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How to Motivate Yourself and Others With an Internal Locus of Control

Andrew Syrios
5 min read
How to Motivate Yourself and Others With an Internal Locus of Control

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to see the world. The first is what psychologists call the “external locus of control,” and the second is the “internal locus of control.”

Here’s how Charles Duhigg—the author of the great book The Power of Habitdescribes locus of control in his latest Smarter Faster Better:

“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” (Duhigg 23-24).

As for those with an external locus of control, well, we all know those people. Indeed, we all are those people at least sometimes. Nothing is ever their fault. There is always an excuse. The world is out to get them, don’t you know? Life is unfair, and it is always unfair in someone else’s favor, etc., etc., etc. As Duhigg describes:

“…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” (24).

This is critical to keep an eye on in ourselves as you can improve the way you look at the world. We aren’t born with an unalterable locus of control. Sure, bad luck happens. But as Jim Collins showed in Great by Choiceir?t=biggerpocke0a 20&l=am2&o=1&a=0062120999, the companies that did better during turbulent times had as much good and bad luck as the companies that failed. Luck happens, but as Collins describes, it’s the “return on luck” (as well as the lack of falling apart on bad luck) that makes or breaks great companies.


And the same goes for individuals.

No matter how unlucky you were, there was something you could have done better. And the Law of Big Numbers states that luck will tend to even out over time. Sure, some of us were born into much better circumstances than others. But as far as everyday luck goes, if you get a deposit of luck one day, you’ll probably get a withdraw the next. And vice versa.

Therefore, it’s essential to remove the idea that your life is dictated by forces outside of your control. Of course, to one degree or another, it is. But there is plenty that we can control. Perhaps hard work, perseverance, and a thirst for knowledge will lead one unlucky person to become a millionaire, while the lucky one becomes a billionaire. But you know what? Being a millionaire isn’t that bad!

Related: How the Powerful Concept of Authority Bias Plays Into Real Estate Investing

Who We Hire and Associate With

I’ve heard it said that you become a blend of the five people you hang out with the most. This is important to keep in mind. I’m not saying to just cast aside Negative Nancys and External Locus Erics. But you want to associate with positive people who believe they are in control of their own lives. Their beliefs and energy will rub off on you. And then yours will rub off on them.

It becomes a very powerful and positive feedback loop!

As you look to hire people, this is also an essential thing to look for. During interviews, if you start catching a lot of excuses and “well, so-and-so did something wrong, so that project didn’t go well” or “my boss didn’t like me for no good reason and that’s why he laid me off,” that should be a huge warning sign!

People with an internal locus of control are much more likely to be “go-getters” who believe that their effort and proactivity can propel their career and your company forward. Someone with an external locus of control, who believes even subconsciously that whatever happens to them is beyond their control, is much more likely to just go with the flow and react as things happen.

The Power of Choice and Inspiring Employees

One last important point when it comes to decision-making: Duhigg describes a professor who ran an experiment with two versions of an incredibly boring game. Basically, the game was to choose whether one or nine was the right answer. Half the participants got to guess, and the other half got to watch the computer guess.

The latter group was obviously bored out of their minds. But you would expect the first group to be bored as well. Instead, they actually enjoyed the game (if you can even call it that). The professor found that the participants “enjoyed themselves much more when they were in control of their choices. They cared whether they won or lost” (18).

This may sound simple, but even small choices give people a stake in the outcome. As Duhigg sums up:

“This is a useful lesson for anyone hoping to motivate themselves or others, because it suggests an easy method for triggering the will to act: Find a choice, almost any choice, that allows you to exert control. If you are struggling to answer a tedious stream of emails, decide to reply to one from the middle of your inbox. If you’re trying to start an assignment, write the conclusion first, or start by making the graphics, or do whatever’s most interesting to you. To find the motivation to confront an unpleasant employee choose where the meeting is to occur. To start the next sales call, decide what question you’ll ask first” (20).

These are good tips for personal motivation, but they are also great for motivating employees. Namely, simply giving a list of items to do or barking orders at someone will push them toward an external locus of control.


Related: How to Become a Better Landlord By Honing Your Influence & Persuasion Powers

On the other hand, if you can give them choices and some influence (take what they say seriously and ask them for advice), you motivate them to move toward an external locus of control. A need to feel in control is a biological imperative. Those without it will mope and become sluggish and reactive.

So, structure the way you work with your staff or any other subordinates (or children for that matter) in a way that gives them some choice in what they will do. Of course, the major choices will need to go through you. But don’t underestimate the importance of motivating your own as well as your staff’s internal locus of control.

How do you see the concept of locus of control at work in your business?

Let me know your experiences with a comment!

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.