Locus of Control

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Do you believe that your destiny is controlled by yourself or by outside forces?

If the answer is yourself, you have what is termed an internal locus of control. If your answer is outside forces, you have an external locus of control.

Neither choice is necessarily better or worse than the other, although our long-term success can be influenced by which end of the locus of control continuum we position ourselves.  

Developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, the locus of control concept relates to the degree to which we believe we have control over the outcome of events in our lives, as opposed to external forces that are beyond our control.

Locus of Control Continuum
Locus of Control Continuum

Put simply, with an internal locus of control we believe that we’re responsible for our own success. With an external locus of control we believe that external forces, such as luck, determine our fate.

Locus of Control eg

Understanding our locus

Research indicates that our locus of control is mostly learned, with evidence showing that where we place ourselves on the continuum is a response to our circumstances. Put another way, we have the ability to shift our locus of control.

Strong internal locus of control

When we have a strong internal locus of control, we feel totally in command of what happens in our life. 

People at this end of the continuum often make effective leaders because they tend to be self-motivated and goal oriented.

This strong internal drive can foster a belief that we control everything, but consequently can also lead us to feel highly accountable for any plans that fail…even if events outside our control contribute to the failure. This can cause us to experience anxiety, frustration, stress, and sometimes depression.

Moderate internal locus of control

When we have a moderate internal locus of control, we tend to view the future as something we can influence to a certain extent – most of us are positioned here on the continuum. 

This perspective encourages us to work hard to further our knowledge, skills and abilities, and we’re inclined to engage in activities that improve our situation. Here we find it easier to accept outcomes we can’t influence, whilst managing them more effectively when they do occur. 

External locus of control

When we have an external locus of control, we believe that what happens to us is the result of luck or fate, or is determined by other people. This can help us to lead easy-going, relaxed, and happy lives.

On the flip side however, we may tend to give up easily when things go against us, feeling that we don’t have the power, influence or capability to change the situation.

Understanding and adapting

Our locus of control can also vary in different environments, such as on the sports field, at work, in our homes and so on. 

For example, we may have a strong internal locus of control when playing sport, believing that we have the ability to positively influence the result of a match, yet have an external locus of control at work, thinking that we’ve hit a glass ceiling and there’s nothing we can do about it because our line manager doesn’t like us. 

Our locus of control may also change over time.

Both approaches can be beneficial, or harmful, depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. The key is to understand our natural tendency, and then adapt it appropriately to any given situation.

Using the sporting example from above, it may help us to shift towards the external end of the continuum if we lose the sports match, so that we don’t assume all the responsibility for the loss. 

In reference to the work example, maybe we’d benefit from moving towards the internal end, thinking of ways in which we can improve our working relationship with our line manager. This may, in turn, help us to earn that promotion we so thoroughly deserve! 

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14 Thoughts

  1. I think you are right in saying both can be beneficial and harmful. I believe these to mindsets are always in tandem because when you look at the big picture you see that life is done in community and therefor so is your job and what you do. When we realize that, we start to see we have to let go of things outside of our control otherwise we have a big chance of melting down.

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  2. I played four years of collegiate golf and have pursued the game at a serious level for most of my life. I spent way too much time “internally” focused (what did my grip, backswing, etc look like) and not near enough on external locus. I’ve changed that in recent years and what a difference it has made. I stumbled upon Pia Nilsson and their work at VISION54 and found this stuff really interesting. Great article. The mind is an amazing thing.

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  3. I have a strong internal locus of control. It helps you get more done but pffff I go kinda a crazy when I lose. Also I sometimes realise I am trying to change things that cannot be changed. E.g. getting angry at myself for falling sick. Lol! ( Although I do think that works)

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