Future Shape Posts

Humans are an Internal Control System

Surely, I have got that wrong - shouldn't it be 'humans have an internal control system'?

Well, no. There is no mistake. The biology of being human is that we are actually are a large and complex control system, designed around our genetic needs.

Like a thermostat, controlling for temperature, humans are always controlling to match their internal wants.

Just as a thermostat is a control system is designed to keep an environment at an even temperature, or when we drive a car and constantly make corrections to keep our vehicle on the road, we are always controlling our entire biological and cognitive system to get what we want.
We humans are designed as a complex system that is focused on a set of internal reference points that are created to satisfy our cognitive and biological needs.

Because each human chooses for themselves the experiences that they will regard as need satisfying, we are unique and often unpredictable to others.

It works like this. Our internal drivers, the genetic needs we are born with, are the same in every person. Almost all the researchers in the psychology of human motivation (why we do what we do) agree that we have cognitive needs for achievement, status and relatedness, as well as a biological need to survive. They may use different words to describe these needs, but whether the human need for achievement is described a need for power, for status, for competence or for winning, importance or mastery they are all designations for the ways we try to be significant in the world.

Maslows Hierarchy Of Needs

We all have these needs and they are insistent. They cannot be denied. If they can't be satisfied in a conventional way, they will find an unconventional way to surface in our behaviour.

The reason for this is that, as implied by the different words we use to describe the way that needs are satisfied, there are so many ways to satisfy the same need.

The needs are genetic and universal. Our life experiences create the uniqueness of our wants

Let's focus on the need for power (achievement, status, success, winning, competence, importance etc.). One young person may satisfy that need through academic success, another by competing successfully, another by achieving the status as the bad boy in class - and all of us are capable of gratifying our need for power in all of these and many more ways.

This diversity is the result of our experience. The needs are genetic, but it is our life experience that enables us to find different ways to satisfy our needs.

From the moment of our birth, as we encounter people, ideas, circumstances, events and activities, we store the knowledge of the ones that we personally find need-satisfying. These become our ideal moments or 'pictures', the reference points for our future behaviour, the source of our motivation or, as Dr William Glasser puts it, our 'QUALITY WORLD'!

We are always striving to match or exceed our experiences of Quality. When something or someone matches our picture of quality we experience this as pleasure. When we can't find a way to experience quality through an activity or actions, we experience it a pain. These emotions are created by the chemistry of our body but generated by our internal cognition.

The practical implications of this knowledge are important for our lives. We will be happy when, on balance, we are finding ways to satisfy our needs, and unhappy when we can't.

For schools and teachers this knowledge is profound. If a student is not succeeding, feels helpless (the opposite of powerful) and is at the bottom of the pecking order in his or her class, they will not be happy. It is unlikely that they will want to invest a significant amount of energy in this unsatisfying, even painful experience. No amount of external control, threats or punishments or promises of rewards, will change the equation. It's no coincidence that students who are failing are almost always the ones we label as mis-behaving. They are choosing other behaviours, which may disrupt classes but enable them to feel more powerful.

There is nothing 'mis' about this behaviour. Students who are choosing other behaviours to feel powerful are behaving perfectly - as we are all designed to do.
They are choosing a behaviour that is more satisfying for their power need, than passive compliance in the face of failure.

Good relationships enable us to reach people who are unhappy

The situation may change if the teacher makes an effort to build a good relationship with the student. Having a supportive adult who cares about you as much as your achievement and can support you when you are struggling feels good. The student will then most likely put the teacher himself or herself in their quality world and will work with them. When the teacher and the student both experience the relationship as need satisfying, then it is likely there will also be more enjoyment and the student will be given some degrees of autonomy in their search for some success.

But when there is no success, the student-teacher relationship is unsatisfying, the work is not enjoyable and personal autonomy is limited then the student will constantly try to find other ways to get these needs met, either inside or outside the classroom.

Give up controlling to gain influence

The situation is not much different for adults. At work, if we are not enjoying a good relationship with at least one other person, have little autonomy (and hence little opportunity for personal achievement at work - these two usually go together) and the work is not intrinsically enjoyable the result will be unhappiness.

E.L. Deci1, a celebrated researcher into human behaviour and motivation describes the spectrum of work motivation as a continuum where the major variable is autonomy. The less autonomy and more external control we experience at work, the more we are likely to be unhappy there. This is compounded when we dislike or don't respect our boss.

Leaders who are both autonomy-supportive and relate well to their staff are shown to generate stronger commitment and greater productivity than bosses who are distant and controlling - especially when the work is complex or challenging.

The implications for teachers and leaders are clear. As Dr Glasser would often say: “To gain control, we have to give up controlling others”. Because every human being has an 'inside' control system, then leaders and teachers do best when they use their own internal controls to manage themselves. They are the only person that they can control.

When we try to control others so that they fit in with what satisfies our needs as leaders and teachers, we almost always end up with resistance or passive compliance. Rarely with the enthusiastic hard work and engagement that will actually be gratifying for us. Our students or staff are not biologically designed to cater for our needs, only their own.

Recognising this we can lead and teach in a way that exploits the inner drivers of our students or employees. If we resist trying to control them and focus on managing them in a way that maximises their own internal motivation and self-regulation, then their own internal drivers - for success, status and achievement can do the rest.

According to Edward Deci, in a recent address to the William Glasser Institute of Australia2, the way to get the best from others involves these approaches:

  • Relate to other people from their perspective;
  • Encourage self-evaluation and exploration;
  • Offer relevant choices;
  • Give positive and constructive verbal feedback;
  • Refrain from using controlling language.

Because of our habits, and the almost universal acceptance of the myth of external control, it may be this last behaviour that is most difficult for many to adopt.

1 Edward L. Deci 'Why We Do What We Do', Penguin, 1995.
2 Edward L Deci: 'Promoting Optimal Motivation, Wellness and, Effective Behaving', WGIA Conference, Newcastle, 30th September 2017.

Rob Stones is a Senior Faculty Member of the William Glasser Institiute. See more info at
Choice Theory