Goizueta Faculty Interview: Stephen Nowicki on Understanding Our Locus of Control

nowickiIn his book Choice or Chance, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) Stephen Nowicki discusses the importance of understanding your Locus of Control (LOC), a concept that reflects the impact our behavior will have on what happens to us. If we perceive that luck, fate, chance or powerful others determine outcomes, we are External. If we perceive that our circumstances are the result of our own actions and choices, we are Internal. Business Librarian Lee Pasackow spoke with Professor Nowicki about LOC and why it matters for business students. 

GBL: In your book, you note that what you call “The Big 5” function as pistons to motivate Internals to find the best solutions to their problems. Internals are more likely to: 1. take responsibility for their actions; 2. be persistent in their efforts to solve problems and meet challenges; 3. delay gratification; 4. gather information and 5. resist coercion. We’re preparing our students to be global leaders, so it seems like it would be helpful for the Goizueta community to be aware of the LOC concept and its possible applications to business situations. How could we incorporate LOC into student, staff and faculty professional development opportunities?

Nowicki: Internals are more likely than externals to possess the characteristics of success because they believe their behavior has much to do with what happens to them. And this leads them to do better than externals in almost all areas of achievement and adjustment. As important as it is though, most people are not aware of the locus of control concept or of its exceptional predictive power. I wrote Choice or Chance in order to make the reading public aware of the fact that locus of control is perhaps the most intensely studied personality concept in the history of psychology and has practical relevance to their daily lives. I wanted to make them aware that their own locus of control will dictate how they go about facing and dealing with the problems in their personal and vocational lives. Yet, it turns out most of us aren’t aware of what our own locus of control is and how it influences our approaches to problem solving. This lack of awareness means that we don’t know if our particular locus of control is appropriate for the problem solving situations in which we find ourselves. Are we being too internal, thinking we can control things that in actuality we can’t or is it the opposite case that we are being too external and thinking we don’t have much influence on how things turn out when in actuality we do? This information is crucial if we are going to do well in any interpersonal or achievement situation.

At Goizueta, I could provide the library with a reading list of relevant studies showing how LOC has been applied to understand behavior in personal, social and business situations. I would also suggest procedures that would help individuals learn to become aware of their own general locus of control and how to change it if that is what is desired. It is important to keep in mind that our locus of control is learned through our interactions with others and can be changed by applying learning principles.

GBL: It appears that the Business Library has a role to play helping students to gather information about what locus of control is and how to use what we know about it in our own lives. We reach out to students in a variety of ways to make them aware of resources that they can use to research their career options. How can we help students have a LOC mindset as they gather information that will be helpful for them?

Nowicki: Students have to first become aware that locus of control is an important concept. What I have learned about business school students is that if they understand something is important, they really go after it. There could be a section of the library where readings or books on locus of control (and other important cutting edge concepts) are kept so students could drop in and see what the latest research is showing or there could be a blog where experts could answer practical real life questions about how to apply what is known about locus of control to problems being encountered.

GBL: You have been teaching a class to BBA seniors about why relationships, especially the manner in which they are ended, are important to a successful professional and personal life. One way for students to gain knowledge about themselves is to become more aware of the way they end relationships. They accomplish that by focusing on how they have ended relationships in the past and how they want to end relationships at Emory in the future. They are encouraged to seek out those individuals in their lives with whom they have ended with in the past and who are important to them in the present and let them know they were and are important to them. Through this process they have a great opportunity to learn about themselves and what they do well and what they can improve upon in relating to others.  Students can use such information to better begin their new relationships after graduation. Could you share a story from a former student as to how your class helped him or her once they were in the professional world?

Nowicki:   I don’t want to get too specific because it would violate confidentiality with my students, but I can tell you that, because they have learned to be more aware of what their impact has been on others they are more open to asking for feedback about their verbal and nonverbal behaviors when relating to others in the future. By opening themselves to feedback they become more aware of the connection between what they do and what happens to them and that increases the chances of becoming more internal. This is especially valuable to them as they end their first job and move on to other opportunities.

GBL: You note in your book that nonverbal communication is most important to the relationship process. You have published three books and more than 50 research articles in support of your conviction that nonverbal communication is the “language of relationships.” Could you expand upon this?

Nowicki: I’ve come to believe that nonverbal skill is crucial to being able to interact effectively. This is true for a number of reasons. First of all nonverbal communication is going on all the time. Second, non-verbal communication usually takes place out of our awareness. We are continuously communicating how we feel and picking up what others are emoting via facial expressions, tones of voice, postures, gestures and the like. The third thing is that when we break nonverbal rules of language it has profound negative emotional impact that can interfere with forming relationships. The big question is are we sending nonverbal information and receiving it accurately? Most of us assume that we are, but the truth is we really don’t know because we receive no formal feedback.

I want to emphasize that I’m not talking about the controversial term “Emotional Intelligence” which has promised much but produced relatively little. I’m simply saying that processing nonverbal language is a skill that we need to be good at if we are going to successfully connect with others and make relationships work.

GBL: We have many international students at Goizueta. Does LOC apply to all cultures or does the concept need to be adjusted when dealing with people from different cultures?

Nowicki: Cultures differ in whether they emphasize an external or internal approach to life. One split is between what is loosely called western and eastern cultures, where the west is more individualistic compared to the emphasis of eastern cultures on the group and family. It’s important to realize that internality in both cultures is more positively related to more positive outcomes than externality. In American culture, internality is applied most often to being individually successful. However, in cultures that emphasize the progress of larger groups internality is associated with the success of the group. It’s a matter of how you apply internality. In both cultures, it’s better to be internal than external, it’s just what goal internality helps to accomplish that differs.

GBL: You note that we have become increasingly external as a country and this has implications for all we value in life. What do you mean by this?

Nowicki: A recent study found that the average locus of control score of children and adults has increased toward externality for each of 30 years since Ronald Reagan was president. This is an important development because Internals and Externals attack problem solving differently. Internals are more likely to persist and gather information than Externals who believe luck, fate, chance or powerful others are more important than their own efforts in dealing with their difficulties.

For a democracy to survive, it requires its constituents to be internal, to believe they can affect what happens to them by their efforts. The United States’ movement toward externality is disquieting and needs to be addressed by politicians and scientists alike.

GBL: What research projects are you working on now? Are you working on a new book?

Nowicki: This summer, I spent two months in Bristol, England working on an amazing research project in which all the children born in 1991 (and their parents) have been followed for the past 25 years. Every six months the participants have completed examinations, questionnaires and activities that may prove valuable in determining the antecedents and consequents of mental and physical health. My adult LOC scale was given to parents before the children were born and again when the children were 8 and 18. My children’s LOC was given to the children when they were 8 and 18.  This gives me a wonderful opportunity to look at the role locus of control plays at various age points in the lives of children and adults. I will be spending the next three years examining the data.

GBL: What is your favorite book and why?

Nowicki: I like Bill Bryson’s s Notes from a Small Island. He is an American who has lived both in the United States and England and writes about the differences between the two countries. His observations are right on target and he uses humor to bring to light the best and the worst of our two countries.

GBL: What comes to mind when you think of the library?

Nowicki: A safe and helpful place. When I first began to teach in the business school I was told to come to the library and meet with Marilyn Pahr. She helped me to set up the readings for the course and talked with me about the culture of the business school. I was concerned I would be lost when Marilyn left, but then I met with Monique Martinez who took her place and I found there was nothing to be afraid of.

I have always liked libraries. As part of my learning about the culture of the business school I have often sat in the library and observed what went on. You can learn a great deal about a system by unobtrusively spending time just watching. I found that the Business School Library is a welcoming and comfortable place for all, especially students. This library has an activity level and brightness that is a notch above the rest of the library; it is a good place.

GBL: Anything else you would like to add?

Nowicki: What I like my students to learn is that with awareness comes an increased ability to change. When you are aware of what you do right and what you do wrong then you can learn to do less wrong things and more right things. Awareness sets the stage for growth and change. If my class goes well, the students will know what they do well and “not well” verbally and non-verbally. They will know what their LOC tendencies are and know how to change them if they wish. They will have learned from the feedback of others what kind of impact they have had on them. At the end of the semester, they will have ended their relationship with Emory and its people in a way that is qualitatively different from how they have ended relationships previously. They will have learned how they begin, deepen and end relationships and can apply that knowledge to making their future relationships more successful. Now that is a gift that they can use the rest of their lives.