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Paradigm Blindness

Updated: Mar 28



According to Daniel Martin, “cultural paradigms help govern how people relate to themselves and those around them. These models are cultivated over time and represent the customs of interaction that a culture’s members use in determining the thoughts and actions involved in their day-to-day cultural existences. Being enculturated into a culture means learning its paradigms and the sets of preference and taste which are developed by a culture.”


A paradigm is a model or example of something and there are numerous paradigm potentials. For the purpose of this exploration, paradigms refer to cultural paradigms and one globally recognized paradigm is control. It is embedded deeply within cultures, influencing the design of systems and structures as well as accepted norms that dictate how people interact with each other.


What is Paradigm Blindness?


Paradigms contain a set of assumptions, beliefs and theories that make up a world view. Fun, innovation, fear, control, and some traditions are paradigms that you encounter, sometimes they coexist within each other. According to Staci Friedel, “Paradigm blindness (is a state that) keeps us from creating something new because we firmly believe the way we see it, is the way it is and the way it always will be. Paradigm Blindness shuts down innovative problem solving and creativity.”


When leaders are blind to their paradigm and its layers, they can be conditioned to protect it. Friedel explained, “Groups, and organizations are unwilling or unable to accept any challenge to their core ways of making sense of the world — in essence, their worldviews (or in the case of a company, we could call it a “workview”).


This means that when people are blind to the paradigm they exist within, they accept it as the way things will always be. At the same time, they can also be blinded to the existence and potential of different paradigms. So even when they implement new performance, leadership, service, or other paradigms, they behave as though they are still in the previous paradigm, avoiding meaningful change.


The Control Paradigm


Control based paradigms have proven themselves effective over the centuries because they are compatible with high performance. While this was proven over time, control paradigms also cut organizations off from ideas that open them up to creative potentials that can pave the way to growth and sustainability.


Some people are not aware that they are being controlled, others are aware and attempt to beat the system, seeking opportunities to take advantage. There are also people who are aware but just grumble or complain about the effects of control but they won’t fight for freedom because they believe control is the way it will always be. They sometimes have no idea what an alternative paradigm would look like.


There are times when we can be so desensitized to the paradigm we live within, we just accept it as the norm. We need to take responsibility for considering how our paradigm serves us, how we use it, how it limits us, and then consciously and deliberately choose a path that best fits our goals and core values.

The paradigm of control in businesses has been in place since the industrial age. Its long-term presence and prolific application have contributed to the existing level of paradigm blindness. When the majority loses its sensitivity to paradigms that do not support their professional growth, people stagnate while they are being exploited for growth in profits.


How Paradigms Are Anchored in Place


Stories, leadership styles, policies, procedures, power hierarchies, and training are designed to hold toxic paradigms in place because they operate according to rules of the control paradigm. This is how paradigm blindness survives over the long term. Here are three reasons why cultural paradigms remain firmly in place:

  1. Paradigm blindness can minimize the dissonance that happens when people become aware of asymmetry embedded within a paradigm.

  2. People have vested interests in maintaining their paradigms, whether they are aware of the paradigm or not.

  3. There are paradigms within paradigms that serve some people, holding the macro paradigm in place. For instance, you can have a paradigm of control with a sub-paradigm of secrecy that leads to weak communication practices and low transparency.

Sometimes people who control others don’t want to acknowledge their true paradigm because they would have to take responsibility for decisions that negatively affect others and they would have to release their vested interests in power, lifestyle, and other benefits.


Effects of Paradigm Blindness


When people who are being controlled are blind to the paradigm they exist within, it can cause them to ignore their own needs. This can happen because when they are so busy struggling to survive within a toxic paradigm they become preoccupied with their survival needs that their higher level needs like belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization are marginalised.


For example, most people prefer a constructive environment where the relationships and communication are healthy, and where they feel like they belong and can grow. Instead, when they have to navigate a toxic control culture, the politics, transactional interactions, and competition negatively affect communication patterns and ultimately performance. They are busy navigating a culture designed primarily for business growth, not professional growth.


Paradigm blindness allows toxic cultures to endure because as Friedel asserted, the way people are conditioned to see the world as the way it is and always will be. When paradigm blindness exists at the top of an organization, retention can be a challenge because when top performers feel the effects of a control paradigm that is doing what it is designed to do, they will eventually leave. They seek a new job elsewhere because they don’t perceive a real growth path.


When you and others are unaware of your paradigm and its real impact. You can be uncomfortable but not challenged enough by the discomfort because you have been conditioned to accept it.


Waking Up to Your Cultural Paradigm


Paradigm blindness can serve some constituents’ goals and not others, in a hierarchical structure, everyone can contribute to a cultural paradigm that supports the minority. So one key to breaking free of paradigm blindness is to question the paradigm that you’re in, even when you are comfortable. This is because for the controlled majority, falling into a controlled comfort zone can happen because of a misinformed sense of security. For the controllers, they should question themselves because they can become desensitized to their abuses of power.


Cultural paradigm awareness is the first step toward addressing paradigm blindness. The solution for paradigm blindness involves several actions that start with awakening people to the fact that they’re within an imposed paradigm so they can take informed action about accepting it. The trouble is that the conditioning can be so deep that people can be emotionally triggered when they are invited to contemplate ideas that challenge their paradigm and beliefs about it.


Signs of your paradigm exist all around you. For this reason, you need new eyes to perceive them, you need to listen with different ears, and you should consistently challenge your thinking and beliefs. You can also identify how you feel when you operate within different paradigms. Ask yourself questions like: What are my emotions? Am I usually exhausted or energized? How safe do I feel and why? How often are my core values being challenged? How authentic are the people around me? Honestly answering these questions can provide you with valuable insight.


Once you uncover the true paradigm you are a part of, the next step is to do something about your alignment or misalignment with it. For some people this may mean you make a change in your job or career over the short or long-term. Consider how the paradigm causes alignment or misalignment within yourself first and weigh the needs of others before making an informed decision.


From a leadership perspective, understanding the paradigm you exist within can help you to be clear about what it is that you want to create so you can make informed, instead of programmed decisions. For example, if you value freedom and the paradigm you are a part of is controlling you, with paradigm awareness you can make changes to your leadership style so you are better aligned with your beliefs and values. Freedom cultures can be even more productive with the right leadership. To perceive paradigms that operate within other paradigms, leaders need to be open to perceiving more than one paradigm because there can be separate, interdependent paradigms working together.


Let’s go back to our previous example. When the overall paradigm is control but there is also a sub-paradigm of blame and secrecy, the blame and secrecy hold the control in place so the sub-paradigm needs to be deconstructed. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to uncover the layers: Which sub-paradigm am I operating within? Is there more than one in play? Which macro paradigm is the sub-paradigm operating within? How are they interdependent? What can I do to deconstruct the unhealthy sub-paradigm(s) that is/are strengthening the toxic macro-paradigm.


It is not enough to perceive the paradigm(s) you are a part of. You should also develop the skills you need to identify and articulate the type of paradigm you would like to be a part of. We have been conditioned to believe the control paradigm is the most suitable or the most reliable one through experience, academia, media, and other sources. This is not true, you can create any paradigm you choose.


How to Shift Your Cultural Paradigm


With paradigm blindness, your ignorance of the paradigm does not protect you, instead, it fully exposes you to the paradigm as a consenting participant. Your conditioning does not excuse or protect you from the damage that can be done by the paradigm that you support. So your first step is to become aware.


Cultural paradigm awareness should be connected to paradigm proactivity, core value alignment or realignment, and behavioural modelling. As a leader, you should take steps to ensure core values like trustworthiness and empathy are be in balance with values and needs of others and the business. This can be difficult because control paradigms make it inherently difficult to shift to another paradigm because, by their very nature, control paradigms are coercive, they don’t tolerate different approaches, nor do they support the freedom to choose. For instance, I once overheard a manager in a command-and-control culture say to an employee, “I don’t pay you to think!”


If you’re seeking to shift your paradigm away from a strong control emphasis to a different cultural mix, it is an inside out process. You can start by:

  1. living your core values, if you don’t already.

  2. perceiving your true cultural paradigm.

  3. deciding which paradigm(s) support the type of growth that is best for the team.

  4. proactively changing how you contribute to the current paradigm or resigning.

  5. developing the skills you need to detect the old paradigm when it shows up out of habit and deconstruct it; and

  6. being willing to challenge the status quo (if it makes sense.)

There are constructive paradigms that exist that balance the needs of employees with the needs of the business. Ones that feature trust, innovation, personal and professional growth, freedom, and fun are only a few examples. These paradigms take vision, commitment, leadership, and accountability because the globally accepted paradigm of control can sneak into businesses slowly and surreptitiously through misaligned sourcing practices and unconscious leaders.


With knowledge gained from over 30 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.


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