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[NOTE: This post was updated June 2020 for freshness & accuracy]
In my former career as a mental health counselor, I encountered many clients who struggled with taking charge of their own lives. While their struggles might have differed, the idea behind helping them was almost always the same, and quite basic. We’re taught to guide clients from seeing themselves as being victims of life’s circumstances to being movers of those life events. In other words, help clients reach deep within to draw on their own inner strength and capacity to take charge.
There are two types of locus of control: internal (inside) and external (outside). Internal locus of control is the belief that you are “in charge of the events that occur in [your] life” (Northouse, 2013, p. 141), while external locus of control is the belief that “chance, fate, or outside forces determine life events” (p. 141).
Individuals with an internal locus of control believe their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and they have control over those things they can change. Having an internal locus of control is linked to self-efficacy, the belief you have about being able to do something successfully (Donatelle, 2011). People with an external locus of control see their behaviors and lives as being controlled by luck or fate. These individuals view themselves (i.e., their lives and circumstances) as victims of life and bad luck.
“People differ in whether they feel they control the consequences of their actions or are controlled by external factors. External control personality types believe that luck, fate, or powerful external forces control their destiny. Internal control personality types believe they control what happens to them” (Champoux, 2011, p. 113).
In leadership and management, this concept of locus of control is the same. Whether it’s coaching top executives, middle management, or rank and file employees, the idea is to get them to stop making excuses and/or blame other people, events, or things (i.e. external locus of control), and instead start taking responsibilities (i.e., internal locus of control) for them.
If you really listen, you’ll often hear people describe their lives or work as spinning out of control or they felt they had very little control over or were not in control of their lives. However, when things improve, you’ll hear them say that they’ve started feeling more in control or regaining control over their lives again. “When the locus of control shifts from the external to the internal frame, clients find more energy, motivation, and greater confidence to change” (Moore & Tschannen-Moran, 2010, p. 75).
In business and leadership, the benefit of having an internal locus of control is applicable to all individuals at all levels within an organization:
1. An internal locus of control is one of the key traits of an effective leader (Yukl, 2006).
“A leader with an internal locus of control is likely to be favored by group members. One reason is that an ‘internal’ person is perceived as more powerful than an ‘external’ person because he or she takes responsibility for events. The leader with an internal locus of control would emphasize that he or she can change unfavorable conditions” (Dubrin, 2010, p. 47).
2. An internal locus of control separates good from bad managers (Yukl, 2006).
“Effective managers . . . demonstrated a strong belief in self-efficacy and internal locus of control, as evidenced by behavior such as initiating action (rather than waiting for things to happen), taking steps to circumvent obstacles, seeking information from a variety of sources, and accepting responsibility for success or failure” (Yukl, 2006, pp. 185-186).
3. Employees’ locus of control affect leadership behavior in decision-making (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).
“Internal-locus-of-control followers, who believed outcomes were a result of their own decisions, were much more satisfied with leaders who exhibited participative behaviors than they were with leaders who were directive. Conversely, external-locus-of-control followers were more satisfied with directive leader behaviors than they were with participative leader behaviors. Followers’ perceptions of their own skills and abilities to perform particular tasks can also affect the impact of certain leader behaviors. Followers who believe they are perfectly capable of performing a task are not as apt to be motivated by, or as willing to accept, a directive leader as they would a leader who exhibits participative behaviors” (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012, pp. 544-545).
“There is also evidence that internals are better able to handle complex information and problem solving, and that they are more achievement-oriented than externals (locus of control). In addition, people with a high internal locus of control are more likely than externals to try to influence others, and thus more likely to assume or seek leadership opportunities. People with a high external locus of control typically prefer to have structured, directed work situations. They are better able than internals to handle work that requires compliance and conformity, but they are generally not as effective in situations that require initiative, creativity, and independent action” (Daft, 2008, p. 103).
“Path–goal theory suggests that for subordinates with an internal locus of control participative leadership is most satisfying because it allows them to feel in charge of their work and to be an integral part of decision making. For subordinates with an external locus of control, path–goal theory suggests that directive leadership is best because it parallels subordinates’ feelings that outside forces control their circumstances” (Northouse, 2013, p. 141).
The Importance of Locus of Control
A meta-analysis (a meta-analysis is a review and statistical analysis of past research in a specific area to determine the consistency and robustness of the research results) of 135 research studies “showed that an internal locus of control was associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and job performance” (Colquitt, LePine, & Wesson, 2015, p. 287). A second meta-analysis of 222 research studies showed that “people with an internal locus of control enjoyed better health, including higher self-reported mental well-being, fewer self-reported physical symptoms” (Colquitt et al., 2015, p. 287).
Takeaway: Having an internal locus of control can go a very long way in differentiating between effective and ineffective leaders, managers, and employees.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
Champoux, J. E. (2011). Organizational behavior: Integrating individuals, groups, and organizations (4th ed). New York: Routledge.
Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Wesson, M. J. (2015). Organizational behavior: Improving performance and commitment in the workplace (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Daft, R. L. (2008). The leadership experience (4th ed.). Mason: OH: Thomson/South-Western.
Donatelle, R. (2011). Health: The basics (Green ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
Dubrin, A. J. (2010). Leadership: Research findings, practice and skills (6th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western/Cengage Learning.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
Moore, M. & Tschannen-Moran, B. (2010). Coaching psychology manual. Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.