MBTI® and Other Instruments and Second Order Change

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If you are a coach or organization change professional you may be wondering if you can use the MBTI® instrument or other typology instruments to get second order change? My answer is yes, IF you know type theory beyond the instrument results and beyond simple dichotomies. You cannot get transformative change by depending solely on the results of the instruments or reports based on simple dichotomies.

The very way type is introduced can lead to limited first order change or to more transformational second order change. (Note: this blog uses a lot of short-cut terms that are explained in my article, The Five Lenses of Coaching.)

What are First- and Second-Order Change? I found the following simple explanation.

  • First-order change is doing more – or less – of something we are already doing. First-order change is always reversible.
  • Second-order change is deciding – or being forced – to do something significantly or fundamentally different from what we have done before. The process is irreversible: once you begin, it is impossible to return to the way you were doing before.

I also found the following useful, brief explanation by Michael Perez

First order change: Remedial change. This is a more functionally optimal change in a specific behaviour in context. The change occurs at the same logical level as the 'problematic' behaviour.

Second order change: Generative change. This is a more functionally optimal change in an entire category of behaviours in context. The change occurs a logical level above the 'problematic' behaviour.

Third order change: Evolutionary change. This is a more functionally optimal change across multiple categories of behaviour, usually in a number of contexts. The change occurs two logical levels above the 'problematic' behaviour.

My simple explanation of ‘logical level’ would be that first order is ‘inside the box’ thinking. Second order and third order are ‘outside the box.’ Third order change usually refers to changes in larger systems, like families, organizations, government, and so on.

First order change is doing more or less of the same kinds of things. It is a change that stays within the operating system of the individual and is change in behavior. For example, a first order change with the type framework is to get someone with preferences for INFP to engage in extraverted Thinking (Te) activities—to segment and systematize, making decisions based on logical order and consequences in the external world rather than their natural introverted Feeling (Fi) tendency to judge against a holistic sense of internal values. The client can be in need this kind of change. He or she may need to do less of introverted Feeling and more of Extraverted Thinking behaviors in order to fulfill a role or achieve a goal. When the coach suggests these kinds of activities, the client can try them out and get skilled at them. But will it stick? Not easily unless other things are considered.

Even within the framework of type dynamics this change looks like it is within the natural type pattern, but it may not lead to solving the problem the client is concerned with. We have to keep in mind that first order change works when people only need to learn some new behaviors. However, when those behaviors go counter to some other closely held belief or years of practice, the ‘problem’ won’t be fixed.

First order change can even make a problem worse. For example, this fictional INFP client might have had an interpretation that emphasized the preferences, so this person decides he can’t do Thinking kinds of things and avoids them or resists them, and the problem becomes worse.

Second order change transforms the internal operating system so the client can not only maintain the behavior, but also be generative and selective in its use. Such change is usually accomplished through emotional impact, action, or a major change in how clients view themselves or the world.

Incorporating a simple explanation of type dynamics in a session with the client can facilitate second order change. In most type literature, a preference for Thinking is explained as opposite to Feeling and for an INFP and that is where it ends. If type dynamics is even mentioned,  Thinking is described as the ‘inferior’ and we all know what inferior means! Based on my studies of the work of John Beebe and my experience, I’ve found the mental process opposite to the dominant to be more integral to the whole type pattern and more powerful than was previously believed. I use a stick figure to show how the dominant and the ‘inferior’ form the spine of the personality. (Scroll down in the article to see the stick figure.)

For example, once this INFP client realizes that Te is part of his natural pattern, he can reclaim it. He has a framework for shifting his behavior at will and is likely to consciously seek out Te experiences. If type dynamics is not included in the session and the client is given only his preferences and the dichotomies explained, the desired second order change is not likely to happen.

To make the behavior change stick, the coach will need to start by working within the internal belief systems of the client. Using multiple personality type frameworks can give the coach a way to understand some of these. If you use temperament, you can understand the core needs and tap into deep motivations. In the example above, you can explain type dynamics in relationship to type development. In this way you do not violate the Catalyst (_NF_) temperament’s need to be authentic. Depending on the individual INFP and where they are developmentally, asking them to do the Te kinds of activities may feel inauthentic and even if it makes sense in their heads, it won’t feel right.

A different rationale would be more effective with someone with ISFP preferences, another type with Fi as dominant. The motivations are different. For an ISFP client, the coach can appeal to the need for impact and results. Those with an Improviser (_S_P) temperament want to get tangible results, have an impact, and move on. Extraverted Thinking can help them better organize their work and be more efficient. You can still explain type dynamics and type development to give a clear guide for why this will work, since Te is within their type pattern as something they aspire to.

I think the concepts of first order change and second order change can be very useful in targeting our work with clients. Sometimes first order change is just fine and at other times, it becomes part of the problem. As coaches and change agents, I think we all want to not do things that become part of the problem.

This turned into a long blog with so many threads of thought. What are your questions and thoughts?