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For true inclusion and belonging, focus on the locus
The past two years have thrust diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives to the forefront in professional spaces. Racial justice movements, a devastating pandemic, fast-changing (and ever-shifting) workplace dynamics, and social and political unrest have required organizational leadership to reassess values — and quickly.
Leaders everywhere realized the status quo simply wasn’t working. Organizations realized that change was needed — across society, organizations, and individual levels. Many leadership teams rolled out new diversity training programs. Others created space for uncomfortable conversations about DEIB in the workplace and the disproportionate impact of external events on marginalized groups.
Some pledged philanthropic dollars to nonprofits doing impactful work to create a more equitable world. And many re-examined their hiring practices, committing to new diversity hiring goals or new strategies for meaningfully sourcing diverse talent. But driving each of these DEIB investments was one thing: a need for employees to embrace change.
While we’ve come to recognize that change is here to stay, perhaps organizational leadership teams have overlooked a foundational truth. Change is disruptive to employees, especially those who have deeply held beliefs about how change occurs. And with the rate of change rapidly increasing in response to external factors — like a pandemic, a racial justice movement, or economic uncertainty — it’s no wonder employees are resistant to it.
So what does inclusion have to do with change? And why does it matter? Research shows that it’s actually inclusion that is a greater predictor of whether DEIB investments will drive lasting change for employees and result in business outcomes for an organization.
To foster and maintain a truly inclusive culture where employees feel a deep sense of belonging, organizational leaders must understand how to fully include the mindsets of those who will inevitably shape a healthy, diverse, and equitable workplace culture.
On the flip side, employees also have a role to play in creating inclusive work environments where diverse perspectives are welcomed. This calls on both leaders and employees to shift their behaviors and mindsets and embrace change for it to truly stick.
The road to inclusion starts within. As human beings, we all operate with some sense of a locus of control — the extent to which one feels as if they have agency over their own environment, decision space, opportunities, and future. When change arises, it pokes and prods at our locus of control. And while we all exist on a spectrum of what beliefs we hold close to our hearts, our locus of control helps inform how we respond to change. In fact, change begins precisely where our locus of control tells us it will.
Unpacking our perception of power and possibility
Within the field of psychology, an individual’s locus of control is considered to be a stable personality trait, such that researchers often categorize individuals as “internals” and “externals” in reference to the set of beliefs with which they navigate their world. An individual’s locus of control plays a strong role in the things they find stressful, their psychological and physiological experience of stress, and the strategies they employ when faced with stressful situations.
There are two types of locus of control:
- Internal locus of control (or iLoC). The main events in my life are controlled by internal forces — my own decisions, actions, goals, and desires.
- External locus of control (or eLoC). The main events in my life are controlled by external forces — fate, God, or societal structures.
Why and to whom do these distinctions matter?
Those with a stronger internal locus of control (decisions, actions, goals, desires) often have better cognitive and physical health. People with a stronger internal locus of control tend to be historically advantaged, entitled, and higher-status groups such as racial/ethnic majorities, men, and those with more formal education.
Those with a stronger external locus of control (fate, God, societal structures) often have worse cognitive and physical health outcomes. People with a stronger external locus of control tend to be historically oppressed and marginalized groups such as racial/ethnic minorities and those with lower educational attainment.
Experiences, communities, and identities affect one’s locus of control
Being aware of how a person’s experiences, communities, and identities impact locus of control is imperative to cultivating and maintaining an inclusive workplace culture.
Your communities and organizations are made up of people, each with unique backgrounds and experiences. When uncertainty and obstacles emerge, those people will respond — in ways based on how much control they feel they have over future outcomes. Believe it or not, some of those responses are predictable, and data shows that factors related to identity matter.
These patterns suggest that LoC perceptions may not be static, but that many people’s feelings of control can (and did) shift in response to increasing uncertainty in their external environment over the course of 2020 (especially for those in the Black community).
Essentially, the past few years of unrest have affected nearly all of us, but those effects are not felt similarly among folks of all identities. Marginalized communities often report feeling less control over their lives, leading to negative trends in hope, purpose, meaning, optimism, and resilience. Our data suggest that majority group members seem to report feeling much more agency over their lives (higher iLoC) than other groups, with men of color feel they have the least agency.
In addition, minority racial group members and women are markedly more likely to report feeling a lack of control over their lives and futures (high eLoC) than other groups.
This has major implications for how colleagues from diverse backgrounds show up in professional spaces. Productivity, resilience, and retention (especially at work) rely on how much control people believe they have over their lives. And if systemic oppression related to identity means some don’t feel like they have the power to change their destinies, there are consequences both at an individual and collective level.
- The more strongly members endorse eLoC (or a lack of control over their life), the lower their scores are on a number of measures related to well-being and job performance
- The more strongly members endorse iLoC (or control over their life), the higher their scores on those very same dimensions
- Overall, people working in person are significantly more likely to endorse eLoC (or express a lack of control over their lives) than people in hybrid and remote roles
- Further, the more strongly people in in-person situations endorse eLoC (or not being in control of their lives), the more likely they are to express an intent to leave their jobs
It’s important that employees and managers recognize the internal or external LoC people on their teams — and how those perspectives might reveal themselves, including how to navigate them when they arise. This understanding could be the difference between true inclusion and the retention of employees in all sort of working environments, be it in-person, hybrid, or remote.
Understanding our locus of control is key to unpacking our perception of our power and possibility
Now that we know that the type of locus of control one exhibits is linked to societal pressures, experiences, and identities, take a look around.
Are there people in your office who don’t often speak when asked to contribute to a solution?
Have you noticed patterns related to reactions when certain individuals encounter obstacles?
The next time you wonder why a colleague begrudgingly attends meetings related to cultural change or future goals, ask if there’s an underlying reason why their optimism seems dampened. Similarly, if a colleague never seems daunted, intimidated, or fearful of even the most intense goals or requests, ponder a moment. Could those perspectives be due to locus of control?
Though we all bring individual identities and perspectives to the issues we address, awareness of locus of control (and intentional work to address its effects) is key to helping all employees become more resilient and successful.
Organizations and managers can help and individuals can change — with the support of coaching
For our communities (both personal and professional) to operate at their best, it matters deeply who feels in control of their lives and the opportunities that are available to them. Organizational leadership can provide access to resources and support so that everyone can develop the resilience to deal with external forces and grow past negative internal beliefs. With support, everyone can feel hope and have the optimism to pursue and achieve goals. Coaching can help.
Our locus of control can either hinder our progress or be harnessed into boundless potential
We know that those with a higher internal locus of control are better able to deal with unforeseen challenges, while their colleagues with an external locus of control are less likely to feel agency in changing their futures. Yet, everyone wants and deserves to feel some control in their lives and futures.
Belonging, employer support, and a positive work environment lay the foundation for members to increase in internal locus of control. When they're lacking, members are susceptible to external locus of control tendencies.
So how can organizations combat these trends?
Understand that people with both types of locus of control can be successful. The data presented here is evidence of yet another effect of trauma and marginalization experienced by BIPOC people. It is also critical learning to ensure organizations invest heavily in the support of under-resourced communities. An internal locus of control isn’t automatically good. Likewise, an external locus of control isn’t automatically bad. It all depends on the context. Rather than hold those tendencies against underrepresented communities, organizations instead can focus on helping strengthen internal locus of control attributes so they can thrive in the workplace.
- Amplify opportunities to lean into agency. Ensure your organizational culture promises opportunities for people to take action, see results, and be accountable for their contributions.
- Build trusting managerial relationships. Providing autonomy, a safe space to navigate professional challenges, and empowerment for team members help to improve conditions for a higher internal local of control, as well as goal achievement.
- Incorporate locus of control research into DEIB resources. Awareness is the first step to change, and organizational leaders seeking more inclusive environments can and should be equipped with information that can harness the unique strengths of employees with either locus of control tendency.
Remember, it’s not all on the individual: environment matters. The next time you identify performance issues, risk aversion, conflict avoidance, and other behaviors that are problematic for organizational success, consider the deeper why.
It’s not solely on employees to change their perspectives overnight. They benefit from environments that enhance the traits of internal locus of control: self-reliance, agency, and decision-making. BetterUp can unlock and build these traits in your workforce. Together, we can build a more equitable future that allows for everyone to reach their full potential.
Dr. Kristi Leimgruber is a comparative psychologist whose research on the psychology and evolution of cooperation has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Evolution & Human Behavior, Psychological Science, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, and Current Opinion in Psychology. Kristi currently serves as a Behavioral Scientist on BetterUp’s Research & Insights team where she works to leverage data to spark social change in the DEIB space. Before joining BetterUp, Kristi was a Professor of Psychology and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University. Her passion for understanding human behavior has afforded her opportunities to work with young children, monkeys, chimpanzees, and adults and has led her to the conclusion that humans aren’t as unique as we’d like to think. Kristi did her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (go Badgers) and received her PhD from Yale where she was fortunate enough to be co-mentored by Drs. Laurie Santos & Kristina Olson.