Using Locus of Control Theory For Career Success

I firmly believe in the power of using the locus of control theory to have a richer, more fulfilling career. Read on for how you can use the locus of control theory to evaluate job candidates.

locus-of-control-theoryLast week I had a discussion with another local HR pro, and we were talking about interview questions that help to discern what candidates lack the requisite people skills to get the job done. We’ve all run across candidates who may interview very well, but then they turn out to be a nightmare once they are on board.

One of the questions that she likes to use is this:

What were people like at your last job?

In her opinion (and mine), that can tell you a lot about someone. Let’s look at my theory for why that is, then we’ll get into how it applies.

Locus of control theory and meaning

Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia as a refresher:

Locus of control is a theory in personality psychology referring to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them… A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe that their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence).

In terms that apply to the workplace, I see it as this: you either see life as a series of things happening to you, or you see life as a series of actions you take to make things happen. 

It’s an oversimplification, but it works for the purposes of this discussion. Now let’s dig into how it plays into the question referenced above.

Locus of control theory at work

Let’s say you have two candidates in front of you. They’re fairly evenly matched with regard to skills and experience. Then you ask them both the question, “What were people like at your last job?”

  • Candidate A-I worked with a great group of people. We got along well and it was a great experience for me.
  • Candidate B-I worked with a terrible group of people. There was constant fighting and I could never get any work done. It was a terrible experience.

Here’s the kicker–those people could have both come from the same company. Now I know and agree that there are some organizations where Candidate B’s comments would be legitimate, but it’s important to dig deeper into those comments to understand the full depth and breadth of the issues if possible.

I’ve heard it put another (more direct) way.

If you’re walking down the street and meet someone who is a jerk, you had a bad day. If you’re walking down the street and meet several jerks, you are causing others to have a bad day.

Look for people who identify with the inner locus of control theory. They believe that they have control over things to some degree, and they won’t sit there helpless waiting for someone to solve their problems. It’s not necessarily fool proof, but it is a good idea to keep in mind.

Ever considered the locus of control theory with regard to yourself? Do you think it’s internal or external? 

One thought on “Using Locus of Control Theory For Career Success

  1. John Gallagher

    Great topic and post Ben! The “victim mentality” as I would call it is something that I’ve spent much time reflecting on over the years. What I’ve witnessed in my personal relationships, interactions, career in HR and time working with children as a licensed foster parent is that there is something of a virtual spectrum of control that individuals operate on; essentially what is described in the locust of control theory. On one side of the spectrum you have individuals who believe they control their ENTIRE destiny. To quote Nelson Mandela “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” On the other hand you have what can be described as the “victim mentality” or what has also been described as “Learned Helplessness” (see Martin Seligman University of Pennsylvania). We could debate all day how much of this is “learned”, how much is affected by a person's current or past environment and mood or how much you can change a person’s perspective but that is an entirely different discussion. I love that you have honed in on this for HR professionals because I believe that understanding this is crucial for many areas of HR; screening/ hiring, OD, coaching/ counseling, training and development, etc. In our organization we live by the mantra A.C.T. (Accountability Creates Teamwork). It is imperative we understand where someone lies on that scale because someone who believes they have no control over their external environment will enforce very litter accountability on themselves. There is many ways through interviewing that we can derive where an individual lies in this spectrum. I would add that pre-employment assessments both cognitive and psychometric can both supplement and verify what you have suspected in the interview process.

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