A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company

  • Rob Cross, Amy Edmondson, and Wendy Murphy
  • December 10, 2019

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

Image courtesy of Robert Neubecker/theispot.com

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.