Locus of control has been a major topic of study within psychology since the 1950s. Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure, rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence. A student with a strong internal locus of control, for instance, will attribute good grades to hard work, rather than natural smarts. A salesman with an internal locus of control will blame a lost sale on his own lack of hustle, rather than bad fortune.
“Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span,” a team of psychologists wrote in the journal Problems and Perspectives in Management in 2012. People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer, and report greater professional success and satisfaction.
In contrast, having an external locus of control—believing that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control—“is correlated with higher levels of stress, often because an individual perceives the situation as beyond his or her coping abilities,” the team of psychologists wrote.
Studies show that someone’s locus of control can be influenced through training and feedback. One experiment conducted in 1998, for example, presented 128 fifth graders with a series of difficult puzzles. Afterward, each student was told they had scored very well. Half of them were also told, “You must have worked hard at these problems.” Telling fifth graders they have worked hard has been shown to activate their internal locus of control, because hard work is something we decide to do. Complimenting students for hard work reinforces their belief that they have control over themselves and their surroundings.
The other half of the students were also informed they had scored well, and then told, “You must be really smart at these problems.” Complimenting students on their intelligence activates an external locus of control. Most fifth graders don’t believe they can choose how smart they are. In general, young kids think that intelligence is an innate capacity, so telling young people they are smart reinforces their belief that success or failure is based on factors outside of their control.
Then all the students were invited to work on three more puzzles of varying difficulty. The students who had been praised for their intelligence—who had been primed to think in terms of things they could not influence—were much more likely to focus on the easier puzzles during the second round of play, even though they had been complimented for being smart. They were less motivated to push themselves. They later said the experiment wasn’t much fun.
In contrast, students who had been praised for their hard work—who were encouraged to frame the experience in terms of self-determination—went to the hard puzzles. They worked longer and scored better. They later said they had a great time.
“Internal locus of control is a learned skill,” Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who helped conduct that study, told me. “Most of us learn it early in life. But some people’s sense of self-determination gets suppressed by how they grow up, or experiences they’ve had, and they forget how much influence they can have on their own lives.
“That’s when training is helpful, because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives—and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”
“I hand out a number of compliments, and all of them are designed to be unexpected,” said Sergeant Dennis Joy, a thoroughly intimidating Marine drill instructor. “You’ll never get rewarded for doing what’s easy for you. If you’re an athlete, I’ll never compliment you on a good run. Only the small guy gets congratulated for running fast. Only the shy guy gets recognized for stepping into a leadership role. We praise people for doing things that are hard. That’s how they learn to believe they can do them.”
This is a great lesson for anyone in a leadership position. Are you teaching those you lead to use their internal or external locus of control? Can you leave and things get done as if you are there? This information helps us understand why the success of an organization can be traced to its leadership. Since motivation is a learned skill, you can improve your situation by applying this new knowledge. Simply review your personal motivation and that of your team, what are you teaching?