Important but Uncommon Ways to Cultivate Happy, Thriving Employees (for Lasting Organizational Change) Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we covered how to assess and address employee attitudes at work and ways to change corporate language to support employee and organizational wellbeing. Here, we explore another uncommon way to cultivate employee happiness: supporting Intrinsic thinking.

Research over the past two decades has conclusively demonstrated that to cultivate happy and thriving employees and to leverage sustainable change, organizations must foster self-leadership and emphasize intrinsic motivation (where people can find meaning and enjoyment in their work). Personal autonomy and happiness are inextricably interconnected.

An individual’s values and thoughts are what guide intrinsic motivation, so it makes sense to support the skills that can help a person influence and manage his or her thoughts in constructive ways.

The “Best” Way to Think

Organizations can create an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation by actually helping employees become “better” thinkers! In the 1960s, in collaboration with colleagues at MIT, Robert S. Hartman developedThe Hartman Value Profile (HVP), which measures the hierarchy of values that undergird thinking patterns and how these values translate into personal choice. This might sound a little “fluffy,” but values thinking is based in hard science, and it can be measured and changed. Essentially, the HVP is a mathematical assessment of thinking patterns.

Hartman identified three dimensions of valuing or thinking that guide our choices: Systemic (S), Extrinsic (E), and Intrinsic (I). Here’s a brief overview:

• S = Systemic thinking values abstract concepts and ideas. It manifests as black/white and either/or thinking, and is associated with preconceived ideas about how things should be.

For example, if we over-value others via Systemic thinking, we may have an idea of how things should go with a project at work, but then when the unpredictability of life happens and throws us a curveball, we’re likely to get frustrated and jump to blame.

• E = Extrinsic thinking values function. As a result, Extrinsic thinking relies on labels, categories, and achievements and treats people more like things – as if they were replicable and predictable.

For example, if we over-value others through Extrinsic thinking, we may only express appreciation when people do what they are supposed to (e.g., meet a health status measure, complete a project or task like we would, etc.), and we will likely resort to behavior modification to try to “get” them to behave in a desired way.

• I = Intrinsic thinking values the uniqueness of individuals. It takes into account not only what is seen and ideas about what is seen, but it also recognizes that there is far more going on than meets the eye. It also affirms the inherent value in other people simply because they exist. This kind of thinking takes a bit longer to activate than both Systemic and Extrinsic thinking and requires a short mental pause.

Hartman’s research clearly demonstrated that, although all three dimensions of valuing/thinking are necessary, the optimal hierarchy is Intrinsic>Extrinsic>Systemic (I>E>S). In simple terms, this means that the most constructive thinking occurs when we value people more than things, and when we value things more than mere ideas of things or people. (Read this article for an in-depth discussion of these types of thinking.)

Cultivating a different outcome: Help your employees become better thinkers

Unfortunately, organizations often take a backwards approach, unintentionally fostering an S>E>I thinking hierarchy, where leaders over-value employees based on preconceived ideas about what they “should” be doing, or based on employees’ function or behaviors.

Practicing Intrinsic thinking on your own will provide the encouragement and opportunity for leaders and employees to do the same. Here are some practical ways you can begin:

• Practice Pausing. A person’s first thought usually stems from deeply rooted, habitual thinking (i.e., Systemic thinking) and is typically limited. Pausing just a few seconds before acting creates space for Intrinsic thinking, greater self-awareness and the ability to make more thoughtful choices. For example, an employee is facing a problem and comes to you for help. Your first thought (S>E>I) would likely be to answer in a way that would help fix the situation. Pausing in that moment can help you recognize that by instead asking your employee questions, you are actually supporting that person’s autonomy and mastery. After a mental pause, your next action is different. Asking a question like “What solution would you recommend, based on your experience?” not only takes the pressure off from you, but it also creates the conditions for your employee to grow and leverage intrinsic motivation (and by extension, happiness).

• Recover from Perfectionism. Engaging in S>E>I thinking means striving for some ideal of perfection — and when “perfect” doesn’t happen, people get frustrated with themselves and others. In fact, perfectionism is a key characteristic of a fixed mindset, which hinders people from success. Focusing less on an ideal result and instead embracing the journey will build resiliency and a growth mindset — which is correlated with success! Recovering from perfectionism helps create the conditions for ongoing personal growth and development, and also sends the powerful message to others that they can let go of perfection as well.

• Challenge your Fixed Mindset (S>E>I Thinking). A fixed mindset (based in S>E>I thinking) is powerful: the “shoulds” and ideas about who you think people are come from deep-seated personal beliefs about risk, failure, and fear of being judged. Such thinking prevails, even when you know these fears and beliefs are illogical. One of the best ways to challenge this kind of thinking is to take an action that makes you uncomfortable (something that you feel you “shouldn’t” do, which may provoke a visceral reaction at the thought of doing it), but feels doable.

For example, if you avoid trying new things because you are afraid of being judged or viewed as “imperfect,” try intentionally putting yourself into a situation where you can’t be good or perfect — and encourage others to do the same. For example, if you have no rhythm, take a dance class. If you can’t carry a tune, sing karaoke somewhere. As silly as these suggestions seem, they can do wonders to help develop agrowth mindset (aligned with I>E>S thinking). When you challenge your fixed mindset, you realize that the horrible result you’ve imagined didn’t occur, and you are able to disable the dominance of your fixed mindset, which leaves space for Intrinsic thinking to emerge.

• Invest in Intrinsic Coaching® Development. Intrinsic Coaching® is the only methodology to date that has been shown (measured by the HVP) to increase individuals’ Intrinsic thinking patterns and help them create the conditions to elicit I>E>S in others. People who have completed this program report a shift in how they view other people, resulting in less frustration with others, fewer negative consequences of stress, and higher job satisfaction. Consider Intrinsic Coaching® as part of your organization’s training and development to ensure that you are able to support better thinking in the workplace.

We all have an innate desire to be recognized, seen, and valued for who we are as individuals – and just because we are at the office doesn’t mean this powerful need goes away. Cultivating a workplace culture where leaders and employees are able to replace dysfunctional thought patterns with Intrinsic thinking that values people for who they are will not only foster employee happiness but will ultimately improve both individual and organizational performance.1

Read Part 1 of this article for more ideas about how to support employee happiness; learn more about the benefits of intrinsic thinking here.

Curious about the happiness of your employees? Take our Free Manager’s Audit to get a pulse on your employee and organizational health in under 3 minutes!


  1. The Arbinger Institute (2010). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
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