Locus of Control

Psychological Prerequisites and Outcomes of Self-Management

Fitness is a troubling concept to me. It is so obvious that it takes regular exercise to keep a healthy body, mind and spirit and yet it is so very hard to establish a discipline and continuous practice. It just doesn’t seem to fit into the day. And yet, people manage to live by it and stay fit. What is their secret? 

Fitness follows the dynamics of reinforcing feedback loops in two directions: if I am not moving for a while, my body feels weak and it becomes increasingly hard to put on my running shoes; I stay on the couch and open another beer – fitness spirals down. Once I do get myself up and work past the “can’t-do-it-s” and the inevitable starting-pains, the movement feels good, my body licks blood and I want to do more of it – fitness spirals up. 

There is something in organisational dynamics that mirrors this experience: Development – like movement – takes initial effort. Moreover, the commitment to continuous personal and organisational development (a defining trait of “deliberately developmental organisations”), requires investment and discipline. If you are caught up in the whirlwind of daily operations, focus on capacity building seems like a big stretch. However, once you are started on the path and committed practices of ongoing development are built, the cost-benefit ratio is turned on its head: development becomes part of the reward, not the cost. The spiral turns upwards.

So how do we hotwire the first part of the journey? How do we get moving whilst things are still on the downward spiral and the costs seem higher than the benefits? 

For me personally, this act of discipline-building needs a project format. A challenging target and a trajectory with an, at least symbolic start and finishing line. This fall, a friend poked me to sign up to the next Berlin Half Marathon. Six months to get in shape, to get out in the dark cold afternoons and run, defying the warm couch and the cool beer. Driven by a mix of guilt and curiosity I accepted the challenge. The first runs felt like hell – I was cursing my friend, myself and the idiotic idea of strain without necessity. Then, slowly, the spiral started to turn and by now I am actually looking forward to put on my running shoes. 

Internal Locus of Control as a Prerequisite for Self-Management

To tweak the cost benefit ratio of exercise some more, I usually listen to podcasts while running (why not get fit andsmart at the same time?). My current favourite is “Leadermorphosis” – a sequel of interviews by Lisa Gill exploring experiences with self-organising teams and progressive organisations. My last rainy November run was accompanied by her interviewing Doug Kirkpatrick on his learnings with the Teal posterchild company “Morning Star”. The interview outlines a number of key qualities needed for people to thrive in self-managed environments – among them initiative and curiosity, humility and a “contribution mindset”, tolerance of ambiguity and perseverance. I nod to all of them as much as I am curious about the last item on the list: an internal Locus of Control.

Locus of Control is a psychological concept relating to a person’s belief on the spectrum of being in the drivers’ seat vs. being driven by life’s forces: With an internal Locus of Control I attribute success and failure primarily to my own actions. With an external Locus, I attribute them to fate, chance or powerful external players – the bosses, the system, those “up there and out there”. Obviously, an environment where everyone is expected to make responsible choices in a self-managed way, an internal Locus of Control is a helpful quality. It is one of the key ingredients to “agency”. The interesting question is: Is it a static trait of personality or is it trainable? Doug Kirkpatrick’s answer to this is clear: We can make the decision to have an Internal Locus of Control: “People are the sum of their internal choices – how you chose to view the world, is a choice”. It took me a whole 3km lap around the Humboldthain Park to chew on this position. I would like to believe that he is right, but I don’t. In fact, I believe quite the opposite: We do not make the choice to have a specific Locus of Control – we experience it. 

How do you Change a Belief System?

Julian Rotter developed the concept of Locus of Control in the mid 1950s in the context of Social Learning Theory. A basic premise of this background is that behavioural and cognitive patterns – often labelled as “personality traits” – are not innate but continuously build as certain actions are strengthened and others are dampened by positive or negative experiences within our social environment – in the more classic language of Behaviourism: by reinforcements and punishments[1]. In effect, our belief system (including our Locus of Control) is neither a fixed trait nor simply a decision to see the world one way or the other: It is the intermediate outcome of a complex learning process.

Of course, not all of this process is purely individual. Locus of Control has a cultural determinant, a reciprocal relationship to social and educational status and, most notably, a developmental trajectory: as new-borns, our default setting is external. Quite realistically, we do not have a concept of being able to control much of anything in our world (even though a sleepless parent may feel quite differently about this). The experience and with it the belief of being in control is a learned one[2]. The process of developing an internal Locus of Control is facilitated by a responsive surrounding with consistent (predictable) frameworks and a supportive modelling of agency. Inversely, unpredictable environments, crises and frustrations beyond our control will bring about generalised feelings of helplessness and pull us back into an external Locus of Control. While it is evident that early development is quite crucial in shaping the foundations of our basic belief systems (and in some cases is so profound that its imprint is hard to reverse), the learning process is a continuous one – it goes on from family to school and peer group settings continues at the workplace and more generally in the cultural and social frames we move in. Eventually, the developmental bracket also has a final decrescendo, as with old age the Locus of Control tends to shift back toward the external side.

Technically, neither a purely external nor a purely internal Locus of Control can be considered reasonable. The belief of being in total control of one’s life can be just as unhealthy (and unrealistic) as assuming total helplessness. Both are somewhat delusional beliefs that tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies (in other words: reinforcing feedback-loops), with quite different effects. Implications of an internal Locus of Control are higher performance, motivation, better overall health and lower depression rates, to name a few. If faced with the choice which self-fulfilling prophecy to engage in, the belief in agency thus seems to be more favourable than the belief in helplessness. 

From this perspective it is indeed a matter of choice what we focus on: the partially empty or the partially full reality of the glass. We cannot control everything, but we can decide to look at the things that we can control – and whatever we give attention to, grows. We can work on our resilience and coping skills and learn from crises and mistakes to be better equipped the next time. This far I am willing to go along with the NLP-ish idea of “rewiring ourselves” and with Doug Kirkpatrick’s notion of “choosing how we see the world”. 

However, there is also a structural side to this: Seeing that adaptation is one of the key features of human nature, it is evident, that any social systems will produce a corresponding mind-set quite quickly (a similar point has been made by McGregor’s Theory X / Theory Y research). If we want to bring out the positive effects of an internal Locus of Control, we need to structure opportunities to positively experience agency into our social environments and processes. These experiences may not become generalised immediately, but as they accumulate they can start to form the foundational patterns of a new belief system. The dynamics of this process are similar to those in trust building: Just like trust is built on agreements that are kept[3], an internal Locus of Control is built on positive experiences of agency. Just like agreements that are broken will shatter trust, an internal Locus of Control is shattered if we are in charge but not in control. More importantly, if no agreements are ever made, they have no chance to be kept and in effect, no trust can ever be built. Translation: the building of an internal Locus of Control requires opportunities to show up and step up. And yet, another feedback loop: The process starts with small experiments and – if those are successful – spirals upwards. 

To sum up these thoughts: An internal Locus of Control may not be in everyone’s backpack at the outset of the journey to self-management – it definitely will be one of the great fruits to pick along the way. 


[1] To be fair, Rotter used the Behavioural language but his ideas can be seen as an adapter piece to the subsequent cognitive revolution.

[2] On that note: recent developments in neuroscience have shown that the notion of “learned helplessness” actually has it backwards – our most basic answer to stress is freezing, not flight or fight.

[3] Thanks to Wolfgang Kötter for this great line!

Guerilla Gardening Approach

Changing Organisational Culture from the Periphery

Organisational Culture is a strange creature. Some people say you cannot change it, you just have to deal with it like the climate zone you live in. Others make the case for “Cultural Engineering” – the controlled development of mindsets, belief systems and ways of relating. Others again advocate for heroic acts of “Transformative Change”: Walk in through the front door, proclaim a new era, introduce a new generative image and watch the old times crumble while you build a new empire on a new narrative. Simple as that? Well, our history books make it look simple because in 4000 years of charted leadership practice we do find hundreds of instances of such transformative change that make an impressive case. What we don’t find are the millions of instances of social change that entered through the back door. If we use the main entrance to proclaim cultural change, we have to make it quite a robust entry. The problem with robust entries is, they come at the price of sensing. There must be a better way. 

The first time I heard the Guerilla Gardening metaphor used in the context of organization development was in 2011 at the “oe tag”, an annual OD practitioners’ conference SOCIUS hosts in Berlin. The conference focused on issues of organizational culture and two colleagues, Anne Kerwani and Kerstin Giebel, offered a workshop proposing a subversive approach to cultural development.  Rather than changing culture from the top with a great proclamation, their key idea was to look for the peripheral spaces in the organisation and to hatch practical examples of the desired future. I have played and worked with this idea in the last years, got excited and frustrated, and came to be a strong believer in the Guerilla Gardening approach.

Let’s start with the origins of subversive urban development. Here is a step by step guide to Guerilla Gardening: 

  1. Find an uncared-for peripheral piece of land, a wall, a tree – best in your own neighbourhood.
  2. Decide what you want to plant and check if your choice makes sense. Tough plants and fast growing flowers are a good start.
  3. It’s more fun together – find partners. Talk to friends and neighbors.
  4. Build your garden. Possibly you need to bring some fertile soil and definitely water the plants after planting.
  5. It may be wise to protect your garden from the challenges of city life, possibly with an improvised little fence against dogs and feet.
  6. Care for your garden with love! Go regularly and water it.
  7. If things go differently than planned, don’t lose faith! Talk to residents! Most of them will like your action and at least give you moral support. Some may even join you!

 (source: reset.org)

I don’t think I even need to translate this little instruction into OD language as it is so obvious. 

So what happens then? How does the Guerilla Garden transform the system? There are a number of versions of this process: 

Keimform – Lessons from Neo-Marxism

Neo-Marxist Theory has coined the term “Keimform” (seed-form) as a social practice that works within the functional logic or “grammar” of the dominant system, but undermines its social logic or value base. Peer Commons and Share Economies are such examples: they run smoothly within the market logic of supply and demand but they undermine the idea of private ownership of means of production (well, at least they should). If under the condition of a general crisis of the dominant system they come out of their niche, they have the potential to turn into dominant practice – the story is changed. In organisational context, agile models can be described as such “Trojan Horses” as they function under the premise of lean and efficient management while at the same time introducing measures of self-organisation and autonomy (of course, this sword has two edges: it is equally possible that Agile is imported with the motive to strengthen self-management while actually effecting a push towards new performance pressure). 

Niche-Regime Interaction – Lessons from Transition Management 

Another way to conceptualise the broader impact of local experiments is the Niche-Regime Interaction proposed in Transition Management, a conceptual framework that was developed to describe the transition towards Sustainability widely coined “the great transformation”. The transition management model focuses on three interacting system levels: 

  • the Landscape Level (Macro: broader trends of society and the relevant system environment), 
  • the Regime Level (Meso: dominant structures, cultures and established practices of the system) and 
  • the Niches Level (Mico: experiments and innovative alternative practices within the system underground). 
mage: J. Broerse, VU University Amsterdam (https://slideplayer.com/slide/9791473/)

Transition Management assumes that Regimes act with an evolutionary logic, filtering out unsuccessful experiments while gradually selecting and incorporating useful innovations into their existing set of practices. Niches are safe environments in which such innovations can grow, sheltered from the selection process. Pressure from the landscape is the key factor defining how “receptive” (or vulnerable) the regime is to niche innovations (i.e. will the innovation add to, fix, tickle or disrupt the regime?). Moments of high receptiveness are windows of opportunity, in which radical innovations can become drivers of change. When accumulated to a critical mass and aligned across different subsystems, they can transform or even replace the regime (F.W. Geels, J. Schot / Research Policy 36 (2007) 399–417).

The Guerilla Gardening approach can be analysed though the lens of this model as a niche-regime interaction. To be an effective pathway of change, three conditions need to apply: 

  • The local experiment needs to be sheltered long enough from performance and control pressure to become a coherent new model practice with a “tried and tested” feel.
  • The moment of pitching the new practice as a model solution needs to coincide with a window of opportunity (i.e. an established routine doesn’t deliver answers to a new challenge or external pressure)
  • The new practice needs to be integrated and accumulated with other innovative practices in order to effect a critical impulse in transforming (at least a part of) the system. 

Two Loops – Lessons from Systems Theory

A system change map that fits with the guerrilla gardening idea is Margaret Wheatley’s Two Loop Model developed in the Berkana Institute. The model describes the dynamics and roles in a transition from one system (in Transition Management terms: one “regime”) to another. Wheatley proposes that all systems go through a rise, peak and a decline phase – in larger societal systems this may happen over the course of 250 years, in organisational settings eras marked by a specific paradigm may last just a few years. A system at the top of its lifecycle is maintained by “Stewards”. Underneath the peak (in transition management terms: within the “Niches”), pioneers are stepping out and innovations are born. As these islands get connected and strengthened they may become the seeds of an alternative system. Networking and nourishing roles are relevant in this process. It may coincide with the decline of the old system (as seen in the degeneration of the Roman Empire: not always a pretty sight). If we don’t want the old system to simply collapse and vanish, hospicing and composting roles are needed to harvest. For the transfer of old to new regimes, there needs to be an illuminating role to light the landing grounds of the new system and a transitioning role to guide the move.

Image: Berkana Institute

In organisations we witness the two loops of transition in times of environmental disruption but also in the crises going along with developmental phase changes. For example, in the transition from the Pioneer to the Collective Phase, the collective impulse forms as a new (sometimes rebellious, sometimes reformist) subculture while the established leadership model may still be strong and in place. The progressive decline of the old and the strengthening of the new are intertwined processes feeding off each other. At some point, when the new model is strong and coherent enough to be trusted, the system is ready to transition.

Case Window 1

The Guerilla Gardening Approach takes patience. When I first applied it, I was so taken by the idea that I expected magic. We introduced the concept to our client, an educational facility with 50 staff suffering from a corporate culture issue around trust and feedback on all levels. The idea was taken – the process of discovering dysfunctional patterns and potential building blocks of a positive future took off with good momentum, then when it got to developing the guerilla gardening initiatives, the process got a little stuck. People were disappointed with the scale of things: a staff lunch, a conflict resolution rep with no formal mandate, a feedback questionnaire to tackle quality gaps – these ideas seemed petty, some of the plants dried up, some were trampled on; and yet, some survived. It was not until much later that we realized how the process had made us all understand the patterns, the difficulties and the visions in the organization much better. A second loop produced richer results. In the third year the organization formulated a new value statement that was not about displaying politically correct buzz words but outlined inherent struggles the team and leadership pledged to work on in a collaborative manner. The culture had changed – not by central proclamation, but by little harmless experiments at its periphery.

Case Window 2

I am sitting in Brighton after a workshop with The Dragonfly, a fluid organisation facilitating social and self-development through creative arts. The tough nut to crack here is the role of the founder who – despite all efforts to create a collective culture – continues to be the heart of things. As usual, the reasons why it is so difficult to transition is not just his change of roles but equally the mixed emotions going along with the challenge of stepping up as a team. Time and again, the interlocking dynamics play out: as long as the leader is leading, the collective has no real need or chance to prove itself. As long as the team is not proven, the leader will not relax into letting go. Everyone sees this and understands this dilemma. And still, there is no easy way to break out of it. This could go on for a long time…

My suggestion here is a guerrilla gardening project: jointly identify and create islands of shared responsibility in peripheral spaces. Play around, learn, connect them and nurture them. When the time has come: illuminate them and facilitate the transition to the collective mode. This transition will require a powerful ritual and a sensitive hospicing, including honouring and acknowledgement of the roles that are ending. It is not a reform project. No one is stepping into anyone else’s shoes. It is a transformation to a new organisation with a new story and new roles.