Shakespeare wrote of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. We contemplate questions of fate and destiny. Some seek their futures in cards, tea leaves, or the palms of their own hands. Horoscopes are a permanent fixture of newspapers and magazines. Underlying all of this is a conscious or unconscious belief that external forces direct our lives.
Some, however, eschew all of the above. They feel the power to choose, to forge their own paths, and become the masters of their own fates. The difference between these two groups is partly a matter of beliefs, and partly a matter of personality. This aspect of personality also influences how someone will behave when an ethical choice is on the line.
It’s called the locus of control, or LOC. A person with an internal LOC believes that they influence the events of their lives and that their efforts will direct the outcomes (Ding, Chang & Liu, 2009). On the other hand, those with an external LOC believe that events occur outside their control, and that what they do has little to no impact (Ding, Chang & Liu, 2009). This personality trait gets more interesting when confronted with an ethically charged situation.
A 2009 study by Ding, Chang and Liu examined how the LOC, as well as the propensity to take risks, was related to credit card holders’ intention to repay their credit card debt. They discovered that these personality factors did impact ethical judgments about credit card usage, and in fact, “were found to predict all dimensions of general ethical judgments” (Ding, Chang & Liu, 2009). Because these individuals placed more weight on external factors, they tended to be less concerned about their own actions and ethical decisions. If it’s all out of your hands, what’s the use? They also believed that failing to pay off their debt would not hurt the credit card companies, so they didn’t worry about the consequences of their actions (Ding, Chang & Liu, 2009).
Certainly, this is not the only scenario in which these personality traits would manifest or affect decision making. In the context of a work environment, individuals with an external LOC may not report unethical behavior around them, believing that their actions would have no effect. Furthermore, they may be prone to engaging in unethical behavior themselves, thinking that fate or other external circumstances made the course of action inevitable.
Leaders should be particularly aware of this tendency, both in themselves and in those they lead. In their study, Ding, Chang, and Liu (2009) used an 11 item scale to determine participants’ locus of control. Leaders may be able to use similar questions to gauge where their followers fall on the LOC scale. This is not to say that those with an external LOC will assuredly make unethical decisions, but leaders may simply remind them that they do indeed hold the power to choose their own way.
Go ahead and keep reading those horoscopes if it floats your boat. But remember, when it comes to how you conduct your life and the ethical decisions you will encounter, you have the power to choose. Use that power wisely.
Ding, C.G., Chang, K., Liu, N. (2009, June). The roles of personality and general ethical judgments in intention to not repay credit card expenses. Service Industries Journal, 29(6), 813-834. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=41b45432-9a62-4651-956a-ba4d7e0ec9f3%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=41566311&db=bsu