The Shadow of the First Industrial Revolution

Arne van Oosterom
3 min readJun 3, 2024


Is it surprising to see how many companies still operate under the shadows cast by the first industrial revolution? Maybe. We often don’t realize how mental models have changed only slightly from generation to generation of leaders. This shadow hanging over us is particularly evident in hierarchical structures and the paternalistic treatment of employees, which stifles creativity and intrinsic motivation. To understand how we got here and where we need to go, let’s take a step back in history.

The Industrial Legacy

The first industrial revolution, beginning in the late 18th century, transformed economies from agrarian societies to industrial powerhouses. Factories sprang up, and with them, a rigid hierarchy that mirrored the machines these factories housed. At the top, a few powerful individuals made decisions; at the bottom, a multitude of workers followed orders. This model, designed for efficiency and control, treated employees much like the machines they operated — predictable and replaceable.

Fast forward to today, and despite the evolution of technology and business practices, many companies still cling to this outdated hierarchy. Employees are often treated as cogs in a machine, expected to follow directives without question. This approach might have worked in the past, but in our knowledge-driven economy, it’s a recipe for disengagement and stagnation.

The Technology-Human Disparity

One of the critical challenges we face today is that technology evolves much faster than humans do. While the world around us has changed at a staggering pace due to technological advancements, human needs and abilities have not evolved at the same rate. Our inherent need for connection, purpose, and autonomy remains constant, even as we navigate an increasingly digital and automated world.

This disparity often leads to a disconnect between the capabilities offered by new technologies and the traditional systems and hierarchies still in place. It’s crucial to align technological advancements with human-centric approaches in the workplace to ensure that technology enhances rather than hinders human potential.

Companies Exist for People

At the heart of any business are people. Companies exist because of people, for people. The ultimate purpose of any enterprise should be to enhance the lives of those who contribute to it and those it serves. Yet, when employees are treated like children, constantly monitored and seldom trusted, it undermines their potential and the company’s success.

Research consistently shows that trust and intrinsic motivation are critical competitive advantages. When employees feel trusted and valued, they are more likely to be innovative, dedicated, and productive. They bring their best selves to work, driven not by fear of punishment but by a genuine desire to contribute and succeed.

The Need for Systemic Change

So, how do we move out of the shadow of the first industrial revolution and foster an environment where trust and intrinsic motivation can thrive? It begins with recognizing that if you want people to change their behavior, you need to change the system that drives that behavior.

1. Flatten the Hierarchy: Reduce unnecessary layers of management that stifle communication and decision-making. Empower employees at all levels to take initiative and make decisions.

2. Build Trust: Trust should be the foundation of your company culture. This means giving employees autonomy, providing opportunities for growth, and creating an environment where they feel safe to voice their ideas and concerns.

3. Encourage Intrinsic Motivation: Foster a culture where employees are motivated by the work itself. This can be achieved by aligning roles with individual passions and strengths, offering meaningful challenges, and recognizing and celebrating contributions.

4. Create a Fear-Free Culture: Fear-based management leads to a culture of compliance rather than innovation. Leaders should focus on creating a supportive environment where failure is seen as a learning opportunity rather than a catastrophe.

A Hopeful Outlook

While the shadow of the first industrial revolution still looms large, we have the power to step out of it. By rethinking our approach to hierarchy and trust, we can create workplaces where people are treated as valued partners rather than subordinate workers. This shift not only benefits employees but also drives sustainable success for companies in our fast-changing world.

As professionals and leaders we have a responsibility to lead this change. Let’s move forward with the understanding that companies exist for people, and by fostering trust and intrinsic motivation, we can build a future where everyone thrives.



Arne van Oosterom

Podcaster, Founder Future Skills Academy, Blue Sky Republic, Creative Leadership Coach, Founder DesignThinkers Academy and Group