Who’s in Control? – How your Locus of Control Affects You

Dr SeussIn my last post, about Attainable Greatness, I looked at how we evaluate both ourselves and other people. When it comes down to evaluating yourself through that lens, then it really comes down to whether you believe in yourself and whether you have control over events; is everything random or do you have a decisive role to play? This is what we mean by ‘locus of control’ – how much influence does someone believe they have over events that affect them. In that previous post, I spoke colloquially about some of the benefits of being internally referenced – here I’ll try to put some evidence on those bones, make it clear it’s not a one-sided thing and put in a few more practical tips.

Locus of Control – Internals and Externals

Julian Rotter first wrote about locus of copower-plantntrol more than 60 years ago, as part of his work on social learning theory. Everyone’s belief about where control lies sits somewhere on the spectrum from extremely internal – where the belief is that one’s own abilities and performance determine all outcomes – to extremely external – where the belief is that factors outside one’s own control determine all outcomes.

While people will tend towards a certain position on this continuum, they will, under certain circumstances, sometimes behave differently. This can be due to their personal history, where people have come to learn that they do or do not have some control in specific circumstances. As with everything else, a person’s behaviour is a combination of their personality and the environment. That’s not to imply that someone’s locus of control can’t change over time, as well as across environments – otherwise this article wouldn’t exist!


This is the first reason why locus of control matters – feeling in control of your life is a strong predictor of happiness. Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer conducted a meta-analysis of 420,599 people from 63 countries to explore the drivers of well-being. This looked at whether wealth or autonomy (i.e. the level of control you believe you have over what is happening) was more important to well-being. There was no direct relationship between well-being and wealth, but there was a strong link between well-being and autonomy (there was a link between wealth and well-being where wealth enabled autonomy). Strickland looked specifically at the relationship between locus of control and happiness, as well as creativity, and also found a positive relationship between being internally focused and feeling good about things.

An exception that proves the rule

The logic behind these findings is fairly straightforward – if you believe that you have control over your life then there’s a point in doing stuff, whilst if you feel like you have no control then you might as well be anyone else or do nothing at all. This logic is supported by the two exceptions to this control-happiness relationship; Verme identified religious belief and marriage as correlated with both increased well-being and reduced control. That is as you’d expect – those with a strong religious belief derive purpose in serving God, even while God is determining their fate, while marriage also provides a joint purpose and related loss in personal freedom.


No SmokingLocus of control has also repeatedly been shown to have an impact on health, across a range of different areas. Weiss and Larsen showed that, when combined with a high interest in your health having an internal focus makes people engage in more health protective behaviours (it is worth keeping in mind the value facilitator as a risk of being too internally focused – if you don’t value something yourself then you’re unlikely to do anything about it, whatever other people say). More specifically, Balch and Ross found that “internals” had more success losing weight, while Shipley found a positive relationship with success at giving up smoking.

Interestingly, Cross, March and Lapsley found not only that an internal locus of control led to an improved health outcome for those with arthritis, but also led to lower arthritis-related costs. Internals were both delivering a more effective and more efficient outcome. The reasoning here is even more straightforward – internals take action to improve their health and they look into what is most likely to work. because they genuinely think it’ll help.


Bringing this back in line with my normal focus, there’s also a relationship between locus of control and leadership. Anderson and Schneier found that:

  • Leaders are more likely to be internals than externals
  • Superior performance was achieved by both internal leaders individually and groups led by internals as a whole
  • Internals showed an instrumental, task-oriented approach, while externals showed a more socio-emotional style

This is also pretty understandable – I’d rather have a leader who believed that we had a chance of influencing things than one who didn’t!


While there is a weight of evidence showing that locus of control has an impact, there are also some questions about how strong that impact is and whether there are other factors that divide internals and externals into more sub-groups.

There are clearly situations where being an internal isn’t positive. If you view your outcomes as negative and feel that you control outcomes, then it’s likely that you’ll blame yourself – and if that remains your thought process it’s very easy to get into a depressive mindset (it’s my fault, it will always be my fault and whatever I do it’ll still go wrong). Some things are out of our control, however much we try to influence them. So internals with a negative self image are unlikely to see the same benefits as those with a healthier view of themselves.

king-canuteAt a less clinical level, people with an internal locus of control can come across as very arrogant to those who don’t think in the same way due to their belief that they dictate outcomes – they can have a King Canute holding-back-the-tide style (I’m sticking with the myth here; the link is so I feel I’ve given King Canute a fair shake). You might also come across as arrogant because you genuinely have a distorted view of yourself (i.e. the opposite of the risk of becoming depressed).

We mentioned another risk earlier (in relation to health) – if you’re very internally focused with an internal locus of control and don’t deem something important, then you’re likely to neglect it, whatever everyone else thinks. This can further distance you from others due to your absence of interest in their views.

There is also some research that suggests the happiest people are actually those who are bi-local – those with a balance of external and internal loci of control. They can brush off things that go wrong as out of their control, but feel responsible for things that go well (while this might make you happy, it’s not necessarily recommended for realism).

How to Become More Internal

Despite these question marks, most people are still more external than research suggests is good for them (both at work and in broader life). The hard bit, however, is trying to make that shift. Below are three ways that we can make that change.

Setting Goals

Gaa lmap-34524_1280ooked at whether having weekly goal-setting conferences had a positive effect on academic performance. To separate out the effect of goal-setting from having weekly discussions, he also had one group of students have weekly chats without goal setting and a final group with neither. He found goal-setting had two impacts: 1) it led to better academic performance; 2) it appeared to move people towards having a more internal locus of control.

So by setting ourselves “good” goals we can shift ourselves to thinking in a more internal way. Goal-setting is a huge topic, and not one that I’m going to cover in depth in this blog. There’s a lot of stuff online (e.g. this), but I’ve recently been reading ‘Great by Choice’ by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, where one of the consistent themes is organisational goal-setting. Collins and Hansen describe it as ‘the twenty mile march’, but the concept is this – organisations (and presumably people) who perform best are those that set a consistent target and deliver against it. If the environment is with them, then the organisations held back and built up reserves during the good times, while in a bad environment they pushed on and still met their target. This is transferrable to individuals; we need to set ourselves targets that we can achieve in good times and bad, so that achievement really is within our control.

I believe that goal setting plays a role in a couple of ways. Firstly, the process of considering your goals forces you to think about what is achievable and what you control, and secondly, achievement of those goals “proves” to yourself that you do have control.

Think Through Your Options

Either by yourself or with a few trusted people think about a situation in which you feel that you have no options (or, if that’s too personal or tough, then think about a situation that might occur in future). Then write down the full list of options that you have/had – don’t rule out anything as too wild or wacky; we’re looking for as many options as possible. When you have that list think about whether the options would have (or will) change the outcome in any way, however small or indirect the impact is.

When the time comes that you’re faced with an out-of-your-control feeling, use the same process – think about all the options that exist, think about the consequences of choosing them and then make an informed decision about which one to take. By repeating this process on multiple occasions it’ll gradually become automatic to think about your options – and you’ll begin to realise that you have at least some control.

Monitor Self-Talk

We all have thoughts that pop into our mind from time-to-time. Sometimes they’re useful (e.g. a reminder about something that we thought we’d forgotten), sometimes they’re positive (e.g. noticing that you’ve just done something great or having a spontaneous idea), but for most people a significant chunk are negative. They might tell you that what you just did was really, really stupid or bring you back to a moment of humiliation, embarrassment or failure from years ago.

face-535774_1280As you most likely know from experience, just telling yourself to stop thinking those negative thoughts doesn’t work – in fact it has the opposite effect. So don’t try to stop the thoughts, but merely observe them. Be aware of your self-talk and consciously note it. Keep doing this over time and you’ll start to listen to the self-talk, but consider it like any other external stimuli – you’ll begin to separate your conscious from these spontaneous thoughts rather than identifying those spontaneous thoughts as “you”. In that way you can respond to any negative self-talk from a position of distance, and therefore more logically.

This is useful as a general tool, but in this context it gives you the opportunity to address the negative self-talk which says “I have no choice” or “what I do really doesn’t matter” – another chance for you to take control.

Over to You – Do any of you have any tips or ideas on how to feel more in control?

Attainable Greatness – A Different Measurement of Individual Performance

john-wooden-99jpg-88739e635e76f992_largeJohn Wooden was arguably the greatest College basketball coach of all-time; a ten time winner of the NCAA national championship, the holder of an 88-game winning streak and basketball Hall of Famer (as both a player and a coach). As coach of UCLA, he helped develop some of the most celebrated players in NBA history, including Lew Alcindor (who later took on the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. As a fan of both sport and organisational performance, Wooden on Leadership was one of the earlier books I read on leadership and productivity. Some of the concepts in the book are fairly straightforward (though his followers wouldn’t let you believe it), but there are a few topics that have changed how I think about things. One that I’ve tried to take with me is “personal” or “attainable greatness”, particularly when organisations are assessing their employees’ performance and I’m assessing my own.

Conventional Assessment

cyclists-601591_1280Firstly, a bit of context. We tend to identify performance by comparing people against each other. This is the easiest way to do things; just look at everyone’s achievements and those with more or better ones have performed better than the others. Society trains us to think like this, whether through sport, exams or any other competitive task. Through this lens, the ‘greatest’ performer is the person with the most and/or best achievements.

This approach is helpful for some purposes, particularly because it intends to provide objectivity and a comparison in assessing performance. It  provides a quick and easy way for an organisation to review its workforce, enabling it to make better informed recruitment, promotion (taking account of previous caveats) and firing. It clearly has a place in performance assessment, but there are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be our sole methodology; firstly (and obviously), it neglects potential; secondly, it is ineffective for motivating people; thirdly, raw ability (in whatever form) is outside of an individual’s control; fourthly, it can drive leaders’ focus on recruitment and firing rather than teaching/training; and fifthly, it makes life fairly frustrating (because some people just can’t perform ‘well’ enough).

Personal Greatness – For the Business

recite-grijsoThat brings us to Wooden’s concept – “Personal Greatness”. To him “personal greatness is measured against one’s own potential, not against that of someone else”. By looking at the world through this lens, you start to see people as having achieved a certain % of their potential rather than just seeing their raw performance.

I find this a very empowering perspective, probably more so due to my own flaws. Before it became part of my mindset, I used to get hugely frustrated with people who simply weren’t naturally talented at what they were doing. Thinking about personal greatness makes me a lot more balanced.

It forces me to think about people’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses in order to assess their personal greatness. While I, like everyone else, make mistakes (e.g. often underestimating people’s capabilities) in these judgements, it at least drives me to think about people in a more detailed way.

This leads to a range of benefits – it gives me a way to think about where to focus time, effort and money in order to help people develop. It  helps me identify people’s niches; the work they’ll enjoy and do most productively. It really helps manage my frustrations as well – or at least better direct them… More of my concerns are now aimed at those who aren’t fulfilling their potential, rather than those who can’t perform any better than they already are. It means I push the right people and appreciate the personal greatness successes of those who I’d have failed to recognise previously.

Personal Greatness – For the Person

CERN - switzerlandI also find the concept empowering when looking at myself. If I stand in a CERN laboratory, then it’s likely that I’m one of the least intellectual people in the room. If I try to judge my intellect by comparing myself to those CERN scientists, then I’m going to think of myself as very stupid. If I then go to a nursery school and only compare my academic abilities to the kindergarteners’ current ability, then I’m suddenly going to believe I’m a genius.

Depending on your personality these scenarios can have a range of impacts – some people find it motivating to try to catch up with more able people (although that effect is likely to wear off if the gap is too big or lasts too long), while others become determined to stay ahead of the pack. Others can just feel it’s pointless to try if they’re lagging behind, while others become lazy if they’re ‘the best’. Whatever the impact, relying on the environment leads to a very unstable view of yourself.

man-220968_1280On top of this, people often determine their ‘worth’ or ‘ability’ through external evaluations. Yet everybody evaluating you has some reason to do so, which is likely to bias their judgement. For example our family and friends want to build our confidence (think Dragons’ Den or the X Factor),  while our boss wants us to do what they want (whether that’s seek a move or stay with them) and even allegedly neutral people tend to be desperate to say something insightful (even when there’s nothing sensible to say).

By looking at your personal greatness, however, you have a consistent target – to, in cliched terms, be the best that you can be. If you can be honest with yourself and stop relying on external evaluations of yourself (often a very difficult step) then you give yourself a stable goal. By being more internally referenced, you become more self-sufficient (as long as your self-evaluation is realistic – there’s always a risk of being too down on yourself), as you don’t need external validation. It enables me to be more resilient when faced with the views of others, while also making me more relaxed about situations where others will judge me (in the purest form, it means there’s no more pressure presenting to a Board or sitting at a desk – the pressure is only to deliver against your potential).

Conclusion – How Personal Greatness Fits In

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach WoodenPersonal greatness is a concept that can help individuals, businesses and employees. Businesses need to think about the purpose of evaluating an employee when thinking about how to evaluate them – a manager doing normal management should be using personal greatness to get the most out of people, while firing clearly has to be a comparative decision. Employees can think about their own personal greatness to better understand themselves and find their most fulfilling career. Most importantly, people can use personal greatness throughout their life to become more resilient, more emotionally self-sufficient and take control.

The Dark Triad – What can we learn from Criminals and CEOs

To some people, given the financial crisis that started in 2007, there isn’t a huge difference between those involved in organised criminality and those leading the largest commercial organisations in the world. There’s a growing body of research that suggests they may be more right than they could have anticipated – there are a group of personality traits, known as “the dark triad”, which link those with the greatest business success to those involved in the most calculated criminality. This research also suggests there’s something we can learn about how people become senior within an organisation.

First, though, an explanation of the dark triad. This model was established by Paulhus and Williams in 2002, when they proved that Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism were distinct traits. These traits are:

  • Narcissism – Admiration for oneself
  • Psychopathy – this is characterised by a lack of feelings of guilt and empathy, alongside excessively bold behaviour
  • Machiavellianism – in summary, that the end justifies the means and morality doesn’t come into decision making.

It’s fairly unsurprising that these traits are related to propensity to commit certain types of crime (e.g. Mathieu et al, 2013) – if you believe that you’re worth more than other people, don’t feel guilt, don’t have the normal inhibitions that sub-pathological (i.e. “normal”) people have and are prepared to do anything to achieve what you want, then it becomes logical to commit crime. So it seems like we should be keeping a close eye on these kinds of people, keeping them out of positions of power and doing all we can to eliminate these traits.

Given the above, it’s interesting (though given natural selection, not that uncommon for pathological conditions) to hear that having higher than average levels of these traits leads to a wide number of positives (for the individual, rather than the group- As Hogan, 2007, states the dark triad traits don’t help people to “get along”, they do help people to “get ahead”). They:

  • are perceived more favourably in the first hour after meeting someone (Paulhus, 1998)
  • have more sexual success (as defined by Linton and Wiener, 2001 – that definition was number of partners and/or children) – though there are some other elements to this, such as being more promiscuous and being less concerned about leaving a child with a single parent, which make me slightly hesitant about calling it “success”.
  • are perceived as more attractive (Dufner, Rauthmann, Czarna and Denissen, 2013)
  • obtain more resource than others, leading to competitive advantage (Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton, 2005).
  • are generally happier and more positive disposition (Morf and Rhodevalt, 2001)
  • have, if highly educated, a higher income (Turner and Martinez, 1977) – although for less educated people the correlation was reversed

So why do these things help? I’ll try to use some of this evidence to give a quick breakdown of each trait, a summary of how they combine and some things we can take from each trait.


Remember all those times you wished you’d done something, but didn’t take the risk? If you had a bit more narcissism then you probably wouldn’t. In an organisational environment this has a number of advantages: a comfort networking and getting yourself noticed; the confidence that helps in sales and presentations; the self-belief to make decisions when surrounded by uncertainty; and the ego to shift paradigms and innovate (most people choose to stay within the existing framework because of the fear of being criticized for standing out from the crowd – as seen in the bystander effect). Perhaps most importantly, a healthy dose of narcissism gives people the confidence to seek and apply for new opportunities. The biggest determinant of moving up an organisation or industry is putting in that application – by definition, those who don’t apply can’t get the job. And if you believe that your the best, it doesn’t matter if you get rejected – it must be someone else’s fault because you know that you’re amazing.

This is something we could all learn from – the only way to get to wherever you want to be is to take a chance and not worry about the outcome. When you put your application in your chances might be 1%, but that’s 1% more than if you don’t apply. If you get rejected then you’ll probably get some feedback on how to get a similar job next time as well, so it’s really a win-win. Naturally, however, we’re scared of rejection – so next time you see something that you really want, take a page from the narcissist’s playbook and realise the positives almost always massively outweigh the negative.


There’s a wealth of evidence about how emotion drives irrational behaviour, so it follows that psychopaths make better decisions (in a rational, rather than social, scenario). Research by Osumi and Ohira (2010) proved this through the ultimatum game. This game hinges upon putting the initial power in one player’s hands (whether that is a genuine participant or a scientist) and testing the rationality of the second player’s reaction. The first participant is told there’s a pot of money (let’s say £10) and they can propose how this money is split between them and the second participant (e.g. £7 for them, £3 for the other person). If the offer is accepted by the second person then the money is handed out in that split. If it’s rejected, then both people get nothing. Given that this is a one-off with someone you don’t know, it’s rational for the second person to accept any offer (because otherwise they’ll get no money at all). Most people, however, reject offers at a certain level – they see it as unfair, so would rather they both got nothing. Alongside this they display an increased “electrodermal response” (they sweat more), so at both a sub-conscious and conscious level there’s a response. On the other hand, Osumi and Ohira found that people with higher levels of psychopathy both showed a lower electrodermal response and make better decisions – they accepted offers that non-psychopathic people rejected.

Those findings transfer to everyday life – we make decisions based on emotion and impulse all the time, and often regret it afterwards. The bigger the emotion behind a decision, the bigger advantage someone with psychopathic traits has – if I were deciding whether to fire 1000 people I’d think about how that would affect them and their families, obscuring my ability to decide what’s best for the organisation. A higher level of psychopathy would help me make a better decision (because, ultimately, my company going bust helps no-one). Further, psychopathy also makes people more bold, as they are less worried about what other people will think, delivering a similar stream of advantages as noted for narcissism (e.g. not having nerves when pitching to others) as well as a more exploratory approach. For a much more detailed view, see Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”. Learning to make those cool headed decisions would be a boon to us all and the experiment above highlights one way to do this – take a step back and let the unconscious response (and any somatic markers) die down before making your decision


Given Machiavellianism’s (Mach) association with doing everything necessary to achieve goals, it’s unsurprising that those displaying high Mach, also display higher motivation than others, are more focused on their goals and work harder to get there (Jones and Paulhus, 2009). The same research also showed that high Machs enjoy situations that offer the opportunity for manipulation – situations that other people often find awkward, such as negotiations and confrontations. Their focus also makes them decisive in delivering what they see as the right result, even when their are difficult decisions to be made or problems are encountered – the mental construct is that it’s worth doing anything to achieve the end result, so everything else only represents a bump in the road.

The obsession with their goal also enables high Machs to improve their skills; by clearly understanding their goals they can quickly assess where they’ve fallen down and can improve next time. This may well explain why high Machs often deliver successfully. They have always thought about life as a series of goals, while we generally tend to meander in a much less directed way. This can partly explain high Machs’ ability to charm others quickly – they understand that people enable them to achieve what they want and they’ve honed how to make that happen. In terms of success (removing any moral element from that definition), manipulating the truth is also often to an individual’s advantage – for example, when applying for a job. The reliance on interviews and written examples leaves organisations vulnerable to those who embellish their achievements, particularly as they often fail to follow up with the current organisation about the facts. Additionally, the more people that you tell these stories to, the more it becomes established as fact, by virtue of everyone knowing it (in an attempt to avoid libel charges I won’t name names, but there are a number of famous examples of people making a career off the back of these kind of lies).

Combined, these traits can leave high Machs ahead of the pack, but often to the detriment of the whole (as Campbell, Bush, Brunell and Shelton found in the research noted above). So what can we take from high Machs? I think we can take their utilitarian view to the world – sometimes we have to be prepared to do “bad” things in order to achieve the truly “great” things. It’s very difficult to keep perspective here and not become obsessive about your goal, but we naturally don’t like making decisions where we cause something bad to happen, and, on top of this, we show hyperbolic discounting (where we value things that are happening sooner disproportionately more than later). There is also something to admire in high Machs approach to networking – they don’t feel the same temerity that non-high Machs do and don’t have the same pretence about it’s purpose (obviously an event created with the intent of lots of executives coming together is meant as an opportunity to network, rather than about making friends).

The Whole Picture

Having run through each trait, it’s easy to see how these can combine, in the right quantities, into high business performers (they often have a negative impact on non-working life – for example, those displaying dark triad traits have higher rates of relationship breakdown (Morf and Rhodewalt, 2001)). A person who believes in themselves, can make big decisions, understands how to work through others, seeks out opportunities to develops their career and thrives in tense situations sounds like an ideal leader. It’s no surprise that a high number of executives display these traits (see a range of work by Oliver James). It also helps to explain why many senior executives have trouble outside their working life – their “working personality” strengths are their social life flaws.

But before we get carried away with the organisational performance of those with dark triad personalities, it’s important to note that their success is often short term and often comes at the detriment to the company as a whole (Furnham, 2010). All we can do is try to take the bits that work, discard the bits that don’t and try to watch out for the snake dressed in a suit…