Success Strategies - December - 2019

Locus of Control

“Why doesn’t that guy just do what needs to be done? He always waits for me to say something!”

Yep, that’s the case, exactly. Some people need a stimulus from others, while some provide the stimulus on their own. A popular concept in psychology is “locus of control.” It refers to where the controlling energy originates – outside of you or inside of you.

Those whose locus of control is external are people who are frequently waiting to be led. They could be waiting for directions from their boss or merely looking to their in-box to get them started. Upon arriving at work, they go directly to their stack of work orders or phone messages, or they check their cell phones to see who or what needs attention. These folks go to their mailbox more often than others. Taking the initiative is not their strong suit.

I once had an assistant who was an external. She did her job tasks very well, and she was truly pleasant to deal with. I looked forward to seeing her each day. But if I didn’t give her specific assignments with daily reminders, she’d play computer games or even fall asleep at her desk until I gave her new tasks.

I wasn’t alert enough to notice this pattern at first, so I’d get frustrated and reprimand her. But when I finally understood that she needed and wanted to be told what to do next, I became more effective in leading her, and she was more satisfied with her job. Of course, by keeping her actively engaged, she was also more productive than before.

On the other hand, some people are guided by their own internal director. When given a spare minute, internals reflect on their goals, plans, or priorities. Instead of just checking their in-box or workload, they also check their reminders or notes. They tend to keep lists! When you ask them a probing question, they pause briefly to reflect on what matters to them – not out of selfishness, but because they’re self-directed. In fact, what matters to them is usually aligned with the objectives of the team.

Internals feel a need to be a part of the decision process. They’re best led by being presented with choices, rather than directives. If you ask their opinion, they actually give it to you. Externals, on the other hand, hesitate to share their opinion and tend to tell you what they think you want to hear.

A friend of mine is an external, and I’m an internal. She dislikes making decisions while I love to make decisions! For her, making a quick, decisive choice feels rude. To me, it feels like progress! She always considers others’ opinions and interests, and she tends to predict their reactions before deciding. While she’s probably more diplomatic than me, I am more productive than her. There is a place for both, but not the same place at the same time.

By now, you’ve most likely reflected on your own preferences and those of the people close to you, both at work and at home. I suggest that you notice and understand their style but do not try to change their style. Mostly, because it won’t work! All of us are what we are – either predominantly internally or externally controlled.

What this means to you and me is we can become much more successful in dealing with others when we know their locus of control. Give them what they need, and they’ll be more likely to give you what you need from them.

If you’re managing a team of both types, start your shift by reminding the externals of their priorities and time targets. “Inspect what you expect,” as they say. But be clear about what you expect – externals need that clarity of direction.

Ask the internals, “What’s on your list today? How do you plan to tackle it? Which items first?” Then you can recommend any needed changes. The best way to accomplish this is to engage them in the redirection by asking them questions that lead them to make better choices. Say something like, “It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good handle on things. Are there any other things that should also be considered?’

Start today to notice these patterns – at work, at home, and everywhere you go. It’s easy to see, but few people focus on it, and even fewer utilize its power. Just observe. Even in a restaurant, some servers readily offer menu suggestions while others simply wait for you to decide on your meal. If you want excellent service in a restaurant, communicate with your server in the style that suits them. It only takes a minute to determine whether they’re an internal or an external.

All people have a locus of control preference: teachers, students, builders, clerks, and of course, customers! When you learn to adapt to their preferred style, relationships improve, sales are more natural, and employees are more productive as they respond positively to your matching leadership style.


Jim Cathcart is a long-time friend of ATRA and a regular contributor to GEARS. He helps people succeed by keeping them focused on the Why in what they do, and by showing them better and better ways to get things done. Jim is a professional speaker and seminar leader on the subject of How To Grow Your Success. He can be contacted at info@cathcart.com. His latest book is The Power Minute and is available wherever books are sold. ISBN: 978-1-62865-633-6.