A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company

Leadership behaviors that nurture interpersonal collaboration are the true drivers of change.

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Consider these two companies: The first is a retail chain with hundreds of locations globally — innovative, but basically a sales platform. The second is a hospital that treats the world’s most devastating cancers. Which do you think has a more engaged workforce?

If you chose the latter, in light of its quest to save lives, you wouldn’t be alone. Yet, when we spent time with both organizations, we discovered that the working environment in the hospital was rife with fear, workforce morale was low, and employee turnover was high. At the retail chain, on the other hand, there was a palpable spirit of camaraderie, employees were energetic and enthusiastic, and customers were very pleased with the service. The retailer had the more engaged workforce by a long shot.

It’s a common misconception, both in businesses and in management articles and books, that a sense of purpose is what matters most when it comes to engaging employees.1 Many leaders concerned with attracting and retaining top talent believe that nothing motivates people as much as the larger good they might be doing or the chance to change the world. Accordingly, they extol the higher virtues of their companies’ missions and the meaning of the work they offer.

But our work with more than 300 companies over the past 20 years, particularly our research using organizational network analysis (ONA) and our interviews with executives, reveals that purpose is only one contributing factor; the level and quality of interpersonal collaboration actually has the greatest impact on employee engagement.2 In this article, we’ll explore why collaboration has that effect and which behaviors you can adopt and practice to nurture it.



1. C. Rey, M. Bastons, and P. Sotok, eds., “Purpose-Driven Organizations: Management Ideas for a Better World” (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); and L.E. McLeod, “Leading With Noble Purpose: How to Create a Tribe of True Believers” (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).

2. G.A. Ballinger, R. Cross, and B.C. Holtom, “The Right Friends in the Right Places: Understanding Network Structure as a Predictor of Voluntary Turnover,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101, no. 4 (April 2016): 535-548; and R. Cross, P. Gray, A. Gerbasi, et al., “Building Engagement From the Ground Up: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks to Drive Employee Engagement,” Organizational Dynamics 41, no. 3 (July 2012): 202-211.

3.100 Best Companies to Work For,” Fortune, 2019, https://fortune.com.

4. A.C. Edmondson, “Managing the Risk of Learning: Psychological Safety in Work Teams,” in “International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working,” eds. M.A. West, D. Tjosvold, and K.G. Smith (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003): 255-276.

5. F. Herzberg, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” Harvard Business Review (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1968).

6. See, for instance: C. Duhigg, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” New York Times Magazine, Feb. 25, 2016, www.nytimes.com.

7. A.C. Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018).

8. D.Z. Levin and R. Cross, “The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer,” Management Science 50, no. 11 (November 2004): 1477-1490; and D.Z. Levin, E.M. Whitener, and R. Cross, “Perceived Trustworthiness of Knowledge Sources: The Moderating Impact of Relationship Length,” Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 5 (2006): 1163-1171.

9. S.E. Cha and A.C. Edmondson, “When Values Backfire: Leadership, Attribution, and Disenchantment in a Values-Driven Organization,” Leadership Quarterly 17, no. 1 (February 2006): 57-78.

10. Any opinions expressed by David Sylvester are his own and not those of his current employer.

11. S. Sinek, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (New York: Penguin Group, 2009).

12. J.E. Dutton and E.D. Heaphy, “The Power of High-Quality Connections,” in “Positive Organizational Scholarship,” eds. K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton, and R.E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003): 263-278; and R.W. Quinn, “Energizing Others in Work Connections,” in “Exploring Positive Relationships at Work,” eds. J.E. Dutton and B.R. Ragins (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007): 73-90.

13. Try taking our survey at www.networkassessments.org/thriving-through-connections. For a fuller picture, you also can invite the people you work with to take the survey and assess your behaviors. In return, you will receive a report showing the degree to which you exhibit each of the 27 behaviors.

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Comments (2)
Stella Yann
Biggest lightbulb moment after reading this article: "Trust is established before purpose. Trust comes before purpose". 

Think about the employer/employee relationship. One does not join a company without a sense of trust, and one does not hire a person without a sense of trust. Yes, purpose helps us to connect, sign the contract and agree on the partnership, but we must establish that this is a partnership and a collaboration in order for us to work side by side successfully. 

Where does the trust go away once the contract's been signed? We focus on the purpose as the first step, opposed to trust! 

Amazing article! Much to consider and borrow to improve one's company culture & performance.
Timely article for me.  I teach Org Behavior at Kent State and am in the process of adding a "Trust as an Source of Strategic Advantage" component to my class.  This article is going to be of great help.  

I see it in my work as a consultant:  Lack of trust = Friction.  Friction = Variability, Costly Transactions and Handoffs, Diminished Planning, Decision Making, and Problem Solving.