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How Your Locus of Control Explains Your Thoughts, Actions, and Motivation

How Your Locus of Control Explains Your Thoughts, Actions, and Motivation

Shawn Stratton I was sticking to the back of the group with our slowest team member as we hiked up a remote unnamed peak in the Pelly Mountains in Canada’s Yukon Territory. At the time, I was leading a month long backpacking and canoeing expedition with a group of educators from across North America. Jane was moving steady but slowly. She was not in the best of shape, had limited backpacking experience and had never stood on top of a mountain before. She was determined to make it up the mountain but as things started to get tough, she began doubting herself and expressed many negative thoughts.

I knew she was capable of making it to the summit and that she would be overjoyed when she got there. It would be a great confidence boost to her to help her through challenging moments during the rest of the expedition and more importantly, her life back home. When her speed slowed, my encouragement picked up.

As we took our final steps to the summit, tears were streaking down from Jane’s eyes, and she belted out “Thanks to the lord, he got me up here!”

I was surprised and frankly a little disappointed to hear her comment. In respect to her religious beliefs, I didn’t respond to the comment but I really wanted to say was “I just saw you dig deep and hike up the mountain on your own two feet. You were the one who physically got you here, way to go, awesome job. If you can do this, you can tackle just about any challenge, I’m so proud of you! ”

I expected her to be proud of herself for stretching her comfort zone, pushing her physical limits and further developing her self-confidence. Instead, her comment showed me not just how little she believed in herself but a tendency to rely on an external locus of control (LOC).

If Jane had a high internal LOC, she would have said (or at least thought) something like, “I am so excited to be here and am proud of myself for sticking with it. I didn’t know I could do it but because I took one step at a time, dug deep and was determined, I deserve to be here. And thanks for the encouragement along the way, I really appreciate it”

Locus of Control

Locus-of-ControlLOC measures generalized belief in internal versus external control of reinforcement. People with an internal locus of control believe their own actions determine the rewards they obtain, while those with an external locus of control believe their own behaviour doesn’t matter much and that rewards in life are generally outside of their control. (

Internal LOC has been linked to academic success, higher self-motivation and maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression and longer lifespan, a team of researchers wrote in the Journal of Problems and Perspectives in Management in 2012. They found that people with an internal locus of control tend to have more friends, stay married and report greater professional success and satisfaction.

Having an external LOC means you believe your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control. It correlates with higher levels of stress because an individual perceives a situation as beyond his or her coping abilities.

People with an internal LOC tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence as people with a greater external LOC do.

Your locus of control says a lot about how you view the world and your role in determining the course of your life. When you believe you have the power to control your own destiny and determine your own direction, you have a strong internal locus of control. In most cases, this is an important attitude to have, if you want to be successful.

Smarter Faster BetterDevelopment of LOC can be taught. In the book Smarter, Faster, Better, Harvard MBA and New York Times’ business reporter Charles Duhigg discusses how the US Marine Core focuses on building a strong internal LOC within their new recruits in basic training. They do this by slowly increasing their responsibility, putting them in near impossible scenarios where they have to make a decision beyond their current rank, and celebrating small wins when these decisions are made, in turning growing their self-confidence and further developing their internal LOC.  

On the other hand, there have been examples where an external LOC has had an extreme benefit and saved people’s lives in survival situations. These examples include Prisoner of War detainees and people who have survived months at sea, adrift on a life raft. In these cases, the surviving people put 100% of their belief in a higher power and that higher power, if they kept their faith in them, put them in this situation for a reason and would eventually lead to their rescue.

A Drift Personally, I say that this is where my high level of internal LOC would be my demise. If I was adrift at sea on a life raft, I probably wouldn’t be able to sit still and put my faith in a higher power to save me. I would most likely die trying to save myself by attempting to swim to a passing freighter or a distant island.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how Jane’s life and the struggles she has encountered would have been different had she had a stronger internal LOC.

People with an internal locus of control tend to work harder and persevere longer in order to get what they want. This is not to say that having an external locus of control is always bad: there are some situations where this approach can work well. The key for your own personal development is to understand your natural tendency and then adapt it to the situations you face.

Action: Take this 5-minute test developed by J.B. Rotter to see if you have a higher internal or external locus of control.

Until next week… Embrace the Adventure


Shawn Stratton is an international leadership and team building consultant, professional speaker, bestselling author and Ironman competitor. 

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© 2016 Shawn Stratton. All rights reserved.