Language as Clue—Part 1

The Effect of Paradigms on Creating Systemic Change in Business

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Paradigm change is a frequent subject among business practitioners, although it is often difficult to define change in terms of paradigm direction. This paper outlines four paradigms at work in the thinking of today’s business agents. Clarity comes in part from articulating the differences in language and practices that are based in different paradigms. In addition to discussion of the four paradigms in their relationship to change, this paper also examines the origin and applied use of each, along with the principles and instruments that each tends to draw upon. Examples of language that represent the metaphors of each paradigm are offered, as are practices that have developed from each and the effects of each paradigm and its set of practices on organizations, many of which are unintended and may even exacerbate the very situations that they are intended to improve. The overall intention of these comparisons is to improve discernment in an organization’s choice of practices and to facilitate shifts in paradigms and the ableness in individuals to create such shifts.


We are fooled into thinking that language is an instrument working at our beck and call, expressing our ideas and thoughts as they arise in us. Interpretation of experience makes it seem that we choose our words and offer them up to those who listen, as if words are neutral and passive in the process. But what if it is really the other way around? What if we are tricked into using the words that seem handy to our purpose? What if we are actually blind to how they are framing our thinking and putting thoughts into our heads and mouths? What if we are slaves to our words and the instruments for them rather than their masters? This is what I postulate in this paper. The good news is that we have a choice. We can discover in language clues to our paradigms and the boundaries they impose, which will give us the power to change the paradigms we work within.

I offer business examples to illustrate the four major paradigms, presented as metaphors that are currently active in modern society. I use the metaphors and the language they evoke as a means to understand how language and paradigms affect our understanding of systems change and the working of systems. There is a short description of the sources and use of each paradigm, and what we lose when we apply inappropriate metaphors in our attempts to understand our world and bring change into it. I argue that inappropriate paradigms and their attendant metaphors are a primary source of our inability to manage climate change, ecosystem degradation, human societal health, and even business success. And yet we need paradigms, for without them our thinking processes would be fragmented and dispersed. Thus we must increase our consciousness of the effects of paradigms and metaphors on our worldview and take charge of their use.

How do paradigms work?

What we see and think is dictated by a worldview, a framing, which excludes some information and constantly interprets a scene, prior to our even “receiving the information” in our brains. In fact, we do not actually see; instead we interpret visual information based on the metaphors and paradigms we hold. What we think of as seeing is an indirect process, although it seems direct. Eyes see! But eyes only pick up information that is then passed through our firmly held interpretations of all related subjects. We think we see an action in a person and know the intentions behind it. science has shown us that this is not the case. We have invisible filters, or lenses, that govern what we see and how we make meaning of things.

If you have ever seen the work of a great photographer who used lenses to make subtle or sophisticated changes in different prints of the same image, you have experienced an example of the power of filters. They can significantly bend and rearrange how we see things even though the literal photo never changes. The place or persons photographed are constant. We frequently see this in politics, as well, where the same event can have radically different meanings, depending on which party or spokesperson is describing it. In each person’s mind, one or another paradigm is working as a filter or lens.

A paradigm is a tightly knit cosmology that frames how we see everything we look at, hear, or otherwise experience. It is held together by our beliefs about the working of “reality,” which are held as dominant agreements that bind communities of place or interest. Paradigms then become pattern generators in thinking, perception, and language, and therefore of action.

The Paradigm-Framing Effects of English and Other Alphabet Languages

Language is one of the lenses that shape our experience. Language evokes or presents metaphors depending on the culture, and it forms in ways that are paradigm based and more or less directly correlated. English and other alphabetic languages require us to think metaphorically because they are abstract. for example, the letters D-O-G in English do not look like the object or idea that they represent. There is no animal shape in the three isolated letters. They are entirely an abstraction, designated to stand for the idea of a barking animal. We cannot make sense of them except through an intermediary process that evokes the symbolic or metaphoric idea of an entity whose name is “dog.”

In contrast, the non-alphabetic Asian languages are based on ideograms, each of which is the sketch of a specific, concrete situation and its dynamics. No metaphoric translation is required. The need in English for metaphor in alphabetic languages and the requirement of a cultural filter to make sense of complexity in the world around us sets us up — if we do not develop our capacity for reflection — to be misled into fragmented images of the world around us. On all of us, paradigms are working silently and invisibly; particularly through our languaging process.

There are four paradigms actively at work in our culture and in any business, in the twenty-first century. I call them, the “machine paradigm,” “behavioral paradigm,” “human potential paradigm,” and “regenerative paradigm.” I will describe each in turn and look at its source and patterns, including the language that defines it — and us — as we work to create systemic change.

The Machine Paradigm

Source: The machine paradigm arose in the eighteenth century with the industrial revolution, when the life-changing successes of vastly improved mechanical production made machines seem magical, even alive. At precisely the same time, Francis Bacon was proposing many scientific principles, using the mechanical metaphors he saw in the new mass production processes and improved productivity measures that resulted to describe nature and its work. Nature was a machine, a clock, or other inanimate device, made alive by the addition of the energy that was imported to run it.

Where this paradigm makes sense is in the world of machines, which includes devices as different as computers, assembly lines, rockets, and electrical systems. Its goal is the idea that, with intelligent intervention, humans can extend the life or effectiveness of a machine beyond its average or predicted use. The starting place for increasingly longer or broader extension is the understanding of each microscopic element that makes up the machine and the impact of these parts on one another. from this understanding it is possible to invent ways to improve the machine by replacing its parts or redesigning their work. for this purpose, working from the paradigm can be very useful.

Scientific Belief: The mechanical paradigm takes its direction from the laws of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with energy and work appropriate to machines. Within thermodynamics, machines and the parts of machines are understood to be subject to general constraints, which are common to all materials and not the peculiar properties of particular materials. The father of this idea was the nineteenth-century french physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, who believed that the efficiency of combustion engines was the key that could help France win the Napoleonic Wars. His new way of thinking made machines preeminent and thought of as ruled wholly by general physical laws, with no differentiating characteristics. All machines are the same as far as physics is concerned.

Another source for this paradigm, particularly as it is applied to humans, is system dynamics, which emerged in the 1990s. You may be aware of this adoption of the machine paradigm in its expression as systems thinking, often called “systems dynamics”, especially if you have been exposed to the work that MIT Sloan has promoted in this regard. The machine version of systems thinking is drawn from Jay Forrester’s work on artificial intelligence and the study of machines as a metaphor for the living world.

Instruments: The philosopher Sir Francis Bacon took the ideas of Carnot and used them to create a method for studying all objects, alive or not alive. He embedded the laws of the mechanical world into the broader world via empiricism or the scientific method, which is now the basis of research in virtually all universities and laboratories. The methods of the mechanical paradigm in this context are reductionism (break a thing down to its smallest atom), problem-solving (start with a problem and then solve it), and managing all variance to bring performance back toward a posited ideal. These methods are of extraordinary use in the world of non-living objects, but they are neither accurate nor useful when transferred to the living world.

Mechanical Paradigm Language and Business Practices

Terms that are clues to the machine paradigm include feedback, procedures, standards, alignment, supply chain, causal loops, parts, and elements.” All of these are present literally in mechanical systems, but not in living systems, even though we have come to see them as present their by transference. for example, there are no “parts” in nature. Even though we speak of trunk, limb, and leaf as parts of a tree, there are no dividing lines among them, and we do not have the ability to tell where one stops and another starts. They are related to one another as a living continuum, as are the totalities of all living systems. We may speak of supply-chains as part of the business world, but chains exist only in machines, never within the living systems that we call businesses and economies. In living systems and human organizations, chains, parts, and all of the terms above are metaphors borrowed from the machine world and applied inappropriately.

However, many current business practices are drawn from these metaphors, including peer review/360° feedback and problem solving as the basis of creative pursuits that break questions and situations into parts as if they were machines. Nature does not work from problems; its way of keeping a system healthy and evolving is an interactive dynamic.

The most toxic machine paradigm practice in businesses and other organizations is feedback. In machines, feedback processes employ governors to detect overload or runaway energy flows and them down. for example, a governor can shut off electrical power to an appliance in case of a surge or gas from a pump when a tank is full. The governor provides a fail safe when a substance or action moves unsafely or outside of prescribed performance limits, e.g., out of bounds or outside of standards. feedback is the mechanism for managing or controlling for nonconforming events.

Clearly, feedback is essential for the safe and convenient operation of nonliving machinery, which cannot otherwise be self-managing. It is likely just as obvious that feedback has been inappropriately transferred to human organization and regulatory processes, where it mechanizes relationships and sends discouraging signals to individuals when they behave out of standard. In the living world, working from the mechanical metaphors limits imagination, creativity, and initiative and inevitably cuts off access to more inclusive paradigms.

Effects of Applying the Machine Paradigm to Living Systems

Just as machines are seen as “the same,” subject to the universal natural laws that govern the physical world, the machine paradigm applied to organizations tends to invite us to commoditize people. It reduces the flexibility to change roles and create different ways to work, they stop expecting much from themselves. This causes a business to be less resilient in the face of change, which seems inevitable. People learn to shun change and value and expect permanence. It is often said that people “resist” or “fear” change. When they are managed as machines, with the practices of this paradigm, resistance feels accurate because standards flatten any opportunity to contribute. What is actually true it that people resist and fear “imposed change”, but imposition is the only possible approach to change in an operation conceived of as a machine, whose people are mostly identical parts.

Mechanization of work, tends to reduce or eradicates the experience of caring, which comes from being connected to others and to contributions associated with significance. 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.

The machine paradigm teaches people not to think but to wait for and expect external direction. The top-down managing practice, which is a primary structure of this paradigm, is extremely hierarchical. All decisions and planning are conducted from the top down. Yet, managers are surprised that people do not work independently when asked to be in teams. It takes a significant re-education and restructuring of work for self-initiative to return.



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Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson |# 1 AmazonBest Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator