How Humans Really Work — Challenging the Myths of Popular Psychology

Carol Sanford
5 min readDec 19, 2017

We all hate to be fooled. We buy into one thing and find out it is not true. Or, it doesn’t work as promised, or at all, or even produces the opposite outcomes. Most human resource programs are such ruses. I call it a ruse because the word has etymological roots that mean doing something backwards or in reverse.

Most of these programs and practices are upside down about their effects. They are a sham or hoax that we have collectively accepted, and now they are familiar, thus hard to reconsider. This is mostly a result of good marketing and promotion by consultants, based on a partial understanding of how humans work. It is time to reveal and reverse the ruse by looking at the real and deep working of whole human beings, who have the capacity for growth, self-management, and making unique contributions to their communities.

This series of posts, Toxic Practices, is about exposing such ruses. I call them toxic practices because they poison society, organizations, families and individuals. My latest book, The Regenerative Business, includes 30 of these practices, but my list currently has over 100 that I’ll be featuring in future posts. In the rest of this post, we’ll look at the underlying worldviews that are responsible for these ruses. Then I’ll give my second opinion from the paradigm of living systems, and show how working from this paradigm has produced exceptional results for individuals and business.

How did we get here?

There are many answers to this question and we’ll often see more than one operating at once. For example, behaviorism, the study of what drives behavior, diverted us with incomplete scientific premises and findings almost one hundred years ago. John Watson, the founder of behaviorism, claimed that we cannot study what we cannot see and therefore it does not exist — we are only what our senses can pick up. We spent almost 80 years not only believing this, but building extensive programs based on the false findings of behavioral psychology and economics. They are so ubiquitous that it feels they must be true. It is time to examine the toxic practices resulting from behaviorism and other worldviews, then consider what to do instead.

To start, I will look at the most ancient practices from these worldviews. Including four past eras, from the days of kings (aristocracy worldview), from the era of machines and their metaphoric application to humans in the industrial revolution (mechanist worldview), from the study of rats as applied to humans (behaviorism), and from the human potential movement (humanist worldview). These will all be shown in contrast to the regenerative paradigm, worldview, and practices, which is drawn from the study of living systems.

Aristocracy is gone, but hierarchy lives on

Hierarchies come from the days of kings and some older patriarchal cultures. The idea of the need for management hierarchy is based on the long disproven idea that some folks are innately more capable and destined to rule over others, traditionally based on family heritage. The layers of power consisted of dukes, counts, and lords who extracted value from those below them and were expected to give both tribute and loyalty to those above them.

It seems strange to think that, while the idea of royalty is so outdated in modern nations, we still accept that most people must have a boss to assign them work and evaluate their performance. This idea, when coupled with the belief that people are somehow fixed in their capabilities from birth, creates a toxic environment where growth is limited and human potential remains untapped.

A Second Opinion

There is no special group of people who need to rule others. Each individual is unique and distinctive in their capabilities. The Carol Sanford Institute’s research and work with organizations for four decades has demonstrated that if each individual is given the chance for regenerative development, they will all grow beyond their current and even expected potential.

For example, Kingsford Charcoal was a company where half of the manufacturing staff did not have a high school education. Their margins were low, as was their market share. They were looking for a way to improve the business and initiated systemic changes aligned with regenerative principles. The company began developing the critical thinking capability of their people and moving them into self-directed teams of mixed functions and skills.

The individuals and teams each had significantly increased contributions to innovative ventures, beyond what they could have imagined from their old place in the hierarchy. Resulting initiatives included redesigning the production process, creating closed waste systems, and launching product innovations unique to the market. Since then, the business has maintained 70% of market share, with tripled margins.

Kingsford surpassed its sister units in Clorox by total revenue growth, margin improvement and go to market rate of success and return. This was led by self-initiating team members without delegation. It required creating a very different culture and most importantly a developmental infrastructure to grow people in a new ritual of monthly sessions combining personal development, business development and strategic challenges requiring extraordinary growth.

How humans really work

Each human has capacity waiting to be developed, including ableness to take responsibility and engage in self-management, for caring about more than ourselves and for exercising initiative and agency. And yet, traditional leaders tend to conceive of people as fixed at where they are, assuming that is all they can ever be. But if we look at how people actually work, we see a huge shortfall in understanding, including how toxic some practices are to our development as humans.

If we consider a more complete understanding, including developmental frameworks at both the personal and organizational level, we see how much greater individual contributions can be, as they continue to evolve into greater potential. All people are able to be developed (not just trained) and thereby significantly increase their capacity to contribute, when you let go of old myths and create the processes, system and structures that grow them all, all the time, forever. It is truly astounding what happens.

Coming up next

Next week, we’ll cover our second toxic practice: Delegation from leaders to direct reports.

In the mean time, let me know what you think, what questions this raises and which practices you want a second opinion on.

Follow my Business Second Opinion podcast, and read more about toxic practices and their alternatives in The Regenerative Business: Redesigning Work, Cultivating Human Potential, Achieving Extraordinary Outcomes. Nicholas Brealey, 2017.



Carol Sanford

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