Locus of Control - A Critical Dimension of Talent

Locus of Control is a critical dimension of talent that will materially improve every aspect of someone's life and job performance. It can be screened for in interviews and can be intentionally developed. It is the multiplier for many other skills.

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Locus of Control. People with a more internal locus of control have a stronger belief of a higher degree of control over their lives and their own decisions and actions largely determine their outcomes. People with a stronger external locus of control have a stronger belief of a lower degree of control over their lives and that external factors such as fate, luck, or powerful others largely determine their outcomes. Know Where You Are Know Where Your Team Is Know Where Your Candidates Are Know Why

A more internal locus of control is a stronger belief of having a higher degree of control over our lives and that our own actions largely determine outcomes.

A more external locus of control is a stronger belief of having a lower degree of control over our lives and that external factors such as fate, luck, or powerful others largely determine our outcomes.

To put things in context, we are all standing on a planet that is hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour while spinning at 1,000 miles per hour. The planet is mostly a molten mass of iron with a thin (0.4%) crust that we live on, protected by an equally thin layer of air (0.8%). The deepest we have ever drilled into the planet's surface has been about 1/3 of the way through the crust and the highest altitude aircraft (SR-71) had a maximum ceiling of about 1/3 of our atmosphere. The furthest probe sent into space is 14 billion miles from earth but only 0.2% of the way to the next closest galaxy. 


Locus of Control, Job Performance, and Health

There have been multiple studies showing a correlation between a more internal locus of control and higher levels of job performance, job satisfaction, academic (learning) performance, motivation, and leadership. There have also been multiple studies showing a correlation between a more external locus of control and higher levels of depressive symptoms and reported physical illness.

These studies can all be researched to develop a deeper understanding but it is just as important to understand:

  1. The limits of any study
  2. Correlation does not equal causation

Many other factors can come into play but there are some tools we can use to shift locus of control more internally both in ourselves and others. There is lots of upside to making this shift and zero downside.


WARNING: The feeling of having control must be in alignment with the probability weighted degree of control you actually have, including your current conditions, capabilities, and capacity. Overestimating degree of control can be demoralizing at best and deadly at worst - think ladder safety.


Next Sections

  1. Shifting your own locus of control - leading ourselves is incredibly difficult
  2. Tools for managers to develop their team - leading others is 10X more difficult
  3. Questions for managers to recognize locus of control in job interviews


Shifting Your Own Locus of Control

Shifting one's locus of control from external to internal involves fostering a belief in one's own ability to affect outcomes. Here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Set Achievable Goals: Start with small, manageable goals and gradually build up to bigger ones. Achieving these goals can help build confidence and reinforce the belief that your actions can lead to success.
  2. Practice Decision-Making: Regularly making decisions, even small ones, can help you feel more in control. It might be helpful to reflect on the outcomes of these decisions and how they were influenced by your actions.
  3. Cultivate Problem-Solving Skills: When faced with challenges, actively seek solutions rather than assuming the situation is out of your control. This might involve brainstorming potential solutions, seeking advice, or learning new skills.
  4. Mindfulness and Self-Awareness: Practices such as meditation can increase self-awareness and help you become more aware of your thought patterns, including tendencies towards external locus of control. Recognizing these patterns is the first step toward changing them.
  5. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help you understand and change thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors or emotional distress. A therapist trained in CBT could provide strategies and techniques to shift an external locus of control toward a more internal one.
  6. Learn from Experiences: Reflect on past experiences, especially those where you had an active role in the outcome. Learning from both successes and failures can foster an internal locus of control.
  7. Positive Affirmations: Regularly remind yourself of your abilities and achievements. This can boost your self-esteem and reinforce your belief in your ability to influence outcomes.

Remember, it's about balance. While an internal locus of control is often beneficial, it's also important to recognize and accept that some situations are truly beyond our control. The key is to focus on areas where we can effect change and accept where we cannot.

Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People describes this well in terms of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence both in the book and in this summary video

Regardless of your beliefs, there is a lot of wisdom in the Serenity Prayer that aligns with the lessons that Stephen Covey was working to convey in this video:

"...grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; taking this world as it is and not as I would have it..."


Guidelines for Managers to Help Others And What Not to Do...

As a manager, there are several strategies you can use to help an employee shift from an external to an internal locus of control:

  1. Set Clear and Achievable Goals: Provide your employees with clear expectations and achievable targets. Meeting these goals can help build confidence and demonstrate that their actions can lead to success.
  2. Provide Decision-Making Opportunities: Allow your employees to make decisions related to their work. Start with small, low-risk decisions and gradually increase their decision-making responsibility as they gain confidence.
  3. Encourage Problem-Solving: Instead of directly providing solutions when issues arise, guide your employees through the problem-solving process. Ask probing questions to help them understand the situation and come up with potential solutions.
  4. Provide Constructive Feedback: Regular, balanced feedback can help employees understand the direct impact of their actions. Highlight their strengths and accomplishments, as well as areas for improvement, reinforcing the idea that they can control their performance through their efforts.
  5. Offer Training and Development: Provide opportunities for skill development. Learning new skills can empower employees, reinforce the idea that they can control their professional development, and increase their self-efficacy.

Remember, change takes time and everyone moves at their own pace. Consistent, supportive guidance from you as a manager can facilitate this shift. And as always, it's crucial to recognize and respect individual differences and perspectives.

Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit / Smarter, Faster, Better) describes how the Marine Corp redesigned boot camp to develop a more internal locus of control which includes better decision making and higher motivation. Think about this in the context of how you manage day-by-day. 


What to Avoid as a Manager

Certain management practices can unintentionally shift an employee's locus of control from internal to external. Here are five such behaviors:

  1. Micromanagement: When managers control every detail of an employee's work, the employee may start to feel that their actions have little impact on the outcome, fostering a more external locus of control. Keep in mind that this is subjective - if the employee is at the earlier stages of their learning curve, their confidence will exceed their competence so "Good Management" can be perceived as "Micromanagement."
  2. Ignoring Employee Input: If a manager consistently dismisses or overlooks employee suggestions or feedback, employees may feel that their actions and ideas don't matter.
  3. Inconsistent Feedback: Providing unclear or sporadic feedback can leave employees unsure about how their actions are influencing their performance and results.
  4. Attributing Success and Failure to External Factors: If a manager frequently attributes the team's success to luck or market conditions, or blames failures on external circumstances, it may foster a more external locus of control among team members.
  5. Lack of Growth Opportunities: Not providing opportunities for professional development or career advancement can make employees feel they have little control over their career trajectory, again leading to a more external locus of control.

A balance is necessary to maintain a healthy workplace environment. While it's important for managers to guide and provide feedback to their team members, they also need to allow autonomy and offer opportunities for employees to make decisions and impact their own work.

Four Types of Questions to Help "See" a Candidate's Locus of Control

These are types of questions and should be contextualized for the specific interview you are doing, which is based on a good job role description. The candidate may answer some of these in the course of discussing other aspects of the job and their history.

  1. Success: "What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your career?" followed by "How did you accomplish [that]?" (Internal locus: their own skills, hard work, decisions. External locus: luck, timing, others' actions.)
  2. Process: As you are working through questions in your interview guide about the role, ask about individual processes. For example, if you are interviewing a Project Manager, ask questions progressively by starting with "Which company had the best change management process?" followed by "Please describe the process to me in detail from identification of the change through billing and payment including who was involved and what tools you used," followed by "Who developed the process and tools?" and "What improvements did you make to the process over the time you were there?" (A person with an internal locus of control may provide a detailed story about their active involvement and how their actions led to improvements.)
  3. Challenge: "What is the biggest challenge you've had so far in your career?" followed by "What caused it?" followed by "What did you do to work through the challenge and what was the outcome?" (Someone with an internal locus of control might focus more on their actions, decisions, and impact on the situation.) Contextualization for example with a Project Manager candidate may be asking about toughest project, a claim, or a change order. 
  4. Feedback: "Which of your managers provided you the best feedback?" followed by "...the worst feedback and why" (Internal locus: would see it as a chance to learn and improve. External locus: may view it as a criticism that's not under their control.)

You will see a pattern develop and while this is not definitive, it is something to consider when hiring.


For further research, lookup Rotter's Locus of Control Scale and the Levenson Multidimensional Locus of Control Scales


Whether you are developing yourself or developing others, remember that you can safely change locus of control toward more internal by either:

  1. Improving your capabilities and capacity, and your confidence in those.
  2. Tightening the boundaries that you are operating within to be more in alignment with your capabilities, capacity, and confidence. 

Progressive overload with periods of rest for learning is the best way to develop. Tighten the boundaries until you or someone you are managing is operating comfortably 90% of the time and stretching 10%. Deliberately stretch and coach, continually expanding boundaries gradually. 

Remember that no one on earth is prepared too much given the examples we started with. :)


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