The ins and outs of corporate control

Aug 16 2007 by David Tinker Print This Article

How far people feel they have control over their own lives is key to many of the most pressing issues facing managers today – particularly those two elephants in the room, workplace stress and employee engagement.

In the UK and elsewhere, research has found that increasing numbers of young people do not feel in charge of their lives. Bombarded by nanny state politics and constantly bothered by their ubiquitous mobile phones, it's easy to see how a growing number of Generation Yers are sensing the power to take control of their own lives ebbing away.

What this means is that we are producing a generation that exhibits what psychologists describe as an "external locus of control."

For those unfamiliar with psychological jargon, this is all about assessing personality against a kind of scale with distinct character types at the extremes. At one end you have "externals", who believe events in their life are controlled by external circumstances; at the other are "internals", who attribute events to their own control.

For example, a university student with a strong internal locus of control may believe that his or her inability to reach a required grade is down to them not putting enough work in.

Conversely, someone with a deep-seated external locus of control is more likely to think that the examiners got the questions wrong. In other words, they immediately look to put the blame on anything and anyone other than themselves.

With a growing number of these "externals" entering society, the implications for the workplace are severe.

Any manager will tell you that they spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources dealing with people who aren't as proactive as they would like them to be.

With "externals", this means people who don't want to take responsibility for projects or tasks and are unlikely to thrive on finding solutions for problems. When their performance fails to measure up, they are going to revert to type and point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Employees who exhibit the traits of an "internal", on the other hand, are going to make things happen. They can bring new solutions to problems, they strive to achieve goals and they are open to change.

The good news for exasperated managers is that people with external control were not all born like this. In fact psychologists insist that it is learned behaviour resulting from cultural, social and family influence. An extreme of this attitude to life is called 'Learned Helplessness.' Sound familiar?

But put externals in an environment where trust, guidance, direction and purpose are readily forthcoming and they have a much better chance of becoming high performers.

Here's a case in point. A decade or so ago I did some work with a senior management team in Moscow. My brief was to come up with a strategy for head office, but I soon realised I was wasting my time. Controlled by a communist government from birth, these people did not believe they could change things through their own actions.

What a delightful surprise, then, to find a completely transformed attitude on a visit to the Russian capital last month. With an entirely new ethos, most modern Muscovites are getting on with making something of themselves and taking back control of their lives.

In the same way, line managers can have a galvanising effect on their teams and encourage individuals to develop an "internal" outlook, – but only if they're prepared to giving them the same control. That means empowering staff, engaging them at work and generating a spirit where every individual takes responsibility.

For many middle managers, the thought of relinquishing the reins of control may be scary. But by micro-managing their people, managers are not only reinforcing the need for external control, they are creating an oppressive working environment.

And you don't have to go far to find a ream of evidence indicating that workers who feel managers are constantly looking over their shoulders are far more likely to take time off through stress.

If this is not compelling enough and you'd like a price tag to hang this argument on, just look at the cost in terms of management time and the absenteeism bill that results from a culture of external control.

Add this to the benefit employing individuals who are self-motivated and believe in their own ability to achieve things and the case for reviewing our approach to top-down corporate management is overwhelming.

About The Author

David Tinker
David Tinker

David Tinker is a coach to teams and individuals around the world and founder of The Feeling Alive Co, a UK-based organisation that seeks to promote greater health and wellbeing in the working population through highly education, training and personal development.