Request a demo
Back to Blog

For true inclusion and belonging, focus on the locus

August 29, 2022 - 13 min read
Jump to section

    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.

    New call-to-action

    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.

    See how BetterUp works - Watch Demo.

    Published August 29, 2022

    Dr. Kristi Leimgruber, PhD

    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.

    Read Next

    Diversity & Inclusion
    9 min read | April 22, 2021

    Why women need a coach

    Women are disproportionately affected by our challenging times. For companies looking towards the future, providing coaches can help level the playing field. Read More
    Diversity & Inclusion
    6 min read | May 6, 2021

    One reason your diversity initiative isn’t moving numbers

    When organizations ignore the belonging piece of the DIEB puzzle, they often continue to have diverse representation issues — especially at the higher levels of the... Read More
    Diversity & Inclusion
    4 min read | February 25, 2021

    How inclusive leadership impacts your entire business

    The importance of diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion has never been more salient. Discover its impact on your team and your entire business. Read More
    Diversity & Inclusion
    7 min read | June 23, 2021

    What do working parents need? A supportive manager is a good start

    Working parents were crunched in the pandemic, especially women. But being a working parent is always hard. A supportive manager can help. Managers are in an ideal position... Read More
    Diversity & Inclusion
    13 min read | July 1, 2021

    Go beyond diversity: Inclusive leadership is vital for DEIB success

    Many D&I initiatives lack the follow-through, accountability, and results to drive real cultural change. Learn how BetterUp integrates evidence-based methods with scalable... Read More
    Diversity & Inclusion
    7 min read | October 19, 2021

    For working parents, a return to work (and back again) is stressful

    The process of returning to work and a feeling of normalcy has been slow, especially for parents. Navigating school and unpredictable shutdowns is hard as ever. Read More
    Employee Experience
    8 min read | December 15, 2021

    Think your employees feel equally comfortable at work? Think again

    Companies are embracing diversity and inclusion, but data shows that perceptions differ among minority groups about the climate of the workplace. Read More
    Research & Insights
    13 min read | August 22, 2022

    Struggling with control issues? Coaching can help

    If your employees are struggling with change, it's time to examine locus of control. Dig into the data behind coaching and control — and why it matters. Read More
    Research & Insights
    7 min read | August 23, 2022

    Understanding locus of control is key to harnessing happiness

    Our research reveals that the way people view the amount of control they have in their lives can drastically impact their level of happiness. Read More

    Stay connected with BetterUp

    Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.