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

by | BiggerPockets.com

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 Choice, 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.

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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

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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.

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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!

About Author

Andrew Syrios

Andrew Syrios is a real estate investor in Kansas City and a partner in Stewardship Properties along with his brother and father. Their company owns just over 500 units in four states.

11 Comments

  1. Rich Tornetta

    Great article. I think you may have meant “internal” instead of “external” in this paragraph. I could be wrong:

    “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.”

  2. Rich Tornetta

    Besides simply correcting typos, I figured I’d try and contribute something useful by sharing my experience transitioning from an external to internal locus of control (most of the time). In my last endeavor, I was the Director of Marketing for a chain of auto body shops in Philly and South Jersey. My father was the President/CEO and, in retrospect, I was blissfully ignorant to how entitled I acted.

    When issues were pointed out, I felt immediate embarrassment and looked to unload that feeling as quickly as possible by deflecting the blame elsewhere (didn’t seem to matter where). I, unknowingly, did not welcome criticism and would never solicit feedback. As a result, I had a very poor reputation growing over the five years I was running the marketing department. It wasn’t until a couple of mentors high up in management decided to offer a 360 Business Psych Evaluation.

    For those not familiar, it’s a program that invites people with whom you work on a daily basis to review you in a variety of ways and the identities are kept confidential. In other words, you’re opening yourself up for some of the most hurtful words you could ever read about yourself. I was scared to go through the process, but I wanted to improve myself more. It sucked for a good six weeks as I had to face the same coworkers who wrote those things about me. After a very difficult few months, I began slowly filling in the enormous hole I dug for myself by taking ownership over mistakes, constantly analyzing my behavior, soliciting feedback from people (personal and professional), and setting up my demeanor so that others would be more likely and willing to offer constructive criticism.

    It seems like in the three years since my evaluation, I’ve gotten exponentially more thankful to my mentors for urging me to do it. I could not have then seen the ripple effects it had on my life both in and out of the workplace. My wife tells me I’m more humble, willing to hear negative things about myself, slower to react, more patient and understanding. Who would have known?! I’ve also noticed I’m a bit more clear headed and less stressed; but, I would not have guessed why until I read this article and realized that I’ve moved the locus of control from outside of myself to inside.

    • Andrew Syrios

      No one is all or nothing (well, there are a few super-external locus people that are intolerable). The key is to work to move your locus toward an internal model and it sounds like you’ve done a great job of that. I have had the same struggle.

      • Rich Tornetta

        Thank you, Andrew. Yes, the struggle is real. I find my ability to keep my locus internal is sometimes influenced by my stress level. The key for me is to constantly monitor my thoughts and my responses to my immediate environment. It’s also helpful to remember that it is ok to realize the moment when you lost yourself (during a conversation perhaps) and then come back and fully acknowledge, “You know what? I shouldn’t have said that. I got ahead of myself. I apologize.” It gets easier with practice. My one mentor once told me, “When you’re wrong… everyone in the room knows it… they’re just waiting for you to catch up.”

  3. Sean Krause

    I love the points you go over in this article. As I was reading this, I sat trying to figure which one of the two I am. I realized that I have a tendency to do both. I need to stop letting people dictate how my life is going and take control of it myself. I will be conscious of these two factors moving forward in my life. Thank you for this Andrew!!

  4. David Thompson

    Great article–and I enjoy the specificity of “locus”. I’ve seen this manifest in my own mind and life as an investor–moving between the rehab stage of my first BRRRR and the Rent stage. It seems that it’s a lot less tangible than putting up siding or new trim or PEX in the basement, and that has caused me to “mope”. I think this hits the nail on the head, and really ties in with the graphic/photo of the game controller. I need to feel more internally in control, and the rental stage is like fishing–they have to bite! And I see the appeal of video games–they give easy success, and a feeling of control (at least within the game), and I’m sure that’s part of the formula for why they are so additive to young men.

    I like the recommendation listed as well, for how to find “something” about a situation you can control, even if a lot of it is outside one’s control (i.e. having a confrontational discussion with an employee, etc.).

    I think Bigger Pockets specifically offers a lot of help–it fills in a gap of knowledge, and also of friends who will assist newer investors in areas they aren’t competent in yet. And that really helps with a feeling of control–filling in those missing areas of skill so the investor can confidently approach each area with know-how and therefore, control. I’m in St. Louis and welcome mentorship for this purpose, as well as offering examples of knowledge to assist others as well. Thanks again for a great article.

    • Andrew Syrios

      I think everyone oscillates between an internal and external locus to one degree or another. The more mindfulness we have about it (thinking about our thinking) the more we can shift it to an internal locus and the better we can do at all aspects of life.

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