Either You Can Or You Can’t

There is an astonishing amount written about the psychology and strategy of getting things done. A lot of it boils down to “do the work.” And that’s certainly a part of it. Knuckling down and getting things done—whether we want to or not—is pretty fundamental. Without the work, there will be no results.

There is also a great deal written about the challenges of getting the work done. Procrastination, motivation and imposter syndrome number amongst the most popular . For all of our good intentions, there are influences and forces that derail us from making the progress that we would like.

What’s interesting is what happens when you explore what’s going on underneath the surface of the motivations: to do, and not to do. A recent presentation that I did highlighted this wonderfully well.

I asked participants to think of two situations (and this is an exercise I would encourage you partake in as you read, as well). First, think of a situation where you’ve been successful in terms of having an impact. Where you’ve been able to make a difference, working with a team, a project, a person or an organization. What did that feel like? And what caused it?

The feelings in this situation tend to be quite positive. In situations like this, we feel engaged. Sometimes elated. We are present, focussed, listening. We invest ourselves in the dialogue and discussion. We share, we discover, and we collaborate. And it works. When asked why it works, we might mention things like being able to offer unique attention, insight or expertise. We were the right person with the right skills in the right place, and we had the confidence and capacity to make a difference.

Now think of a situation where you weren’t successful in making a difference. When you failed to have an impact. When people didn’t respond, and the outcomes you sought weren’t realized. When, despite your best efforts and desires, you didn’t attain the results that you—or others—sought. How did that feel? And what was going on that led to that outcome?

The feelings here are decidedly more negative. We feel disillusioned. Dispirited. Frustrated. We may not feel we were heard. Or that we were given the chance to make a difference. We may have felt ignored, shut out, marginalized or sidelined.

But why did that result occur? What was it that led to us not having an impact here, when we’ve been successful in other instances? The reasons we often offer are that we weren’t able to capitalize on our skills and abilities. Worse, we felt prevented from doing so. Or that, despite our best efforts, they weren’t valued. Those who we were working with and trying to impact didn’t appreciate and take advantage of our skills and perspective.

This might sound familiar to you. You may well see each description resonating for you in helping to describe the circumstances of different situations you’ve been involved with. And at the same time, you might be wondering why you felt like you could make a difference in one context, where similar situations in similar contexts led to such a different result.

Interestingly, the answer is right there in black and white. And, arguably, we already know what it is. In fact, we are usually the source of the differences. When people are asked what factors were at play when they were able to have a positive impact, they usually attribute the underlying causes to their own capabilities and talents. Failure to have an impact, however, are typically associated with external forces that prevented us from attaining the outcome or having the influence that we sought.

What this all gets down to is where we perceive our locus of control. An external locus of control means that our actions and impacts are shaped and determined by outside forces. An internal locus of control means that we are responsible for our own outcomes, and we shape our own destiny. This is not a binary choice, however. Most of us shift between these viewpoints quite regularly, depending upon circumstances and context. In doing so, however, we often pre-determine the outcome of our interactions.

This relates to, but isn’t quite the same as, a social psychology phenomenon called ‘attribution theory.’ What attribution theory tells us is that when we perceive inadequacies in others, we attribute those inadequacies to personality factors or other qualities that are enduring to the individual. We tend to attribute inadequacies in ourselves, on the other hand, to external factors over which we have little or no control. What we are discussing here builds on this, but also extends it. Failures are still externally attributed, but framed in how we were prevented, constrained or undermined. Our success, on the other hand, are rooted in our personal capabilities, qualities and talents.

Our orientation in terms of locus of control is pretty much a going-in proposition. We make the choice, in the moment, as to whether we perceive an internal or external locus of control. From there, the results play out in a largely predictable fashion. If we perceive that we are not allowed, that we don’t have permission, that we aren’t supported or valued in our contribution, then that’s a difficult premise to overcome. If we see ourselves as being in control, on our game, responsive, aware and aligned, then that’s a huge vote of confidence in ourselves before we have even gotten started.

What this reflects is the essence of agency, which refers our ability to exercise our will and make a difference in our actions. As described in my book, Exercising Agency[], agency is a product of our ability to make a difference in our environment. Fundamental to those who demonstrate a high level of agency is the perception of a strong internal locus of control: they see themselves as in control of their actions, and the author of their own outcomes. Those who do not have a capacity for agency typically ascribe this to outside forces that prevent them from making a difference.

This is not a binary choice. A critical component of agency is the ability to be reflexive. Reflexivity determines the degree to which we are aware of social contexts, norms and rules, and the degree to which we know our own preferences, biases, value and principles. A low level of reflexivity results in having minimal choice; we are prevented or constrained in our actions by the organization, environment or social situation that we find ourselves in. A high level of reflexivity, by contrast, virtually ignores social norms and is driven almost solely by personal values and guides.

Appropriate functioning—and effective agency—requires a balance. We need to be able to navigate our environment, reading the tea leaves and assessing the norms and conventions of how things get done here, while still maintaining a sense of ourselves, our beliefs, our principles and our ability to make a difference. We exercise agency responsibly when we are able to take stock of external forces of influences and still choose how to respond in the moment in order to get things done.

Doing that requires an understanding of the roles that we play, both formally and informally. In any situation, we have more than one option available to us, and more than one hat that we wear. Each hat has different rules and different choices available to it. Just because our formal organizational role may constrain our role in meeting doesn’t meant that we can’t make a difference. Our expertise, our insight gained from previous positions, our relationship with others or our reputation for dealing with this sort of circumstance all may present different options in how we proceed.

In the moment, we have to assess the different roles that we play. We need to evaluate the rules that are available to each of those roles, and how they help or hinder our cause. We need to weigh and assess which role, which rule (and which interpretation of the rules) gets us closest to where we want to go. And we need to choose to act. Doing this firmly recognizes that the locus of control resides with us. We have choices and options. It’s up to us to evaluate and select a course of action, and commit to moving forward.

Doing so has risks, sure, but it also has opportunities and rewards. We are the authors of our own destiny. We also choose the moments when we don’t act, and blame others for that choice.
I’ve used this quote elsewhere[http://markmullaly.com/2016/02/15/making-a-difference-in-a-time-like-this/], but a saying widely attributable to Henry Ford is equally applicable here: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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