Why Intrinsic THINKING Makes All the Difference

“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.”— Albert Einstein

The research clearly demonstrates that engagement and sustainable change require supporting intrinsic or autonomous motivation. However, at the heart of intrinsic motivation are an individual’s values and thoughts; therefore, fostering intrinsic motivation requires moving a little further upstream to understand and shift how we think.

Measuring Values Thinking

You may be thinking that this sounds a little “fluffy.” However, values thinking is based in hard science, and it can be measured and changed.

Robert S. Hartman was a well-respected philosopher and the father of axiology (the science of value). He believed our value system defines who we are. It is the lens through which we view the world, formulate choices, and make decisions. It evolves over time and manifests in the way we assess, evaluate and size up situations, solve problems, and take action. In other words, values are in the judgments we make; judgment is a primary manifestation of values.

• In the 1960s, in collaboration with colleagues at MIT, Hartman created The Hartman Value Profile (HVP) to measure the hierarchy of values that underlie how people think and how they translate their thinking into the choices they make.

• The HVP is not a psychological assessment. Hartman was a sophisticated mathematician and used predicate calculus to help create and score the HVP. It’s essentially a mathematical assessment of thinking patterns.

• The HVP has been validated in more than eight countries and is used in the Harvard School of Management, at the Pentagon and in hundreds of worksites. Hartman’s work was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1973, months before he died. His work is carried on today through the Robert S. Hartman Institute at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

• The Hartman Value Profile (HVP) allows people to have a fuller experience of themselves by helping them to understanding how they habitually think.

• The HVP is also used in organizations to help both leaders and employees understand their stress and resiliency, and support efforts to improve team cohesiveness.

Now that we know that we can measure thinking patterns, let’s examine what these thinking patterns are and how they can be used to help guide our choices.

Intrinsic, Extrinsic and Systemic Thinking: A Closer Look

Hartman identified three dimensions of our valuing or thinking that guide our choices: Intrinsic (I), Extrinsic (E) and Systemic (S). We view ourselves and the world around us in terms of our I, E and S valuing/thinking.

• Systemic (S) thinking values abstract concepts and ideas. Based on our own concepts and ideas, we make sense of the world around us and ourselves. Systemic thinking allows us to see things at a 30,000 foot level or “the forest through the trees.” Essentially, systemic thinking is like a puzzle – looking for a match to our pre-existing ideas and beliefs. If something or someone matches our ideas, we give it value; if not, we are dismissive.

When Systemic thinking dominates, what we learn about people is VERY information-poor and limited because it assumes our ideas about these people are all there is to know. It manifests as black/white and either/or thinking, and is associated with “shoulds”:

• “It should be this way”
• “You should do XYZ”
• “I really ought to do ABC”

Systemic thinking is deeply rooted in the habit center of our brain and typically involves the first thoughts that come to mind. But we know that our first thoughts about people are not always our BEST thinking. In fact, our initial assumptions or judgments about people are often wrong because we only ever know a sliver of the total reality of another human being. So when organizations deploy programs based on limited ideas of who people are and how they “should” be, it’s no wonder they fail.

See how well you react the next time someone tells you that you should do something or behave differently. Chances are thoughts like “Yeah, but you don’t have a clue about my life,” “Easy for you to say,” or “Screw you!” might come to mind. When worksite initiatives are presented to employees this way, no wonder employees are not jumping up and down with excitement and saying, “Thank you.”

• Extrinsic (E) thinking values function and shows up as what we do. When we view people and the world through this lens, we tend to focus more on their functionality. In other words, we pay attention to labels, categories and achievements. As a result, we treat people more like things – as if they were replicable and predictable.

Consequently, we spend a great deal of energy using our thinking and expertise to get someone to do what we think they should. (i.e., “If I say or do XYZ, then it should get Mary to do ABC.”) This is where the unfortunately ubiquitous use of incentives comes into the picture. If people were like things, it would make sense that they would do what we want if we simply find the right or large enough incentive; but we know that this is simply not the case.

• Intrinsic (I) thinking values the inherent uniqueness in people. When we view people and the world through this lens:

• We recognize there is far more going on than what we can see.
• We understand that people have inherent value simply because they exist (independent of titles, roles, achievements or accomplishments).
• We allow a space for more than what is merely apparent to us on the surface.

Intrinsic thinking is the most information-rich and mathematically correct thinking about people, because it values not just what is seen and our ideas about what we see, but what is unseen and new thinking. Consequently, Intrinsic thinking tends to take a few seconds longer to access than Systemic thinking. Systemic thinking is our first thought and acting on it doesn’t create a space or opportunity for new, information-rich Intrinsic thinking. Therefore, Intrinsic thinking is typically the weakest, least developed of all three dimensions and generally unsupported in our very Systemic-dominant world. Unless we increase awareness of our thinking and disable the dominance of Systemic thinking, Intrinsic thinking doesn’t have a chance.

Hartman’s research clearly demonstrated that, although all three dimensions of valuing/thinking are necessary, the optimal hierarchy is I>E>S. In simple terms, this means people are valued more than things, and things are valued more than mere ideas of things or people. The research shows if people have an inverted hierarchy of thinking (i.e., S>E>I), they will not be able to effectively cope with life’s circumstances. Let’s look at a quick example:

• As is so often the case, Systemic thinking (S>E>I) dominates when Mary thinks about herself – especially when it comes to her health and wellbeing. She has all kinds of ideas (S) of how she should look and what she should be doing; ideas that are constantly reinforced by her employer’s wellness program. These ideas of who she should be guide what she does (E) to try to meet that ideal.

• So Mary will work really hard at a program, diet, etc. trying to achieve her Systemic ideal. The problem is that life throws her curve balls, and the programs don’t meet her unique needs. Mary then either starts beating up on herself (e.g., “Why isn’t this working?” “Why can’t I just stay motivated?”) or working even harder and trying a plethora of other programs.

• And the vicious S/E loop continues like a gerbil on a wheel – creating stress and unnecessary struggle but never getting anywhere because S>E>I aims for perfection (which we all know doesn’t exist, but we keep striving for anyway).

• If Mary could view herself via I>E>S, instead of focusing on what she should do or who she should be, she could better accept who she is in this moment and also gain greater clarity about what she is wanting for herself. Based on that clarity, she could have flexibility to course-correct when something isn’t working without beating up on herself. I>E>S allows for ongoing growth and development rather than striving for perfection.

You may be thinking, “Of course I recognize the uniqueness of people.” However, conceptually recognizing that the Intrinsic (e.g., valuing the inherent uniqueness in others) is important and having the awareness and skills to create a space for it and activate it are very different. In fact, research using the Hartman Value Profile shows that our culture generally does not support I>E>S. As a result, the Intrinsic dimension of thinking is typically weak, and the skills needed to activate the Intrinsic dimension of thinking are even weaker.

What Happens When Intrinsic Thinking is Weak or Missing?

When people lead with their E and S thinking about others, they are limited in what is possible because they are only working with what they can see as if that is all there is.

• How often do we see others in terms of a label we’ve created for them?

• When we see someone and automatically think, “He/she is lazy and will never make a lifestyle change” or view a person as if he/she is a disease or condition, we minimize the contributions that person can bring to the outcome.

• When we only work with what is apparent to us and what our ideas are about a person (E and S thinking), that person can never be anything other than our ideas about him/her. The result is judgment, impatience, frustration, and jumping to conclusions.

Remember the classic line in the move, Avatar? “I SEE You.” The Avatar species used this phrase to indicate they saw the WHOLE person (i.e., I>E>S). However, the humans (operating from an S>E>I perspective) saw the Avatars as things with no value that were expendable. And, we saw the destruction that resulted from this limited, information-poor thinking.

The Bottom Line

When you think of what we do in organizations in terms of employee engagement, and particularly in worksite wellness efforts, it makes sense why efforts fail; our approach is backwards…it’s S>E>I. Leaders often over-value the function of employees (i.e., extrinsic) and focus on their behaviors. Yet employees are essentially screaming that what they really want is to feel valued as people. And traditional approaches to employee wellness identify a health standard (S) and then create actions and programs (E) that employees are supposed to do that should work (if they were predictable like things). When they don’t work, the carrot becomes the stick, and a vicious cycle ensues. Desired outcomes for individuals and organizations will continue to be limited as long as intrinsic thinking is weak. The take-away message?

• We need to stop using extrinsic strategies to try to “get” to intrinsic motivation.

• Being able to activate Intrinsic thinking is critical to success for business and individuals, but it takes time and effort to develop and strengthen our Intrinsic thinking. Without it, we will continue to regard others as things, and they will know it.

• Research shows it is possible to increase and strengthen Intrinsic thinking. And increasing it, even a little, can have profound results – and help move us to the optimum hierarchy of thinking of I>E>S.

Instead of continuing to focus on behaviors, strategies and techniques, we need to move upstream and first focus on developing and shifting our own thinking to I>E>S. Only then will we be able to really support others in finding their best thinking and bringing about their desired results.


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Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at rosie@salveopartners.com or drrosieward.com.

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