Locus of control is something studied by psychologists to determine how people perceive their ability to change events. Someone with an internal locus of control believes that they have a strong ability to influence the events around them. Someone with an external locus of control believes that external forces (people, fate, luck, etc.) control events in their environment.
There were some studies done in the 60s that showed locus of control to be a personality variable, not a situational variable. In other words, if you put two people in the exact same situation, their perception of their ability to control the situation can vary wildly. Their perception of how much influence they can assert in their environment is a product of their personality–not the situation.
In a study that compared managers’ effectiveness to their locus of control, there was a high degree of correlation between an internal locus and high performance. The managers who saw their environment as something they could influence generally did just that. They made changes and generally had better results than the managers whose locus was external.
This all seems like common sense. If someone doesn’t believe that they have the power to change things, they are unlikely to try very hard. However, like much common sense, it is easier to recognize in others and harder to apply to ourselves.
When faced with a situation where we don’t feel like we have much control, it is important to remember that there is probably someone else with a stronger internal locus of control that would view the situation much differently. They would see the difficult situation as something that they had the power to change. By taking a step back and viewing the situation through the eyes of someone with a different personality, we can discover new ways of handling difficult problems.
On the other side, it is important to realize that there are people with a much more internal locus of control than our own. When working with someone, try to understand where their locus is so you can better understand how they view their world. Being able to see problems and challenges through their eyes can result in much more effective communication and teamwork.
Originally published January 23, 2007.