Humans, Not Cogs: A New Workplace Paradigm

When people are seen as just like each other and treated as cogs in a machine, it is difficult for them to feel that they are valued contributors and therefore difficult for them to care about work. Carol Sanford

A paradigm, or ‘world view’ influences the way we think, talk and behave.

All organisations have a dominant paradigm. And this paradigm shapes the culture which shapes leadership which shapes our experiences at work. 

Organisational paradigms are rarely discussed, yet have a significant impact on our working lives.

Our current dominant paradigm, the machine paradigm, arose in the eighteenth century during the Industrial Revolution, a time when machines were celebrated and organisations were designed to operate like them.

In this paradigm, organisations are seen as value-extraction machines that must be optimised. Humans are seen as interchangeable resources to be re-arranged, leveraged and depleted. The machine paradigm relies on elaborate systems of sticks and carrots to incentivise humans to conform, comply and work towards the primary goal of more and more value extraction.

This paradigm has resulted in many unfortunate consequences for humans, given we are unique, growing beings and not fixed, interchangeable parts. Of course it has also had disastrous environmental impacts.

For many years, humans have crunched and compressed themselves like contortionists to survive the machine paradigm. The reason why so many of us feel uninspired, disengaged, exhausted, undervalued, disconnected, lost and diminished is because this paradigm is fundamentally discordant with our essential nature.

In the book Why We Work, Barry Schwartz explains:

If we want to help design a human nature that seeks and finds challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction from work, we have to start building our way out of the deep hole that almost three centuries of misconception about human motivation and human nature have put us in, and help foster workplaces in which challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction are possible.

As the machine paradigm falls away, several new paradigms are emerging – the behavioural paradigm, the human potential paradigm and the regenerative paradigm.

I have summarised these different paradigms below. This information comes from the book The Regenerative Business by Carol Sanford.


Goal: To maximise value extraction and to invest energy and resources to receive value in return. 

Thinking: Humans are resources and interchangeable cogs. Self-interest and wealth creation are the primary drivers for expansion, discovery and experimentation.

Unintended consequence: This paradigm has led to dehumanising workplaces, damaged ecosystems, human suffering and environmental degradation.


Goal: To shape and control employee behaviour towards ‘ideal standards’ in order to produce the desired outcomes. 

Thinking: Humans must be incentivised to behave in ideal, desired ways. Ranking and rating is the best way to reward and recognise those who meet the ideal standards. 

Unintended Consequence: This paradigm is also destructive to the development of free, independent, thriving human beings. This paradigm also leads to an inward-focused culture that is not conducive to innovation and prone to unhealthy internal rivalry. It also does not solve the problem of environmental degradation.


Goal: The pursuit of the potential inherent in each human. 

Thinking: Humans are inherently worthy and perform at their best through self-determination and self- expression. The primary focus on human development and expression has a major blind-spot – the relationships between humans and the larger systems we interact with, specially the natural systems.

Unintended consequence: Environmental degradation continues to be an unintended consequence of this paradigm.


Goal: Humans serving as an instrument for the evolution of all beings. 

Thinking: To evolve the capacity and grow the capability of humans we must express our unique essence in a way that contributes in a meaningful way, and serves the development of others.

Unintended consequences: The false assumption that one is already working regeneratively can prevent people from orienting to this paradigm, resulting in organisations remaining stuck in the old paradigms.

Leading Into The Emerging Future

Deborah Frieze shares the insight that ‘it’s not possible to change big systems – we can only abandon them and start over or offer hospice to what’s dying.’

Deborah’s work outlines four key roles we can play during the break-down of a no-longer-good-enough paradigm and the emergence of something new. 

Our participation in the shaping of the emerging paradigm does not mean we are anti-capitalism – it means that we understand that true prosperity requires us to work together in new ways that better support all life.

We can all support new paradigms of work to emerge with ease, the machine paradigm to dissolve with dignity, and the shift to unfold with grace.

The four roles required in order for this to happen are:

Trailblazers – pioneering path-finders who are eager to experiment with a healthier and more resilient future.

Hospice Workers – compassionately stay within the collapsing system and guide its people through the transition to the emerging alternatives.

Illuminators – tell the stories of the emerging systems so others can find them and make wiser choices about their future.

Protectors – hold power in the dominant system to create space for innovation and experimentation.

The four roles we can play

It's important to understand that our dominant systems of work are inclined towards self-preservation and may attack the virus of innovation. 

During the time between the collapse of the old and the full emergence of the new we will need to cultivate the capacity to sit in the not-knowing, the confusion and the uncertainty – perhaps for long periods of time. 

This means that our own mindset and orientation will be essential.

Our mindset must be one of openness, sensing, learning, collaboration and discovery. I often find myself coming back to Ash Buchanan's wonderful work on the Benefit Mindset. 

To succeed, we must remain connected with our essential nature and oriented towards the emerging paradigms - which is why I am pioneering the practice of self-fidelity.

It is also important to maintain a broad perspective. From this vantage point, we can stay aware of both the fresh qualities of the emerging paradigms and the undertow of the dissolving paradigm.

As humans we like to cling to the familiar, yet it is not possible for us to live simultaneously in multiple paradigms while maintaining coherence. As Otto Scharmer teaches us, the ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into and ‘presencing’ an emerging future is probably the single most important leadership capacity today.

Venturing beyond the edge of the world of work as we know it can feel scary – or exhilarating – it all depends on how we think about it.

Curious to learn more?

Visit my website to get free samples of my books Self-Fidelity and Being True.

By reconnecting to our deepest selves we liberate our highest potential and serve the greatest good. I’m a trusted guide for curious big-hearted leaders who want to honour the truth of who they are. I offer coaching, plus a range of programs, workshops and keynotes. 

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