building resilience through locus of control

Building resilience through locus of control

It’s no secret that over the last 18+ months we’ve experienced on a global scale significantly challenging circumstances, relentless change, with ongoing uncertainty lingering in the background. 

Now more than ever, we as individuals and as leaders in the workplace want to build resilience. Actually, it’s more than a want, it’s a need. For us to show up as strong leaders and guide our people through challenging moments and difficult circumstances, we need to be resilient in the face of all of this. That isn’t to say that we need to be robotic in the way we operate, far from it.

Through tapping into the teachings of psychology, we can begin to shift our mindsets and work towards building up our resilience. There’s a psychological concept that we often bring into the room when we’re exploring resilience and mental wellbeing in our leadership training, and it’s something we’re going to dig into with you today. It’s called Locus of Control, and it just might change the way you look at things in your life and workplace from here on out. 


What is Locus of Control?

Locus of Control is a psychological concept that refers to the degree to which an individual believes they have control over the things that happen to them. It’s a concept that was originally laid down by Julian Rotter in the 1950s and is based on his Social Learning Theory (Rotter, 1954). 

There are two sides to the Locus of Control concept – an external Locus of Control and an internal Locus of Control. When someone has an internal Locus of Control, they feel that they are in charge of themselves and their circumstances. They focus on what they can control and do what they can to make the best of the situations they find themselves in. 

On the other hand, those with an external Locus of Control focus on things that are external to them and outside of their control. They are often described as people who see what happens to them as being completely outside of their control and governed by external forces like fate, luck, chance, or other concepts like this. 

As you can probably imagine, in tough circumstances like the ones which we’ve been facing globally, having a high external Locus of Control can lead to decreased motivation levels, pessimism and heightened stress.


How our Locus of Control impacts our work.

In the workplace, people with a high internal Locus of Control are more likely to hold themselves accountable for making changes in their life. Research has gone as far as to suggest that people who operate in this way are more successful in both personal and professional settings. They are also often seen as more capable leaders as they are able to handle change more effectively than those with an external Locus of Control.

When we explore Locus of Control in our workplace training sessions, we often use a circular diagram depicting the different layers of control. The areas in the centre of the circle are the aspects of life an individual can control, such as their own decisions, the next is things they can influence but not control, and the final band is things an individual cannot influence. 


locus of control


This is a useful tool to use in exploring your own Locus of Control. When you look at the above diagram, which areas of your life do you spend the most time thinking about and actively trying to change or influence to achieve desired results? Which areas bring you the most stress? This could be an indicator of where your Locus of Control currently sits. 


Locus of Control in challenging times.

By now you might be wondering what Locus of Control has to do with building resilience. If we think back to the differences in psychological processing between someone with an internal and someone with an external Locus of Control, we can start to see this take shape.

Let’s take the example of two hypothetical leaders, Jamie and Taylor. They’re both working at the same organisation, where a lot of change has taken place over the last 18+ months. Unfortunately, there have been some job losses and restructuring across the organisation, but for the most part, their teams have pulled through and they’ve established new rhythms with their people who are now operating in a hybrid work fashion. 


Jamie has an internal Locus of Control, and while the changes and challenges of the restructuring and transition to a new work model have tested them, they’ve chosen to focus on what they can control and what they can do to support their people through the thick of it. Their team have adapted and are operating well as a hybrid team, and because of Jamie’s openness and strong leadership throughout the last 18+ months their team have high levels of trust and often go to Jamie for advice and support when they need it.

Taylor has an external Locus of Control, and it’s been a trying and challenging time with restricting and the transition to the new work model. Taylor feels they have no control over the situations their team are facing and have struggled to adapt. Taylor has been somewhat apathetic throughout the changes, looking forward to returning to ‘normal’, and this perspective has rubbed off on Taylor’s team. Performance has dropped and Taylor’s been advised by senior management that they’ll need to start having performance conversations to turn things around. 


While this is only an example, we hope it’s clearer now how your Locus of Control as a leader can impact your team and your approach in challenging times. While we can’t control what’s happening in the world around us, or the tough situations our workplaces have been placed in throughout the pandemic, we can lessen the intensity of our challenging experiences through shifting our focus and Locus of Control. 

If you’re keen to explore other psychological phenomena, why not check out our article on the Pygmalion Effect? It’s a great read for leaders across all industries.