· Features

Meaningfulness and mutuality: Principles for organisational design

Meaningfulness and mutuality can be used to design business models capable of addressing complex questions

To address their financial, social and environmental responsibilities, organisations need new business models. Meaningfulness and mutuality can help organisations design innovative approaches to working with their stakeholders. Core mutual practices of values and voice unlock meaningfulness in work, and generate value-creating organisational outcomes such as knowledge sharing, innovation, pro-social behaviours, identification and wellbeing.

What’s new

Organisations are being challenged regarding their contributions to society and the natural environment – contributions that managers and employees frequently want to make, but which require innovation in their business models. When driven by a mix of financial, social and environmental objectives, organisations find themselves working in complex systems with stakeholders who hold diverse values about work and life. These stakeholders include investors, employees, suppliers, communities and even competitors.

Meaningfulness and mutuality are key to designing organisations capable of managing complexity, fostering innovation and encouraging stakeholders to co-create value. Such principles help us answer questions such as: why are we here? What matters to us? What do we care about? How are we to live together? They bring to light under-explored motivations for collective action, such as the need for meaningfulness and the common good in organisations and ecosystems.

The purpose of the common good is to create the conditions for promoting life and flourishing. Producing the common good is a type of value creation that involves stakeholders working together in relational complexity. Generating new knowledge and innovating in emerging industries depends on shared activities and mutual gains that include competitors, suppliers and customers. In commodity markets elevating whole supply chain value may even extend to corporations playing a role in governance and community development. This triggers a further set of questions, such as: what is the responsible connection of business to society? How do we harness corporate power for the benefit of all? Or ensure that the contributions of stakeholders to producing value will be fairly rewarded and properly esteemed?

Meaningfulness and mutuality are design principles for producing the business models capable of addressing such questions. Specifically, mutual organisations generate meaningful work, which Joanne Ciulla defines as ‘morally worthy work in a morally worthy organisation’. Victor Frankl describes the drive to meaningfulness as the ‘will to meaning’. This drive is extremely difficult to eliminate. Indeed, people will use whatever materials are to hand, including poor quality and precarious work, to craft meaningfulness. The philosopher Susan Wolf says that the value of meaningfulness aims at independently valuable objects we find affectively engaging. Meaningfulness arises when ‘subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness,’ where the experience of meaningfulness is more likely to occur when a person becomes actively connected to and emotionally involved in something or someone of value.

Wolf’s account of meaningfulness integrates an objective dimension (something is judged to have independent value) with a subjective dimension (something is emotionally engaging, satisfying, fulfilling). When stakeholders promote the good for those people, animals, and things that are valuable in their own right and to which they are emotionally attached, they generate meaningfulness for themselves and others. Such life-promoting activities are experienced as meaningful through processes of meaning-making operating in the midst of work designed for autonomy, freedom and dignity. Workers – all the stakeholders involved in value-creating activities – are recognised as having the status of meaning makers and possessing the cognitive and emotional capabilities for meaning-making.

Key findings


Despite employee engagement efforts and much talk of organisational purpose, work for many seems pointless. In a 2015 YouGov poll 37% of UK workers said their work makes no meaningful contribution to the world. Such results have led to a heightened corporate interest in the meaningfulness of work, and its connection to a worthy purpose.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, aims to create a ‘100-year-old company where people find deep meaning at work’, and IBM’s 2016 Employee Experience Index includes meaningful work.

Tatjana Schnell shows that people experience meaning in life when they have access to diverse sources of positive meanings. Meaningfulness may be derived from a revived relationship to work or from a renewed commitment to organisational purposes.

For example, when a team of caretakers in a housing association, little valued by their co-workers or organisation in general, were led by their manager to explore the meaningfulness of their work, and its significance for tenants and the organisation, it produced a transformative impact on team morale, performance and their capacity to extend their contribution.

Experienced meaningfulness requires a rich organisational meaning system, including varied sources of positive meanings, and practices that encourage employees to voice different interpretations of meanings that are used to design work. Steffen Raub and Stephan Blunschi found in a UK-based hotel chain that being involved in, or having an awareness of, corporate CSR initiatives fostered service employees’ perceptions of making a positive difference to the lives of others, generating a sense of personal meaningfulness.

In building an HSBC and WWF partnership on water conservation in the Ganges, India, an important aspect was the attractiveness of the project for HSBC’s employees.

However, meaningfulness can be thwarted if employees are required to take part in CSR initiatives. Meaningfulness is also less likely to be experienced in organisations that make no attempt to secure mutuality in production and distribution.


“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly... This is the inter-related structure of reality.” So said Martin Luther King Junior.

Mutuality unlocks meaningfulness by generating a depth and range of positive meanings that stakeholders can adopt to lend significance to, and make sense of, their work and lives. It is an organising philosophy concerned with values, principles, and practices. Mutual organisations produce the high levels of relational value needed to bring together stakeholders when managing the complexity resulting from pursuing multiple social, environmental and financial objectives. Their objective is to distribute among all stakeholders a fair share of the benefits and burdens arising from collective activities. This distribution is determined through fair procedures in which all stakeholders have a voice.

Mutuality produces relational value through collaborative stakeholder relationships, involving collective learning, shared expertise and joint knowledge building. From an examination of mutual gains partnerships in the US airline industry, Jody Gittell and colleagues found that relational factors of trust and employee involvement in problem-solving are vital determinants of performance. Encouraging stakeholders to contribute depends on organisational values such as fairness, care and flourishing: a) fairness where stakeholders are reassured they will not be exploited; b) care where stakeholders are entitled to present their most pressing concerns and urgent needs; and c) flourishing where stakeholders experience an increase in their capabilities and resources.

Organisations seeking to mutualise, and thereby unlock meaningfulness, need to unearth existing mutual values or adopt new ones. This requires as many stakeholders as possible engaging in dialogue and negotiation. But what often happens is that a select group (usually senior managers) develop values that they attempt to persuade the wider organisation to adopt. These may then be experienced as imposed. The remedy is to allow stakeholders to collectively assign meaning to values at an early stage and revisit periodically.

From research to reality

“The betterment of society is not a job to be left to a few. It’s a responsibility to be shared by all,” said David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard.

Organisations designed using principles of meaningfulness and mutuality generate new kinds of stakeholder work. In doing so they go beyond standard approaches such as auditing and compliance mechanisms with suppliers, engagement systems with employees, industry forums with competitors, and communications and branding with customers. As part of the World Cocoa Foundation, the 12 largest cocoa and chocolate companies committed to developing a co-operative multi-stakeholder framework to end deforestation and forest degradation in the cocoa supply chain.

Heathrow T5 practices ‘professional collaboration’ involving integrated teams of suppliers and staff based on commitment and trust, common vision and leadership, joint processes and tools, and shared cultural and behavioural expectations.

In accepting responsibilities for global health security, and meeting its organisational purpose to widen access to its products, GSK is establishing a Biopreparedness Organisation in Rockeville, US.

These examples all include aspects of:

1. Ethical work: articulating organisational values with moral significance and emotional appeal, and incorporating into value-creating practices different stakeholder perspectives on the meanings of values, work and purpose.

2. Relational work: using mutual practices such as voice, justice and leadership to build relational and knowledge capital.

3. Complexity work: using knowledge and technology to generate system-level innovations in operating practices.

4. Dialogic work: using dialogue and negotiation to examine tensions and differences in meaning interpretations, and to agree on shared values.

Implications for HR

Creating mutual organisation practices that generate meaningfulness involves all stakeholders in organisational innovation. HR can guide the design process by establishing processes that allow stakeholders to:

1. Set multiple objective goals for the organisation: social goals such as the living wage and good work, environmental goals incorporating the UN SDG objective, financial goals encouraging patient capital and return on stakeholder relationships.

2. Make the process part of the shared goals by maintaining transparency, developing interactive or mutual knowledge, ensuring stakeholder voice extends to having influence over the framing rules governing joint action, and involvement in creating integrated solutions. This process should include: not avoiding conflict, surfacing tensions and differences through dialogue, negotiation and mediation, attending to power differentials in the understanding of different stakeholders.

3. Share the benefits of stakeholder value creation fairly.

Ruth Yeoman is a research fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford. Jan O'Hara is a management consultant