Control, Illusion of Control and Improving Productivity and Resilience

In his book Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg mentions something called the locus of control. Locus of control refers to peoples’ belief in their ability to control events that affect them. A strong internal locus of control means that people feel they have the ability to affect circumstances around them and have the ability to influence what happens to them. A strong external locus of control means that people will tend to place blame on external factors.  Generally, people with a stronger internal locus of control will be more likely to consider what they can do to influence a desired outcome, whereas people with a strong external locus of control may be more likely to feel that they are less in control of what happens. When negative outcomes occur they blame external forces rather than thinking about what they might have done to influence a different outcome. Sure, it is possible that we can do everything right and random events may occur to change the outcomes, but when we have a stronger internal locus of control we tend to believe more that we can influence our circumstances and improve areas like production performance and safety performance.

I remember during US Navy flight training (all Marine Aviators go through Navy flight school), I had some flights that went better than others. When I performed poorly, I would get frustrated, but I would always learn something I could improve. Even the best flights offered room for improvement. One thing we tended to do well, was to conduct a consistent debrief. The debrief wasn’t a process to simply tell us how bad we were or how well we performed, but was a method to help us understand what we could improve upon the next time we were to fly. This mentoring by more senior Instructor Pilots was an affirmation that we had an internal locus of control and that we could influence our outcomes. So, getting an internal locus of control can be beneficial in many circumstances.

Isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t it great to exert more control to improve performance? Yes, but up to a point. In some cases it may be possible to actually get ourselves into a situation where we don’t actually have control, but have the illusion of control. The illusion of control may actually create excessive turmoil in the workplace as those in positions of power seek to exert more and more control over worker behavior, thinking that if they can only control behavior enough then accidents may be avoided. This belief, while ostensibly well intentioned, and likely fueled by years of assumptions that the primary cause of accidents is unsafe behavior, may guide leaders off course. If in their quest to control worker behavior, management squashes workers’ ability to provide feedback about why they are making their specific choices (even if those choices may seem like the development of improvisation and workarounds), then this could stifle creativity, innovation and learning, and could perhaps even lead to workers’ reduced locus of control. After all, if they are constantly told to simply follow rules, never deviate and never innovate they may feel helpless in improving the conditions under which they work, even if they have great ideas for improving production and safety performance. Additionally, in numerous industries and occupations no two jobs are exactly alike and workers must adapt and use rules of thumb as opposed to prescriptive procedures.

So, what are leaders to do? I think they need to shape the organizational climate to provide a balanced approach to worker behavior and compliance with rules/policies and worker innovation and improvement. Sure, we can’t have a workplace where nobody obeys the rules and where they make procedures up as they go. On the other hand, it may not be possible for workers to actually obey every single rule all the time because in some cases, rules or directives can be unintentionally diametrically opposed to each other. If leaders establish an environment that encourages and expects worker feedback on what is working well and what needs to be improved, this may go a long way in balancing a sense of control on the part of workers, leaders, managers and supervisors. I think this process starts at the top, where leadership models the behavior they wish to see in others (including compliance with rules as well as being receptive to those with new ideas and feedback about how certain rules may oppose each other). I think this process will help lead organizations to improved safety and production performance and if leaders will be open to learning, this could lead to improved reliability and resilience.

This is a great segue into some great news! At the links below you will find this week’s Kicking Boxes podcast interview with Dave Christenson, who worked for the US Forest Service and studied under Sidney Dekker. We had some great conversations about high-reliability and organizational resilience. I really think you will enjoy it. 

Also, you can listen to the episode on our website here: 

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