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The Locus of Control: Five Reminders That You Are the Boss

Perhaps you've been through a few job interviews and you're wondering, as I did, whether there might be some other agenda by which the companies you've met with make their decisions. I remember flying through great interviews that went by without an offer, and after a few of those I knew I had to rethink my strategy.

I have found that hiring managers have a set of personal characteristics that they look for when they are hiring, and that they will keep searching until they find what they are looking for. I'm not referring to racial or sexual discrimination, or to the illegal questions that sometimes come up in the sleaziest of interviews. But most hiring managers do practice a kind of discrimination ... they like to hire people who fit their private mold of what kind of person should fill the job.

Later in life, as a recruiter, I found that one of these personal characteristics came up so often with my clients' hiring managers that I felt I needed to write about it. Many employers try to decipher their applicant's ability to control the world around them. If it's important to employers, it should be on your radar screen.

Your Locus of Control

I had a favorite customer for years, a senior vp of research in a plant biotechnology company who took me under his wing and taught me all he could about what he was looking for. I appreciated his mentoring, although I knew that there was a selfish motive for his actions. By feeding me knowledge of his preferred special characteristics, I could save him a great deal of time in the recruitment process.

"Dave, every one of us has a viewpoint from which our decisions are made, and psychologists call this the 'locus of control.' If your candidate believes the outcome of his actions will determine his success in life or on the job, he has an internal locus. On the other hand, if that candidate believes that events outside his personal control determine his success, that person has an external locus of control. Both types come in here as applicants, but your job is to find me candidates who have always exhibited a strong internal locus. Our company's future is assured when people here take responsibility for their own success or failure," said the VP. He could tell that I needed a bit more definition, and so he provided an example.

"We've all got certain elements of our lives that we believe we can control, and other elements that are definitely not in our control. But some people just seem to be in charge of their career more than others and I've always found these to be the most desirable employees. As an example, let's say that you've got a very difficult boss that you have to contend with, OK? Like me, for example," he said, and he looked me right in the eye. I had to agree with him. This fellow, while brilliant, was known around his company as a guy who could be fairly difficult to deal with at times. From his look, I think he knew his reputation.

"Ok, now some people around here have this impression that I am one of those great unknowns that they can't control. These few believe that their career success is going to be impacted by their relationship with me, and that no matter what they do, they cannot control this matter in the least. So, I become just another one of those winds of fate that blow them around throughout their career. But then you've got people like this one," he paused and waited while a young woman came up to him with a stack of papers in her hands. "How can I help you, Becky?" he asked her. Becky handed him the stack and paused only briefly to confirm that they would be meeting at 3 p.m. to discuss her project.

"Becky had some real issues dealing with me when she first started," said the VP. "She noticed quickly, however, that it was a communications style issue. She was smart enough to realize that she could control this aspect of our relationship. So my point is this, Becky has an internal locus of control. She recognizes that in many situations she has some aspect of control even though many of her colleagues would tell her that her relationship with the boss isn't within her power to manage. And in short, that's what I'm looking for--people who control their own destinies."

I remember thinking that this is a lot to ask of a recruiter. But when I began to look for examples in each of the people whom I interviewed for this company and others in the following months, I realized that by asking about past experiences and decisions, certain people obviously had more impact on the world around them. Others would let issues over which they had no control, whether it be the traffic on the way to work or a corporate lay-off, become like winds of fate--affecting their days, weeks, and the career choices that followed.

The C's of Control

  • We control the clock: Some of us spend our entire career struggling with time management. My method of choice was always to show up earlier in the morning and then stay later as well. This may have given me a few extra hours in the week, but not better control of the clock. Time management is an art that we are always learning. Each of us makes the big decisions about how we want to spend our time--should you choose to lie on a beach instead of working, that is your choice. Alternately, if you choose to be employed and your boss tells you how to spend your time, don't let it get you down. You do have choices!
  • We control our contacts: When you think back upon the reasons for your success, invariably the faces of your mentors, colleagues, and friends come back to you. The person with an internal locus of control is always conscious of the power of networking.
  • We control our communication: Do you remember the scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke, when warden Strother Martin says to prisoner Paul Newman: "What we have here, son, is a failure to communicate." In your career, a failure to communicate won't earn you a month in solitary, but it will certainly keep you from advancing.
  • We control our commitments: Think about those whom you admire--your most successful contacts. How do they treat commitments? My guess is that when they've made one of their own, it is kept. There is nothing so uncomfortable at work as being caught in a situation where you are running to keep up with commitments that someone else has made for you, however.
  • We control our causes: Choose carefully those issues that you take up as a cause at work. You only get so many opportunities to "champion" a project or an idea. Make sure they are the right ones.

In Conclusion

Take a few minutes out of your day and explore the issue further. There is a free Locus of Control test available on the Internet. It takes about 5 minutes to complete and provides you with an answer on which locus of control you seem to be identified with.