Years ago, when I was a child, a family friend had come over to visit us. He was supposedly a good chess player, and as mothers are wont to extol the talents of their children, my mom mentioned that I played chess as well. We started playing, and to cut a long story short, I was winning. He seemed disturbed by the thought of losing to a little boy. And then I captured his queen. He, with a dollop of agitation, pushed the remaining pieces off the board with a sweep of his hand. He passed away a few years back (may his soul rest in peace), and one shouldn’t criticize the dead. But what was more amusing back then (or was it annoying?) than his being a sore loser, was what he said after that, “If I had had a cigarette, I would have won.”
This story illustrates a simple, yet elusive concept many people seem to miss. The Locus of Control. I recently wrote a story on work stress and listed a few tips that one can follow to reduce work stress. The first tip was about understanding locus of control. In the interest of crispness, this concept was cursorily spoken about and as is the case very often, brevity may have robbed the concept of its import. This article, therefore is to expound on the principle a little further.
What is Locus of Control?
Julian Rotter coined the principle of Locus of Control (LoC) in 1954. It is the degree to which people believe that they have the power and responsibility to determine the outcome of the events in their lives. What it states is that people can either take responsibility for how their lives turn out or blame external circumstances for it. LoC can be of two types — internal LoC, and external LoC. And, LoC is not a trait a person is born with; correct LoC can be developed through practice.
External Locus of Control. Sometimes we come across people who say, “I could have been promoted but I did not get promoted because …” Fill in the blank with ‘the boss is biased’, ‘the one who got promoted is a people-pleaser’, ‘my performance was affected because the market was bad,’ or make one up of your own. Or as in the case of our family friend, he lost because he hadn’t had a cigarette. These are the people who are said to have an external LoC. They do not take responsibility for their hand in the mess they find themselves in. They always find someone else to blame. They may be in denial about their shortcomings and may not take the effort to learn. It is possible that these people may also suffer from anxiety, because they don’t find things working out for them. And they don’t see how they could have done anything about it since …. (input any reason).
Internal Locus of Control. In contrast, people with internal LoC believe that their success is dependent upon them, how much effort they put into their work, and what their abilities are. These people believe in taking responsibility for the outcome of their efforts. So, if something is not going right, instead of blaming the external environment, they tend to look inwards and begin to think about what they can do to succeed. They also do not shy away from taking the blame for a task not done well. These are the types who are more likely to say, “I know it is up to me now.”
However, neither internal LoC, nor external LoC is either entirely good or bad. And no individual has either total internal LoC, or total external LoC. The LoC is said to be on a spectrum, with every individual being somewhere in the middle. Some people lean more toward internal LoC, some towards external. People may have a different LoC for different situations too. By and large people would be more unsuccessful and hence stressed if they have an external LoC. But it is equally important to remember that sometimes the reason for our stress may in fact be our internal LoC.
If someone tries to do something that is beyond his capability, an internal LoC will be detrimental. Consider a cricket match with a collapsing batting line-up. If the tail-enders begin to feel that it is up to them to make their team win, they would feel much more stressed. If the team loses, and the tail-enders begin to blame themselves for the loss, their internal LoC would be counterproductive.
The adjoining diagram is a visual explanation of the LoC. The innermost circle is what we have the most control over. The middle circle is areas of lesser control, and the outermost circle contains areas which we have least control over. One needs to accurately assess what one has control over, and what not.
This discernment is subjective and often the reason for extreme behavior on either end. A person who should have an internal LoC in a situation may end up having an external LoC and end up blaming the world. And a person who should have an external LoC may have an internal LoC and make himself miserable for that.
There is an anecdote about an eagle-family and a duck-family. One of the eagle’s eggs falls into the duck’s nest by chance. Instead of returning the eagle’s egg to the eagle, the duck gives away one of her eggs to the eagle by mistake. After the eggs are hatched, the duckling grows up in the eagle’s family, believing it is an eagle, and the eaglet grows up in the duck’s family, believing it is a duck. The eaglet develops external LoC, begins to believe it is a duck, and never learns to fly like the eagle it was. The duckling develops an internal LoC, is never able to fly like the eagles, and blames itself for it. If the eaglet had an internal LoC, it may have learnt to fly higher than it ever tried. And if the duckling had an external LoC, it would have realized that it was not at fault for not being able to fly like the eagles. Both would have been happier.
Like many other principles, the LoC is a double-edged sword. It is prone to misinterpretation and abuse. It cannot be viewed as an absolute measure of rightness or wrongness and has to be considered in the context of the situation. People prone to anxiety may have a faulty internal LoC, and beat themselves down for anything that goes wrong. People with a narcissistic personality may have a faulty external LoC, and may refuse to accept responsibility for their mistakes. If you get your LoC wrong, you may either not accept blame for not doing well, or accept blame even when it is not your fault. In either case, a correct understanding and appropriate action may well be the only thing standing between success and failure.