The Hazard of Finding Truth in Scientific Research

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Science has a lot to say about how humans and brains work. While the conclusions are presented as fresh, unchanging truth, they usually carry assumptions and limitations brought from the worldviews that dominated in the past. We’ll see how living systems thinking provides a different perspective on the project of applying the conclusions of scientific studies to humans working in businesses.

This post is part of a podcast and blog series called Business Second Opinion, where I give a contrarian view on ideas presented in publications like the Harvard Business Review. You can listen to the corresponding Business Second Opinion podcast episode #114 and subscribe to future shows on iTunes, Sticher, Audio Boom, or Google Play.

Carol’s question for us: Review the need for a method to examine what lies behind the research, the interpretation, and the application into business programs.

Business Second Opinion accepts suggestions for future podcast content, and this week a Microsoft leader brought to light the science offered by new neuroscience studies being brought into the business. The subject struck Carol as an intriguing topic to dissect the scientific method and its lack of questioning human worldviews. In this podcast, she gives light to how one can be blinded by their own biases and give light to how one’s worldview shapes their success.

Five worldviews over human history

Carol deciphers five worldviews that have emerged in different eras of human life. She notes that we are led by a few which are defining what can be conceived of, and we are often dragging the thinking of old eras with us.

1. Royalty Worldview

The oldest worldview, who’s influence pervades all societies, might be called the royalty worldview.

  • Based on the idea that people are born to rule and lead because they are in a family of intelligence and deserve it.
  • This drove the idea of rulers and church powers. They were ordained, usually by God, and others were their subjects to be guided by their wisdom — or power.
  • The royalty worldview isn’t explicitly driving much research, but it continues to be seen throughout the workplace, showing up in hierarchical structures and the notion of fixed levels of ableness. It is often implicit and affects methodology.

2. Machine Worldview

The second worldview that emerged centuries later is the machine worldview, which became dominant in the industrial revolution.

  • Its foundation is in the belief that humans are like machines and you have to import energy into them and create structure like you would a machine. It cannot be self-fueling.
  • Like the machine which needs gasoline, it needs the increment of input to improve the productivity of production, focusing on labor.
  • It is often called scientific management or Taylorism (after Frederick Taylor).
  • It was created with the view of humans as a part of the machine system and therefore the “science” studies humans as working like machines. This was pervasive and precluded neutrality in the results.
  • As with many studies that are called scientific, they are later displaced by the findings of another worldview and fall out of favor more and more over time. But some minds don’t move along, even among scientists who claim to be seeking truth.
  • So, the first question we have to ask is, “what worldview is guiding the sourcing of ideas, the design of the question to be studied, the design of the methods, the conducting the study, then reviewing the study design and application for the interpretation of the findings.”
  • In this case, it led to time and motion studies, assembly lines that removed any investment in the outcome except for personal return. Most manufacturing gave this up long ago, but the work forms still exist.
  • You will see people as interchangeable parts. That is fundamental to the machine worldview. It takes some digging into a proposed study and how people got to that point. You have to ask in each of the six phases does it seemed to be based on humans as part of the production line, or does it see them as alive and guiding the work. We will get more than that in worldviews #4 and #5 in the next episode of Business Second Opinion.
  • You will also see studies as trying to isolate variables as if people can be divided up like the machine. For example, their motivation or the effect of skills training on productivity.
  • “Parts” of human activity are studied for something they want to know. Everything else is held as “fixed” and cannot move or be manipulated in the study.
  • One modern example is the idea that everything is done with the brain in mind and the science of the brain. So-called neuroscience. It is the constant, isolated variable which gives internal processing, the ability to be self-governing, and many other things that cannot be studied by looking at the brain, into a fixed place.
  • If we want to look at other ways of being human and participating in systems, we have to create another separate study. For example, we have done this with emotional intelligence for some time and a group of practitioners has treated it as an isolated overarching variable. But this leaves out more. So, organizations end up with a dozen or more programs trying to cover it all. And one program like emotional intelligence dominates for a while, only to be overtaking as king by neuroscience and now there is design thinking which is a makeover of problem-solving which is also machine based thinking. With machines, you can only fix problems unless you design a whole new technology which is not part of design thinking in the current versions.

3. Behavioral Worldview

The next era of worldview is what we’ll call the behavioral worldview.

  • After scientific management was shown up for its shortfalls by one enterprising cognitive psychologist, it took a few years to shift worldview in a way that was embraced by societal norms.
  • John Watson, the founder of Behaviorism, from his chair at Johns Hopkins University saw a problem and presented it to major industrialists with a request to fund research, which they quickly embraced.
  • His worldview saw humans as able to gum up the smooth flow designed by their machine view into scientific management.
  • He pointed out to J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller, among other, industrial leaders in the first and second industrial revolutions, that they had a problem.
  • They could not control their workers in the same way technology had given them control of production. But he could do that for him if they gave him funding for his lab to study human behavior, which he received and proceeded to study rats.

Recognizing the truth and guidelines in the behavioral worldview

  • First, find out the history of the findings they are working with. If it is in a lab, it was likely not humans. And if it was with humans, they are likely still isolating the variable and designing with the underlying idea that people need external influence and manipulation to change. For example, reinforcement, incentives, rewards, and the extinguishing of certain behaviors with feedback (part machine and part behavioral).
  • There are organization and leadership interventions assumed from the beginning, studied in isolation, and suggested in the results. It is often showing up in leadership and management research. The organization and its wise leaders (recalling the royalty worldview).
  • Many of the offerings from the behavioral view are now kinder and gentler versions of behavioral science to ameliorate the worst of early external management and ways to improve the downside.
  • For example, how to do feedback so people ask for it.
  • You will see in the next worldviews, which are displacing the behaviorists, that humans don’t need to ask for feedback to grow and change. It is still assumed to be an externally managed process which people agree to, and therefore take it better.
  • Neuroscience ideas are offering most of their interpretation of the brain science with the behavior worldview still as the frame even when they say they are not. You can tell because it still assumes external stimulation or intervention needed (and therefore requesting it or managing it somewhat in performance reviews) is not behavioral. But it is all still external and having individuals getting the truth from others that they will never see themselves. A 100-year-old idea which has been set aside with those who embrace the self-governing worldview. I understand why the Neuroleadership Institute offers their ideas still permeated with the behavioral view. Their clients, like Microsoft and others, are still operating from that worldview.

Example of examining a worldview

David Rock, founder of NeuroLeadership in Harvard Business Review Feb 22, 2018, Tell Employees What You Want Them to Strive For (in as Few Words as Possible) and Strategy and Leadership August 27, 2009, Managing with the Brain in Mind.

  • This is not about the intentions of The NeuroLeadership Institute. While praising the intentions for their work, Carol suggests the institute would take their success a lot further if they had the capabilities and plan to examine the six phases, which we all go through in seeking to understand through research, and to look at each phase with knowledge of how their worldview is affecting what they see and espouse.
  • For example, Harvard Business Review, Feb 22, 2018, has an article entitled, “Tell Employees What You Want them to Strive For (in as Few Words as Possible)” by David Rock.
  • It sounds like being clear and direct to avoid confusion for most people. But, the title gives us lots of clues the perspective of the interpretation of research and design for application. It speaks from a worldview of the idea that people need to be filled up, to have an energy import from outside, in order to know how to proceed and be focused. A machine view of a closed system that cannot gain its own path, but must be told. It also exposes a worldview.
  • From Managing with the Brain in Mind in Strategy and Business.
  • Machine worldview is based on an existence or fixed view: They speak as if the brain scanning tells them what something is and how it happens. For example, “understand what goes on in the brain when people feel rejected by others,” (the research question) versus a living systems view and self-governing view where people can be developed to not have a reaction to such a situation. People are seen as like machines that outside experts design ways to accommodate to a fixed response. More examples under the living systems and humanist worldviews, which we’ll see in the next episode.
  • Hypothesis stage is also from a fixed worldview—“humans evolved a social connection in conjunction with physical brain region because for humans it is necessary for survival. It is a fact that cannot be changed.” They report research showing that when subjects in a research study involving a staged game get shut out by other imaginary humans, they feel angry, snubbed, and judged. Even when they learn they are not being unfairly treated because there were not real people involved, they still feel angry. And now you have to compensate and manage around this rather than develop the people, which is done very effectively if you have the worldviews that evolved much later. They are seeing the brain as machine much like Descartes did or a clock as Sir Isaac Newton assumed.
  • And reading the articles you can see how stage five, interpretation of research, is also fixed. They are stated using static language, that suggests the research sees humans as fixed, rather than able to change and grow.
  • They do not see the brain is malleable and the management suggestions are all what managers need to do to account for and manage this seeming flaw of the human brain function. Quoting: “Most processes operating in the background when the brain is at rest are involved in thinking about other people and yourself.” In the living systems worldview, we call this being in an “internal considering state,” but that is just one state, not how they are forever.
  • As a result of this interpretation, they are not advising their clients to develop this self-managing capacity in people but assume it must be accommodated and managers change how they are managing. “Leaders engage their employees to create an environments that foster productive change.” People are not developed to be self-managing.
  • David Rock goes to great lengths to explain that they are not using behavioral theory, having learned that it is not enough. But they are using a more archaic worldview of the brain and it being as a fixed machine that can and must be managed from the outside. Then work practices are designed to accommodate this fixed brain. But like machines they are seen as needing maintenance, and the environment is designed to manage them. This is also embedded in the behavioral worldview. Humans are assumed to not have insight and there is no internal processing. Behavior can only be studied by others looking at them and manipulating them by external processes, whether environment design as here, or incentives as the behavioral theorist suggest. The externally determined belief is inherent in both World Views. Behavioral theory was built because they wanted to give managers and owners more power to change people. Even Rock admits that it is flawed theory but rather than evolving into the next perspective, he falls backward to the machine worldview.

SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationship, Fairness) Social Behavior Model

The offerings are all management practices designed to deal with the discoveries of reactions people have (seen in brain research). SCARF is the acronym for how to accommodate. This is all about worldview in the sixth phase—application translation. It is all based on a machine worldview, ignoring the possibility to develop human capacity and self determination.

  1. Status: “avoid organizational processes that create threats to status.” Give praise (a behavioral process that undermines the three core human capacities in a living system worldview, e.g. internal locus of control.)
  2. Certainty: that the brain needs predictability. If this is what you design for you design out resilience, which the living systems world view shows us how to develop, and also that people don’t need certainty. But the undeveloped person will want this. NLI advised creating a perception of certainty to build confidence instead of developing people to love uncertainty which is the only culture that works for innovation. Dumb down by sharing everything more transparently. The plans, the reasoning. Structure. Be specific. Break down complexity into simple. My goodness. This is such a low image of what humans can rise to. The latter two worldviews show how to build capability, not have to accommodate a lack of it.
  3. Autonomy: to decrease stress, give people more freedom. “Even the perception of reducing autonomy generates a threat response.” The humanist worldview knows this is the wrong working of the base brain. One that has not been developed. The introduction of the developmental organization completely eliminates the need for accommodation by building infrastructure for developing individuals to be self-governing and self-managing. They work with promises they make to the market and pursue in the context of a corporate strategy that they help to create, not just get told all about. More on this in my latest book, The Regenerative Business, written from a living stems and embedded self-governing worldview.
  4. Relationship: Rock cautions that people must be put together carefully, in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses, always protecting them from their own undeveloped brain capacity. Find a way for them to recognize one another as “in the same tribe.” In a living system view, people self-organize around the external world that all workers are connected to. They are in market field teams where they discover together and decide what to do. It shifts where the identity is. Not with other workers who look like us or don’t, but with the customer, Earth, and communities. They shift from internal considering (thinking about ourselves and effects of all events on us) which is what drives all the SCARF model, to external considering (what we serve). It is a very rapid way to redefine relationship and people build those connections very quickly from internal to external considering and identity, when given the opportunity.
  5. Fairness: the advice to leaders is to be careful about playing favorites and not trigger the unfairness thought. To make things more transparent so that all can see. In other words, to calm this fear by changing the leader’s awareness versus developing them all, workers and leaders, to work in self-to self-relationships. Developing the capacity to see the world and work this way, e.g. role to role, takes about 1/3 of the needed accommodations away. Plus, it makes more whole human beings who can exercise the whole being. They will not have to always see the organization as needing to accommodate their human brain fragilities, even when they change jobs.

Six questions to ask in understanding the phases we go through to examine how our Worldview is affecting what we see and espouse.

  1. Where did the ideas come from that drove this research? Listen for the language they use. This takes practice to hear the history (which I try to embed in every podcast to develop a level of critical thinking skills in this regard. How was the study done? If brain science, what do the researchers consider in framing the question/hypothesis they start from? Is it an isolated variable, about humans as externally determined beings? If you listen to their language — an amazing clue to the worldview — you can tell how they are framing it
  2. Ask why that question was chosen? Why was it narrowed that way? And review the worldview against it, the language and the methodology. Is it based on fixed humans, individuals to be managed from outside, and averages of people? Don’t let people swarm you with case studies (which got really going strong with self-governing worldview) and brain research. Most brain research is looking at one variable and is imbued with behavioral assumptions (for example, externally determined, based on averages from the transfer of mammal studies to humans)
  3. Now examine the methodology design of the study from these five worldviews. Learn to see if the research methodology is founded in these—they likely are, so the question is figuring out how.
  4. (5 and 6) And the conduct of the researchers in the conduct of the research. This is harder but was core to my dissertation work, where I kept a journal using these worldviews at these six phases in their work (e.g. sourcing of ideas, selection of hypothesis/question to explore, design of methodology, conduct by researchers carrying out the methodology, creation of the summary of findings and mental activity involved in transfer into practices). Every stage is likely to lose the worldview you think you are in. I find that people routinely take my work, which is conceived, designed, and delivered from a living systems worldview and dumb it down to a lessor, incomplete, worldview—mostly to protect their people from harm (confusion, rejection of way of working, and all out of fear they will not be able to manage it from that worldview). Or they as a leader will fail in using it. Or because they don’t actually want to take risks, like they say they do, to choose the more powerful path and grow themselves to be able to deliver. It takes a lot of courage to question our own way of engaging with the world and education. Nothing has to be implemented quickly but the mind needs to be built that can work with its own worldviews and ability to choose them and engage them intentionally.

Read more blogs on Join the newsletter and get a free background paper on paradigms. Follow us on Twitter @businesssecondopinion. Suggest topics and HBR articles on which you want Carol’s Second Opinion. And finally, pick up a copy of The Regenerative Business, by Carol Sanford, with much more about how to build a regenerative work design at

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Originally published at on September 11, 2018.

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

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