How Culture Impacts a Person’s Sense of Control (aka Locus of Control)

Do you believe in fate?

Last week, we talked about how the degree to which someone feels life is directed by destiny dictates their locus of control – that is their feeling of control over their own lives.

Let’s look at how the locus of control unfolds in the workplace.

The Blame Game

When a goal is set and not reached in a workplace environment, the reactions of your colleagues can be very telling.

Sheila blames Jeremy for not delivering the documents in time for her to complete her task.

Jeremy blames Tom for not communicating promptly.

Tom blames his home life for distracting him.

Team Leader Lisa admits she missed the mark and should have taken the campaign in another direction. She apologizes for the part she played in not meeting the goal.

People with an internal locus of control take personal responsibility for their role in a group’s failure, while those with an external locus point at everyone else but themselves, whether they see fault in the “weakest links” of the group or in external factors.

Cross-Cultural Factors

How do cross-cultural factors come into play in the locus?

The locus of control is directly related to personality orientation; however, social psychologists have begun to study the majority locus of control in various cultures and the factors that influence it.

They’ve discovered that quite often the people of any given culture look at fate or self-control in a generally collective manner.

As you may have guessed, individualist cultures generally demonstrate an internal locus of control. They believe they’re the masters of their own fate.

Collectivist cultures – like those of China or Japan – demonstrate an external locus. They accept that things are out of their hands and don’t put weight on the individual’s role in the whole.

To illustrate this, when Americans and Chinese were surveyed about their view of fate, these were the results.

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89% of questioned Americans agreed with the statement, “What happens to me is my own doing,” while 65% of Chinese admitted, “Sometimes I feel I don’t have control over the direction my life is taking.”

This aligns with each culture’s dominant traits, with Americans espousing ambition, individualism, and the “American dream,” while China espouses harmony and collectivism.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about how the group locus of control can be divided up further amongst ethnic groups and even simply locations in the same country. We’ll also talk about primary and secondary control. Stay tuned.

The Locus of Control: Do You Believe in Fate?

Late to work?

Missed a deadline?

Passed over for a promotion?

Believe it or not, how you view the circumstances surrounding these outcomes has everything to do with culture.

Are your choices, actions, and performance responsible for the results? Or do fate or environmental factors come into play?

Your locus of control will tell us everything we need to know.

Locus of Control

Developed by psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954, the locus of control is the degree to which a person believes they’re in control of their life. Rotter developed four dimensions of fundamental self-evaluation in his personality study, the other three dimensions of which include neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.

Setting those three aside for now, the locus (Latin for “place”) is either internal or external.

One with an internal locus of control tends toward feeling in control of the events in his life; one with an external locus tends toward ascribing his life’s path to destiny, fate, or chance.

A person with an external locus believes environmental factors determine the outcome, and nothing he does can change that.

Internal vs. External

“You can walk around softly everywhere by putting on a pair of shoes, or you can demand that the whole Earth become covered by soft leather.”

This Indian proverb illustrates perfectly the locus of control.

Those with an internal locus put on a pair of shoes to make their walk comfortable; those with an external locus believe the environment must change in order to make them more comfortable.

Internal Locus

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley

It may come as no surprise that optimism and ambition are characteristic of those with an internal locus of control.

Being that individuals with an internal locus believe they affect change in their own lives, they have a sense of purpose, because they determine the outcome.

This gives those with an internal locus a sense of responsibility for their successes/failures, happiness/unhappiness, etc.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” is their battle cry. The internal locus believes it can alter its course. In that sense, those with an internal locus hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and the outcomes these actions produce.

External Locus

On the other hand, the battle cry for those with an external locus might be, “Life is what happens to you.”

The external locus drives realistic and fatalistic views of life events.

Life is predestined, written in the stars, for individuals with an external locus, resulting in a sense of limitation when it comes to personal control over one’s future.

This acceptance of limitation suggests that any outcome is at least partly based on one’s own good fortune or luck.

We’ll talk about how all of this comes to a head cross-culturally, both socially and in the workplace, next week.