When talking about the common good, few people associate it with its economic relevance. Not so the German psychologist and business economist Timo Meynhardt. After finishing his academic studies and working for several years in consulting, he is currently conducting research with a focus on the common good and its importance to our understanding of business. He is doing this work in his role as Managing Director of the Center for Leadership and Values in Society at the University of St. Gallen. Additionally, since October 2015, Timo Meynhardt is the Arend Oetker Chair in Business Psychology and Leadership at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. Yet the ideological narrowness “in which a small group links particular interests to the common good and thus make it appear as if it were the common good”, is alien to Meynhardt. For Meynhardt “the common good is what the individual or the group needs as a breeding ground to develop, the same way that a plant that is not in a fertile soil, will not thrive. And as a social being the human needs a conducive social context to develop. This can be called common good”, explains Meynhardt. Moreover, he distinguishes between two central dimensions of the common good: “Without the common good there is no freedom. In my view the question of common good and the liberal question cannot be separated: Who wants freedom must say common good. The common good as a condition for the possibility of successful life is thus the psychological-functional facet. Another facet is the history of ideas. Common good here is a regulative idea in the meaning of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. We cannot achieve this, but it acts like a polar star, which helps us to reflect our actions and to orient ourselves.”
Both facets of the common good underline its essential importance for the organisation of our society, our organisations, and even our lives. Meynhardt explains, “currently the idea of common good is becoming popular again because its connotation is new, different, and fresh. And I don’t think that’s because of ethics. Instead, I believe that the increasing complexity of the modern world is forcing us to find a stable polar star. When everything changes, we look for something that is stable and that is the orientation towards the common good. One could also state that if complexity is the challenge, the common good is the answer.”
For companies, that means they should add a superordinate value to the monetary added value. Frequently, people talk about purpose here. “Making money remains important, but the dimension of meaning comes along in a powerful way. We think that the common good represents an attractive connotation of meaning”, Meynhardt summarises. “In companies that we visit they see the dangers, but also the opportunities of the focus on common good. Today, we can show that as soon as a CEO begins to focus on the common good, it has immediate motivational effects on employees – always when it is meant to be honest. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Fink talk about purpose, it is not always credible, yet we are increasingly seeing how capitalism activates its own legitimizing resources and perhaps uses them to make something of it entrepreneurially. “
Ultimately, Meynhardt’s understanding of the common good is less about a moral norm, but more about contemporary action to ensure sustainability. To be able to survive economically in a complex world, for him common good is not a nice-to-have but a basic condition. Companies would now increasingly recognise this: “Companies are implementing this because the complexity and pace of change calls for a guiding star, a superordinate idea. To organise their business model, managers argue less morally but more functionally.” When asked whether the common good will ultimately decide on the chances of survival of companies, he concludes: “Absolutely. That’s the reason for being, the license to operate. Profit is a means to an end, whereas the purpose is different and must be something else. “
In order to strike such a new path, “each individual contributes with his or her individuality, but there is also something that characterises these relationships beyond which I call a quality of system. This system quality is the common good. In the meantime, we can also show by studies that experiencing the common good gives strength and confidence to the individual, “explains Meynhardt. “In doing so, the mindset is crucial. You have to develop such a mindset for yourself. This is also about thinking about things together rather than separately. A systemic way of thinking is very important, but not the only criterion. It is also important to recognise contradictions as contradictions.” This makes it clear that business and the common good are not contradictions but describe the creative space that enables executives to secure the sustainability of their organizations.
The complete Interview with Timo Meynhardt in German language
Text by Benjamin Stromberg & Dirk Dobiéy.
The interview was conducted by Dirk Dobiéy and Rodrigo Morales on 18/04/2018.
Image source: Timo Meynhardt.