Locus of Control

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!