department’s history was anything but stable. It had formed and reformed many times in the last decade as various politically wrought changes. The changes consistently altered the department’s purpose. Staff were fatigued by constantly having to understand what the changing definition of excellence looked like and what they needed to strive towards. It left them disillusioned and demotivated. They appeared to be led along by an externally-applied and dynamic mandate, rather than fuelled by an internal motivation entrenched into the culture.
This got me thinking about how memoribillia and a desire to keep it, display it and be proud of it can be a sign of something deeper. How much the story matters. They are both signs of an organisation reinforcing a stable and internally derived long-term mission. A mission that many outside the organisation may not even understand.
Organisations are often advised to constantly look outward; to consult stakeholders; to bend and adapt themselves to feedback. It’s interesting how an organisation can become powerful by turning inwards to its own history, memoribillia, traditions and defining purpose.
So the next time you wander through a large organisation, keep your eyes out for whether you see the physical signs of a history proudly displayed. For good or for ill, it might give you a hint that you are dealing with an organisation with much more then a temporary mandate. You may be dealing with an organisation that has a powerful mission. And that can make them a force to be reckoned with.
History Photo by James Qualtrough on Unsplash