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Struggling with control issues? Coaching can help

August 22, 2022 - 13 min read
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    We tell ourselves myriad stories, ones that often couple big dreams with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These narratives often show up as whispers from our inner critic, dreams we hope to one day call our own, and goals we have in mind.

    Yet, for some reason, we aren't always confident we can make our hopes and dreams a reality. The answer is due in part to whether we believe we have the power to make events happen, and that specific type of belief has a name: locus of control

    In our rapidly changing global economy with workplace dynamics shifting by the day, unpredictable change is increasingly the rule, not the exception. That means we’re all more frequently exposed to circumstances or forces beyond our control.

    Even the most steadfast, unflappable employees of an organization will at some point become affected by disruptive market forces and complex challenges to business as usual. We will all experience the disorienting effects of macro forces, but we won’t all respond to them the same way. 

    It’s vital that companies support employees through the uncertainty that will continue to persist. That support begins with addressing how and if people process, internalize, and innovate when confronted with challenges and change… or, in other words, how they leverage their locus of control.

    What is the locus of control?

    In broad terms, locus of control (LoC) is about what a person believes shapes and drives their life. Do they control what happens in their own life or do outside forces control what happens? An individual’s locus of control affects 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.
    Essentially, some people can believe that they don’t have control over their actions and what happens to them. Others can believe that they have full agency over their actions and outcomes. These beliefs affect behaviorcognitive bias, and future readiness.
    Everyone operates with some locus of control. For most, it is somewhere on the spectrum, weighted more heavily on external or internal factors. And chances are, most (if not, all) people have the opportunity to strengthen the best qualities of their particular locus of control orientation.
    In order for our organizations to operate at their best, it matters whether people feel in control of their lives and the way they experience the stress of what they cannot control. Empowering employees to feel agency over their lives and decisions matters for an organization's short- and long-term success. BetterUp can help. 

    With help from organizations and managers, individuals can change

    For those who feel less control over their lives (leading to negative trends in hope, purpose, meaning, optimism, and resilience), organizations can provide access to resources and opportunities to develop the resilience to deal with external forces and grow past negative internal beliefs to achieve goals

    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 over their futures. And when people feel they have a good sense of agency, they feel confident, hopeful, or secure in changing their outcomes. Everyone deserves to feel in control of their future, but we know that not all of us interpret our futures similarly.

    When present, belonging, employer support, and organizational well-being lay the foundation for members to increase in internal locus of control, but when lacking, members are susceptible to leaning into external locus of control tendencies. 

    But it’s not all on the individual: environment matters. The next time your managers, leaders, or colleagues identify performance issues, risk aversion, conflict avoidance, and other behaviors that are problematic for organizational success, you’ve been equipped with deep insight into why. But it’s not solely on those employees to change their perspectives overnight. 

    So, how can organizations make an impact within the context of locus of control?

    • Understand that people with both types of locus of control can be successful. 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. It is every organization’s responsibility to help strengthen internal locus of control attributes so they can thrive in the workplace. 

    • Amplify opportunities to lean into agency. Ensure your company culture promises opportunities for people to take action, see results, and be accountable for their contributions. Trait-wise, it seems as though folks with an eLoC are more reactive to, and reliant on, social resources (i.e. relationship building).

      Create opportunities to do just that in employee resource groups, team building activities, etc. People with iLoC traits are more aligned with independence (i.e. self-efficacy, growth mindset), and there are many opportunities to create projects and professional development tasks to engage those predispositions. At BetterUp, our coaches are well versed in how to adapt and tailor those resources to individual needs.
    • Build trusting managerial relationships. Providing autonomy, a safe space to navigate professional challenges, and empowerment for team members help 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.

    Employees require environments that enhance the traits of internal locus of control: self-reliance, agency, and decision-making. The suggestions above can absolutely address these traits. BetterUp coaching goes even further.

    Coaching can help crack the code on locus of control

    BetterUp uses the best of the best certified, highly experienced executive-level coaches across the globe, and we enable them to do their best work. Consistently excellent outcomes come from consistently excellent coaches. In the last million coaching sessions with BetterUp members, we’ve learned quite a lot about how to reliably deliver positive coaching outcomes for all kinds of people. 

    We leverage the latest science across a wide range of disciplines to boost our coaching and assessment practices. We measure everything we do, and we learn from our population of coaches and Members to improve.

    Why does this matter? 

    Because changing the locus of control within each of your employees takes time, isn’t a linear process, and requires diligent measurement and thoughtful resources and practices. What’s more, you — yes you! — have your own locus of control to understand, unpack and leverage… as does each leader in your organization. 

    From Google to NetApp to WarnerMedia, we’ve witnessed the growth and transformation that coaching affects both individuals and the organization’s bottom line.

    Tina Gupta, vice president, Talent Development & Employee Experience at WarnerMedia, shares how BetterUp has helped build resilience amid rapid change for WarnerMedia employees.

    An organization that’s weathered unparalleled change in the entertainment industry, WarnerMedia has experienced corporate mergers and acquisitions, a historic brand evolution, and consistently tackles ongoing organizational restructuring. 


    A closer look at the data 

    Our data show that 42% of Members show an increase in their internal locus of control between onboarding and their reflection point which was 3-4 months into their coaching journey… with no significant differences between demographic groups. On average, Members who showed growth in this time period reported a ~25% increase in their internal locus of control scores. In addition, 17% of our Members show both an increase in iLoC and a decrease in eLoC between onboarding and reflection points. 

    The figure below displays major movement on internal locus of control measures over time on the individual level. Because more Members increased attributes of iLoC between onboarding and their reflection point, what we are seeing here are people taking the things they’ve learned with their coach and internalizing them, which is deeply encouraging for future Members looking to improve their own locus of control.

    iLoC change OB to RP


    In short, BetterUp helps individuals build self-awareness around the various roles they play and the potential they possess. As a result, people show up in more effective ways, both in their personal and professional lives. Our coaching process adapts to individual circumstances, meeting people where they are, with what they need, when they need it. 

    Expert coaching is designed to empower members to find their own answers within themselves. In the coaching partnership, it’s the Member, not the coach, who sets the goals, defines the playbook, and determines what success looks like. The coach provides committed expertise, bringing insight, perspective, and a growth mindset to the coaching relationship. Why is this helpful for strengthening the locus of control? Coaching helps people tap into a strength they didn’t know they had. 

    So, while coaching sessions are facilitated by a trained professional, they put the control squarely in the hands of the member.

    Now that’s the control we all deserve to have.

    See how BetterUp works - Watch Demo

    Published August 22, 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.

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