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Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The motivation of mission statements: How regulatory mode influences workplace discrimination

Kanze, D., Conley, M. A., & Higgins, E. T. (2021).
Organizational Behavior and Human 
Decision Processes, 166, 84–103.


Despite concerted efforts to enforce ethical standards, transgressions continue to plague US corporations. This paper investigates whether the way in which an organization pursues its goals can influence ethical violations, manifested as involvement in discrimination. We test this hypothesis among franchises, which employ a considerable amount of low-income workers adversely affected by discrimination. Drawing upon Regulatory Mode Theory, we perform a linguistic analysis of franchise mission statements to determine their degree of locomotion and assessment language. EEOC archival data for the past decade reveals that regulatory mode predicts franchise involvement in discrimination. Discriminatory behavior is associated with franchises whose mission statements motivate employees to embrace urgent action (locomotion mode) over thoughtful consideration (assessment mode). Two experiments demonstrate that participants exposed to high locomotion mission statements tend to disregard ethical standards due to their need for expediency, making significantly more discriminatory managerial decisions than those exposed to high assessment mission statements.


• We examine the influence of motivational messaging on workplace discrimination.

• The regulatory mode of mission statements predicts discrimination activity.

• Discrimination is associated with motivational messaging high in locomotion mode.

• This risk can be counteracted with language that is high in assessment mode.

• Consideration of ethical standards mediates this effect due to need for expediency.

• We introduce a regulatory mode dictionary to help evaluate motivational language.

From the General Discussion

Regulatory mode and unethical behavior

These studies contribute to the literature that resides at the crossroads of regulatory mode and ethics, informing our understanding of the motivational forces behind discrimination by highlighting the role of locomotion and assessment concerns. We apply regulatory mode theory to investigate the organizational context in which individuals engage in an important, unambiguous, and generalizable facet of unethical behavior: violations of corporate ethical standards known as workplace nondiscrimination policies. Going on to examine the interplay between perceived expediency and attention, we extend scholarly research related to cognitive influences on the perpetrators (Dovidio et al., 2002, Lai and Babcock, 2013) and the companies in which they are employed (Cortina, 2008). Importantly, our work sheds light on the conditions under which employees attend to standards deemed key to ethical conduct (Lau, 2010).

By demonstrating the unintended consequences of leadership decisions embodied in corporate mission statements, our work complements predictive research on discrimination that has primarily been devoted to the effectiveness of intended policies and programs (Castilla, 2015, McKay et al., 2011; see Dipboye & Colella, 2005 and Green, 2003 for several exceptions). The presence of EEOC violations in the face of corporate nondiscrimination policies extends the rich tradition of bounded ethicality research on unintended choices beyond the individual to conceptualize behavior at the organizational level (Chugh et al., 2005). Likewise, we widen the breadth of regulatory mode theory’s applicability, establishing the mechanism by which locomotion and assessment concerns can produce significant organizational-level effects through individual decision making (Bélanger et al., 2015).

Exploring the trade-offs inherent in contrasting modes of goal pursuit, we also enrich the growing literature on the “dark side” of goals (Ordóñez et al., 2009, Welsh and Ordóñez, 2014). In doing so, this work likewise informs a more nuanced understanding of locomotion mode. Our theoretical prediction and empirical support for the pernicious effects of locomotion mode lie in stark contrast to the preponderance of regulatory mode literature. Past work has documented a variety of otherwise positive outcomes—involving transformational leadership, intrinsic task motivation, multi-tasking, time-management, and well-being—associated with locomotion (Amato et al., 2014, Benjamin and Flynn, 2006, Di Santo et al., 2018, Pierro et al., 2013, Pierro et al., 2006).

Our EEOC archival study presented empirical evidence linking regulatory mode to actual managerial transgressions taking place in corporations spanning a wide range of industries that operate throughout the entire United States. These real-world cases of discrimination then served as the decision-making tasks in controlled experiments that manipulated locomotion and assessment of mission statements. Employing a combination of archival and experimental methodologies, our work represents a marriage of external and internal validity that enhances both theory and practice in this domain.23 Ultimately, linguistic applications that modify corporate mission statements for goal pursuit language can answer a recent call “to move beyond a descriptive framework and focus on finding empirically testable strategies to mitigate unethical behavior” (Sezer et al., 2015, p. 78).