Do you have power over your life, or do luck and other people direct the outcome of your experiences? The answer to that question is your locus of control. Learn whether you have an internal or external locus of control and how to use this to become a better version of yourself.
What is Locus of Control? (Definition)
Locus of control describes how you experience the world around you. Psychologist Julian Rotter developed social learning theory and coined the phrase locus of control. In his research and experiments, he discovered two types of people. Those who believe their success and experiences are in their control (internal locus) vs. those who think luck, fate, and “powerful others” control the outcome of their lives (external locus).
- Employees with an internal locus of control experience more job satisfaction.
- Internal locus of control is associated with higher self-esteem and adaptability to stress.
- This study found that an internal locus of control co-occurs with reduced neuroticism and hostility.
- Those who engage in criminal behavior often have an external locus of control.
External Vs. Internal Locus of Control
Here are some characteristics of the two types of locus of control.
Strong Internal Locus of Control:
- Growth mindset
- Hard work and determination
- Sense of agency
Strong External Locus of Control:
- Believe in luck
- Pass responsibility to others
- Believe in timing over initiative
- May experience hopelessness and helplessness
- Low self-esteem
Disclaimer: We are honored to help you shift your locus of control! If you are struggling to find the help you need, please note that content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with questions or concerns about your physical or mental health. Check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of therapists.
Quiz: What’s Your Locus of Control?
Not sure whether you have an external or internal locus of control? Take this quiz to gauge where you fall on the spectrum. Be honest when answering, even if it feels like the “wrong” answer. Knowing your locus of control can give you deeper insight into how to balance your locus of control.
- Which of these matches your thinking most closely?
a. I can accomplish anything with enough hard work.
b. Hard work can help me succeed.
c. No matter how hard I work, it won’t impact whether I’m successful or not.
- If you don’t get the job promotion, you think…
a. I just need to work harder.
b. I may need to work harder, but other factors may be involved besides my job performance.
c. My boss doesn’t like me.
- At work, you feel like…
a. I will work harder than everyone else to get where I want.
b. Having goals is important, and I’m working hard to be successful.
c. Even if I work hard, my coworkers always get the best projects, so why bother working hard?
- Which best describes how you approach things?
a. I will do everything I can to be in control of my own destiny.
b. I will weigh my options and test what works.
c. Timing and luck are everything.
- Constructive criticism…
a. Helps me identify weaknesses I need to conquer.
b. It isn’t pleasant, but I know it’s helpful.
c. It’s an excuse for others to judge me.
If you answered all A’s, you might have a strong internal locus of control. Remember, you want to balance your locus of control so that you don’t get burned out or view the world in black and white.
If you answered all B’s, you might have a more balanced locus of control. Look for ways to strengthen your self-confidence and believe in yourself even more.
If you answered all C’s, you might have a strong external locus of control. Aim for a more internal locus of control to give you agency over your life.
Still not sure where you land? Keep reading to better understand the characteristics of internal and external locus of control and how to balance yours.
“The idea is that what you believe about your part in your life outcome impacts how empowered you feel and how much effort you put forth to achieve a certain result.”—Dr. Tracey Marks
Examples of Locus of Control
Here are some examples of how you might respond to not getting a raise based on your locus of control, plus some questions to ask yourself.
External Locus of Control
“I didn’t get the raise because my boss has a personal vendetta against me.”
Balance Your External Locus: Not getting a raise may be unjust, but exploring why you didn’t get the raise restores control over your life. Acknowledge the sense of injustice, then move past that to what you can do: “It feels unjust that I didn’t get a raise, but are other factors involved?”
Questions to Ask:
- Am I meeting my boss’s expectations?
- How can I improve my work performance?
- Have I proactively negotiated for a raise?
- Have I talked with my boss about why I didn’t get the raise?
- If my boss really doesn’t want me to succeed, what can I do about it?
Internal Locus of Control
“I didn’t get the raise because I didn’t work hard enough. I need to work harder, so my boss sees my value.”
Balance Your Internal Locus: It’s possible working harder will ultimately help you get a raise, but it’s not healthy to absorb responsibility for everything. This leads to black-and-white thinking. Expand your perspective to consider external things out of your control: “Even though I worked hard, my boss still didn’t give me a raise. Are there other factors involved?”
• Was there a budget for a raise?
• Does my boss undervalue me?
• Is it time for me to consider moving to a new company?
• Have I talked with my boss about why I didn’t get the raise?
How To Find a Balanced Locus of Control
While an internal locus of control is a valuable thing to work towards, it needs to be balanced.
What is most important to consider is how your response impacts your behavior. It removes your desire and capacity to change the situation if you feel like everyone else is at fault. If you believe everything can be solved if you work harder, try harder, and do better, you may become burned out and even controlling.
Whether you favor a high internal or external locus of control, try these tips to help bring balance.
1. Reflect on Past Struggles
How do you respond to disappointment, rejection, or work conflict? If you immediately criticize others or take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, it’s helpful to take some time to reflect.
Your goal in this first tip is to become more self-aware of how you process and think about your experiences. Then, ask yourself questions to gently open up your perspective.
Action Step: Think about a recent situation at work that upset you. Ask yourself:
- Did I blame others?
- What could I have done to change the outcome?
- Did I take responsibility for something that was out of my control?
2. Find Small Things You Can Control
Be intentional as you go through your day to find small things in your control.
- How you respond to your coworker
- What media do you consume
- Asking for help
- Saying thank you
- What food do you eat
- Your honesty
- How prepared are you for a meeting
- When to walk away from a conversation
You may feel like you don’t have control even over these things. You’re life experiences, trauma, and other past experiences may be blocking your perception of the world. It can take time to take back control and believe you are able or worthy of having control of your life.
Pro Tip: Take it slow if it makes you anxious or afraid. Try to find one thing each week that is in your control and slowly build your tolerance for the emotions this will cause.
3. Let Go Of Over-Controlling
While it’s important to take control of your own life, on the flip side, there are times when you need to let go. This is especially true if you have an imbalanced internal locus of control.
Being in control may be a coping mechanism that helps you feel safe. That’s good. At some point in your life, that comping mechanism served you well. But you’re at a new stage in your journey, and as you grow, it may not be serving you well anymore.
If you’re feeling burned out and it’s impacting your interpersonal relationships, letting go of a little bit of control may be helpful for you.
Pro Tip: Just like tip #2, letting go can be frightening and overwhelming. Again, take it slow. Start by becoming aware of things you might be micromanaging and explore what would happen if you eased up a little.
Action Step: Ask yourself these questions
- Why do I need to be in control of this?
- What is the worst that could happen if I let go of control?
- Is that really a bad thing?
4. Request Feedback
One study tracked how the brain and body respond to feedback. They found unsolicited feedback puts both parties into a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Instead, when you ask for feedback, it does something powerful – it enables your brain and body to receive constructive criticism and gives the other person permission to give helpful feedback. This study also found that feedback culture can dramatically improve business performance.
Requesting feedback can help you balance your locus of control and become more successful.
Pro Tip: Instead of asking broad questions like, “How did I do?” ask for specific feedback.
- Should I have spoken up more during today’s meeting?
- Did I talk too fast while I was giving my presentation today?
- I’m working on being more assertive in meetings. Can you give me feedback on how I’m doing with that?
- Can you give me feedback on how I handled the negotiation today?
- Whenever I talk with ____, I feel we don’t understand each other. What do you find is the best approach when talking with them?
5. Ask for Help
Similar to requesting feedback, asking for help is an excellent way to change your locus of control.
If you have an internal locus of control, asking for help is important because you probably are used to relying on yourself. Asking for help isn’t a weakness; in fact, it could strengthen your connection with coworkers, friends, and even employees.
If you have an external locus of control, it’s important to ask for help because
- You’re acknowledging to yourself that you could do better.
- You’re taking responsibility to change your situation.
- You’re developing an openness to accept the perspectives and input of other people.
6. Take Ownership by Setting Goals
One of the easiest and most effective ways to begin taking ownership of your life is by setting goals.
“When we take ownership of something, we work to keep it.” —Vanessa Van Edwards.
If you aren’t used to setting goals, start by identifying one area in your life that you want to see changed. You may have 532 things you wish were different, but choose one.
Once you identify one thing, ask yourself if it’s specific. If not, keep refining your goal to be more specific until you nail down something you can tangibly work on.
Bad goal: I want to be a better public speaker.
Better Goal: I will take a course on presentation skills.
Good Goal: I will take a presentation skills course this month to increase my speaking confidence and communicate with charisma.
- Week 1- Take a course on presentation skills to increase my speaking confidence.
- Week 2 – Practice what I’ve learned in low-stakes situations (with family, friends, etc.) to build confidence.
- Week 3 – Give a big work presentation using the skills I’ve practiced for the last two weeks.
Pro Tip: Goals don’t always have to be big. Try setting goals around your daily communication (e.g., not reacting to your coworker that drives you crazy) or goals that give you focus and determination in your work (e.g., actually answering your work emails). As you set your goal, break it down into achievable steps.
And if you want to set the BEST goals, we’ve got you covered:
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework to help you achieve your biggest goals.
Locus of Control FAQ
The two types of locus of control are internal and external. People who have an internal locus of control value self-agency and hard work. They believe they can accomplish anything if they work hard enough. On the flip side, people with an external locus of control feel that their life and situation are the results of the choices of others or fate.
Having an internal locus of control is important as it positively impacts your work and personal life. People with an internal locus of control feel they have agency over their lives. In general, this can increase motivation, inner confidence, and resilience.
While your personality impacts your locus of control, it isn’t determined by it. Past experiences, trauma, and environment also impact your locus of control. While all these things influence how you respond to the world, you can change your responses and your own behavior.
Don’t Skip This if You Have an External Locus of Control
In experiments, Rotter found that “When a subject perceives the task as controlled by the experimenter, chance, or random conditions, past experience has relied upon less. Consequently, it may be said that he learns less, and under such conditions, he may indeed learn the wrong things….”
This means that if you have an external locus of control, you may unknowingly sabotage your success based on early experiences that took away your sense of control and agency over your own life.
The good news? Science has spoken; you can change your locus of control, and we believe that you have the makings of something great inside of you.
To change your locus of control, you’ll move from viewing external forces as the prime catalyst to learning how your actions impact your life.
Key Takeaways for Locus of Control
- Balancing your locus of control is vital for personal growth. Whether you have an internal or external locus of control, it’s important to seek balance.
- Being too internally focused can result in criticism of others, black-and-white thinking, and burnout. While having an internal locus of control is generally associated with a positive self-concept, it may be harmful when it gets out of control.
- Being too externally focused can result in not taking responsibility and living with passive behavior. If you struggle with motivation or even sit back and accept toxic behavior in others, this leads to giving up agency over your life.
- It’s possible to change your locus of control through practice and self-awareness. Research has found that you aren’t stuck in one type of locus of control. Growth is attainable!
- Strengthen your internal locus by accepting responsibility, identifying areas within your control, and requesting feedback. Each technique can build a foundation for you to shift your mindset.
- Balance your internal locus by letting go of control, being aware of outside factors, and not absorbing blame if you don’t meet your expectations. Sometimes the pressure you place on yourself causes the most damage. Learning to let go and experience self-acceptance can benefit your mental health.
Keep going on your personal growth journey! If your inner critic leaves you feeling like a failure, it’s time to take control and silence your inner critic.