Are You Positive or Negative? Does Your Behaviour Impact Those Around You And Can You Change It?

Copyright © 2006 The National Learning Institute

Some years ago, I read a report by Spiro Zavos in the sports columns of my SMH newspaper, which described the behaviour of a football coach during a very tense finals game.  The antics of the losing coach gave a very good insight into why his team did not win and in fact loses many close games.  In part, Zavos’ report read “He was at his over-emotional worst at Lancaster Park on Sunday.  The eyes rolled more wildly than ever, he stalked the sideline.  Not even the television cameras were safe from his flaying arms.  His antics sent a damaging message to his team: that the fates are conspiring against them and they are, somehow, destined to lose.  And for the second week in a row they lost a critical game.”  The winning coach on the other hand “ … sat impassively in the stands.  The sign he gave to his players with this emotionless posture was that if the players wanted to win, they had to do it themselves.  And they did.  Just.”

Both these coaches were very experienced and knowledgeable about the game.  Both had got their teams to the finals.  But why did one coach’s team always lose the close games and the other always win?

It all has to do with the positive or negative outlook we take and which can dramatically impact those around us.  Often we are not aware of the messages we are sending through our actions.  Psychologists call this a Locus of Control (first developed by Julian Rotter, 1966).  Locus of Control refers to a person’s perception of the main causes of the events in their life.  For example, do you believe that your destiny is controlled by yourself (“I did it myself”) or by external forces such as fate or other people? (“It was their fault”)  Put simply, if you believe that your behaviour is guided by your personal decisions and efforts, then you are said to be more internally focused, i.e. you have an internal locus of control.  On the other hand, if you believe that your behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances, then you are said to have an external locus of control.

Is one better than the other?  That’s always the $64,000 question in psychology.  But generally, people with an internal locus of control tend to have greater influence on their motivation, expectations, self-esteem, risk-taking behaviour, and even on the actual outcome of their actions.  As you would expect, some studies also suggest that people with an internal locus of control tend to be more positive in their behaviour and outlook.

Can you tell what your locus of control is?  Perhaps the people who know you well can answer this best for you.  But there are also a number of short tests freely available on the web (for example; or that you can take.  These only take a few minutes to complete and will also give you a good guide.

The second, and probably more important question is: That if you decide that you need to be more internally focussed, can you change your locus of control?

The answer is an unequivocal, “Yes”.  Many studies have shown that our locus of control is a learned behaviour and as such, can be changed.  My own experience in working as a coach to club, national and international rowing coaches, is that training coaches by getting them to change their behaviour with their athletes, can improve the positive outlook they display within 12 months!  This approach has also been successful in my role as a training consultant in the work environment with new and aspiring managers who were looking to improve the motivation of their team (first look at thyself!).

Finally, how does one change one’s locus of control and consequently one’s outlook?  There are a number of training programs available that use effective  behavioural change methods to help move people from a more external focus to a more internal focus.  But, if you want a very simple method that you can start applying straight away, then changing the words you use in every day conversations can have a major impact.

For instance, getting rid of the word “don’t” from your vocabulary and replacing it with the positive image of what you are suggesting, starts to make you far more positive in your outlook.  Take a look at the following short statements and see what images you get when you read each one …

<b><i> • Don't drop it.

• Don't walk on the grass.

• In case of fire do not use lifts. </b></i>

In the first statement, the only image that comes to mind is the picture of “dropping something” (and quite often the negative consequences of what we have just done and our previous negative experiences of dropping something, particularly when we were children).

The image that the second statement  conjures up is of a person “walking on the grass”, not the footpath as the message intends (“footpath” is never mentioned!).

And in the third example, the only thing we can visualise is the “lift”.  In fact, studies have shown that when there is a fire emergency and the vestibule or foyer starts to fill with smoke, the only word that people recognise in these types of signs, is “lift” and they immediatley head straight for the lift and not the emergency exit as was intended.  As a result, some authorities have now changed their signage to read “In case of fire, use the emergency exit pictured in this diagram” (notice that in this new example the word “lift” is not used at all).

Start to get the picture?  Each of the original statements immediatley has both the speaker and the receiver visualising and thinking of exactly the opposite (and negative) action that should be taken.  However, by eliminating the word “don’t” and replacing it with the positive action you intend as outlined below, the speaker starts to think (and behave) more positively and impacts his or her audience more positively, and thus becomes more internally focused.  Look at the way a person with an internal locus of control, might express the three statements …

<i><b>• Hold</b> on to the <b>glass</b> very carefully.

• <b>Walk</b> on the <b>footpath.</b>

• In case of <b>fire</b> use the <b>fire exit</b> described in the following diagram.</i>

In these new statements, both the sender and the receiver get the positive message immediately.

Can this technique work for you?  I did some follow up interviews with the athletes of the rowing coaches I had been training 12 months after the start of their training.  Without exception, the athletes all expressed the theme that “She has really changed over the last 12 months.  We are not sure what you included in your training with our coach, but she is so much more positive these days.  We really enjoy being coached by her”.

Is it easy to replace “don’t” with a positive image?  In theory, yes.  But in my own case, it took me about 12 months.  Occasionally, I still find myself using a “don’t”, but when I do, an “alarm bell” goes off in my brain and I immediately rephrase my statement to the positive image I want to get across.  As a result, over the last few years, people have commented to me “Bob, you seem to be such a positive person.  Even when you are faced with adversity or a real problem , you always seem to take a positive approach.  I really enjoy working with you”.

If you would like to discuss your locus of control with me, I’d be happy to share some experiences.  In particular, I’m always looking for examples of behaviour change that I can use in my consulting and coaching.  Please drop me a line via