Internal Locus Of Control: Definition And Research On It's Surprising Impact At Work

Leadership IQ surveyed 11,308 employees about their locus of control and discovered some surprising effects on employee engagement and inspiration. 

Locus of control is what an individual believes causes his or her experiences, and the factors to which that person attributes their successes or failures. Julian B. Rotter (1966) first defined locus of control as a person’s perception of his or her control over events and outcomes in their environment.

Do you truly believe that you will succeed if only you work hard enough? Or do you feel like circumstances outside your control could derail your plans and prevent you from being successful? People with a high internal locus of control believe that they control their own success or failure; that success or failure is not the result of chance or fate. By contrast, having a high external locus of control would mean that one attributes success or failure to factors outside of their control.

Let’s imagine that we lost out on a promotion. Someone with an internal locus of control might acknowledge that they didn’t network well enough prior to applying and resolve to spend more time meeting with the company’s executives. By contrast, someone with an external locus of control might blame office politics, ruminate or no longer apply for promotions.  

STUDY METHODOLOGY
Leadership IQ , a research and leadership training company, surveyed 11,308 employees about their employee engagement, and compared traditional engagement survey questions with new personality and mental health measures to assess which questions were more effective at predicting overall employee engagement and inspiration. FIRST, respondents answered traditional employee engagement survey questions (about how managers engage employees), like: “My immediate supervisor recognizes my accomplishments” AND “My immediate supervisor thoughtfully considers my ideas.” SECOND, respondents answered questions about their mental health and personality (i.e. their dominant personality characteristic, like their perceived control, optimism, resilience, proactivity, assertiveness, ambition, etc., including using a modified version of Rotter's control scale). Using regression analyses, we then compared the traditional employee engagement questions to the Self-Engagement questions to see which ones did a better job of predicting employee engagement. Overall Self-Engagement, like control belief, attribution theory, optimism, benefit finding, etc., did a better job of predicting employee engagement. 

internal locus of control definition

Internal locus of control can also be called “agency”. Overall, it incorporates the ability to take action, be effective, influence your own life, and assume responsibility for your behaviors. Individuals with a high internal locus of control believe that their interactions with their environment will produce predictable results (Li, Lepp, & Barkley, 2015).

In fact, research shows that internal locus of control predicts better health outcomes, work satisfaction, and academic success. By contrast, someone with a strong external locus will ascribe their career failures or problems to others and NOT take corrective action.

Having A Strong Internal Locus Means Employees are 136% More Likely To Love Their Career 

Based on the Leadership IQ study we know that only 17% of people have a high internal locus on control, while about 29% of people have low or moderately low internal locus of control (aka an external locus of control). This matters because people with a high internal locus of control are far happier with their career.

We asked people to rate how happy they are with where their career is right now (on a scale ranging from zero to six). As you can see in the chart below, people with a low internal locus of control rated that question 1.85 but those with a high internal locus of control scored a 4.37. In other words, people with a high internal locus of control are 136% happier with their career.

Ponder this from the perspective of control theory, which is the idea that we either external or internal control systems are required to keep us from deviating from accepted behavior. If we have people who lack personal control and require external forces to keep them in line, then managers will have to work significantly harder to maintain order. By contrast, if you have people whose control orientation is far more internal, they probably won't need much (if any) external management to deliver the kind of organizational behavior that is consistent with high performers (and other successful people).

INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL CAREER

Having A High Internal Locus Of Control Means Employees are 148% more likely to recommend their company as a great organization to work for 

We asked people to rate how much they wanted to recommend their company as a great organization to work for (on a scale ranging from zero to six). As you can see in the chart below, people with a low internal locus of control rated that question 1.85 but those with a high internal locus of control scored a 4.58. In other words, people with a high internal locus of control are 148% more likely to recommend their company as a great employer.

While companies spend billions of dollars annually trying to engage employees, simply hiring someone with a personality trait of having an internal locus of control could deliver significant increases in employee engagement, even when employees are facing high stress. By contrast, hiring someone with a high external locus could drastically decrease employee engagement, regardless of the relationship that person has with their manager. If an employee perceives that they have little control over their career success, how much can a manager do to fix any particular symptom? Probably very little.

INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL RECOMMEND COMPANY

Having A High Internal Locus Of Control Means Employees are 113% more likely to give their best effort at work

We asked people to rate how inspired they were to give their best effort at work (on a scale ranging from zero to six). As you can see in the chart below, people with a low internal locus of control (aka an external loc) rated that question 2.24 but those with a high internal locus of control scored a 4.78. In other words, people with a high internal locus of control are 113% more likely to give their best effort at work.

Even amidst the covid 19 pandemic, when burnout and stress is at all time highs, people who prioritize the internal over the external factor when thinking about their motivation are far more likely to experience positive mental health and employee engagement. They're also far less likely to experience any form of learned helplessness (the phenomenon in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness). This can also increase overall employee motivation through social learning theory (proposed by Albert Bandura, social learning theory posits the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others). When an employee sees someone else with an external locus of personal control, they're far less likely to exhibit an internal locus of control.

INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL INSPIRED

Findings From Other Psychological Monograph

In previous studies, internal locus of control has been found to be helpful in maintaining healthy lifestyles and to drive other positive outcome. An internal health locus of control involves one’s belief in one’s ability to impact their own health in a positive way.

For example, people with higher levels of the internal locus of control have been shown to engage in healthier lifestyles without needing outside support, and have lower rates of obesity (Neymotin & Nemzer, 2014) as well as lower BMI (Williams, Grow, Freedman, Ryan, & Deci, 1996). This study on individuals who attempt to overcome health-damaging behaviors has also shown the benefits of internal locus of control (Coan, 1973; James et al., 1965; Mlott and Mlott, 1975; Naditch, 1975; Pryer and Distefano, 1977; Williams, 1967).

Even when someone is experiencing high levels of neuroticism (e.g., anger, anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, emotional instability, and depression) feeling in control of one's life, career and destiny can significantly offset any negative effects. Additionally, this study supports that internal locus of control is related to organizational satisfaction (Lester and Genz, 1978; Organ and Greene, 1974; and Petersen, 1985).

People with internal locus of control are more inclined to take action and perform at higher levels. Moreover, people who believe that they control whether or not to leave an organization will re-evaluate themselves within their organization, and bring it in line with their attitude and behavior (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). Internal locus of control is also related to academic performance and classroom behavior. Having an internal locus of control is correlated to academic success such as faster rates of learning higher grades (Keith et al., 1986).

Studies conducted with college students indicate that students with an internal locus of control adjust to college life with more ease than those with an external locus of control (Martin & Dixon, 1994). Additionally, those students with an internal locus of control evidence above average college course grades (Kirkpatrick et al., 2008). An internal locus of control generally predicts greater academic success overall (Carden, Bryant, & Moss, 2004; Keith et al., 1986).

Having an internal locus of control is generally a positive thing. Those who report an internal locus of control are more likely to be in better health, show lower levels of psychological stress, and have greater confidence in their ability to influence outcomes in their lives.

A Quick Exercise To Increase Your Internal Locus Of Control

Begin by thinking about a current situation where you don't feel like you have a lot of control. Imagine that your organization has announced there's going to be a restructuring in two months and people are going to be assigned to all different divisions.  We don't necessarily have a ton of control here.

For your first step, make a list of the things that you don't control. For example, I don't control the timing of the change. I don't control what division I ultimately get assigned to. I don't control when the memo comes out making the announcement.

Now, in step two, identify some aspects of this situation that you do control. And here's the catch; you have to come up with at least as many aspects you do control as you came up with in step one, the things that you don't control.I know that I don't control the timing of the restructuring or which division I get assigned to. But what do I have control over? Well, maybe I could make a suggestion as to which division I go into. Maybe I could look through the job postings. Maybe I could have a conversation with my boss. Maybe I could reach out to somebody in a different division and say, "Hey, could you put in a request to have me come work in your division?"

There are going to be lots of things that I probably have some control over. Even though there are aspects of the situation that I don't control, there are probably going to be some aspects of the situation over which I do have some control.

Step three, take those aspects over which you do have some control and think about what else could you do to further increase your control. One aspect of the situation I have control over is that I could reach out to one of my colleagues in a different division and say, "Hey, could you submit a request to have me come work in your division?"

So, what else could I do to further increase my control? Well, maybe there's three other colleagues that I have worked with on project teams over the past couple of years and I haven’t yet reached out to them and said, "Hey, do you have openings in your division? Could I come work over in your division?"Notice that I'm basically taking some proactive control over which division I ultimately end up in. Is this perfect? Is there a magical solution to this? No, but I am exerting a bit of control over my destiny here.

And that’s the critical first step in developing a more internal locus of control.Having an internal locus of control won’t just improve your career satisfaction. Research studies on locus of control have found that people with a high internal locus of control typically experience more career success, better health, less anxiety and lower stress. And in a world that often feels fully outside our control, working to develop a more internal locus of control can pay huge dividends in your overall sense of well-being.

Citations ABOUT LOCUS OF CONTROL

Carden, R., Bryant, C., & Moss, R. (2004). Locus of control, test anxiety, academic procrastination, and achievement among college students. Psychological Reports, 95, 581-582.

Coan, R.(1973). Personality variables associated with cigarette smoking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 86-104.

James, W., Woodruff, A., &Werner, W. (1965). Effect of internal and external control upon changes in smoking behavior. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 29(2), 184-186.

Keith, T. Z., Pottebaum, S. M., & Eberhardt, S. (1986). Effects of self-concept and locus of control on academic achievement: A large-sample path analysis. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 4, 61-72.

Kirkpatrick, M.A., Stant, K., Downes, S., & Gaither, L. (2008). Perceived Locus of Control and Academic Performance: Broadening the Construct's Applicability. Journal of College Student Development 49(5), 486-496.

Lester, D. & Genz, J. (1978). Internal-external locus of control, experience as a police officer, and job satisfaction in municipal police officers. Journal of Police Science & Administration, Vol 6(4), 479-481.

Li, J., Lepp, A., & Barkley, J. E. (2015). Locus of control and cell phone use: Implications for sleep quality, academic performance, and subjective well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 450–457.

Martin, N. & Dixon, P. (1994). The effects of freshman orientation and locus of control on adjustment to college: a follow-up study. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, Volume 22, (2), pp. 201-208.

Mlott, R., and Mlott, Y.(1975). Dogmatism and locus of control in individuals who smoke, stopped smoking, and never smoked. Journal of Community Psychology, 3, 53-57.

Naditch, M.(1975). Locus of control and drinking behavior in a sample of men in army basic training. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43, 96.

Neymotin F. & Nemzer LR. (2014). Locus of control and obesity. Frontiers in Endocrinology 2014 Oct 7;5:159.

Organ, D. W., & Greene, C. N. (1974). Role ambiguity, locus of control, and work satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 59(1), 101–102.

Peterson, M.W. (1985), Institutional research: An evolutionary perspective. New Directions for Institutional Research, 1985: 5-15.

Pryer, M., and Distefano, M.(1977). Correlates of locus of control among male alcoholics. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 33(1), 300-303.

Rotter, J.B.(1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 33(1), 300-303.

Pfeffer, J. & Salancik, G. (1978). The External Control of Organizations, Harper & Row, pp 39-61.

Williams, A.F.(1967). Self-concepts of college problem drinkers. Quarterly Journal of Studies in Alcoholism, 28, 267-276.

Williams, GC, Grow VM, Freedman ZR, Ryan RM, Deci EL. (1996). Motivational predictors of weight loss and weight-loss maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Jan (70) 1: 115-126.

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