To what we assume would be Ted Lasso’s consternation – or is it delight? – the last fifteen months have come with a heavy side of semantic satiation. “Social distancing.” “Unprecedented times.” “New normal.” “Boomerang worker.” And now: “Turnover tsunami.”

It’s a familiar concern by now; as organizations across the globe begin a migration back to the office, there’s a high degree of uncertainty as to whether workers will agree to follow. This is reflective of what Vantage Founding Partner Carl Robinson calls the “new locus of control” in the employer-employee relationship. Dr. Robinson recently sat down with colleague Emma Baker to discuss a shift in the balance of power, the growing importance of resilience and adaptability, and whether leaders who most successfully navigated through the pandemic will be the ones to set an example going forward.

EB: First, let’s start with clarifying: what exactly do you mean by ‘a new locus of control’?

CR: “There’s an important psychologist from the 1950’s, Julian Rotter, who was very prominent in the field of personality theory. One of his most significant contributions was the concept of ‘locus of control.’ It’s simply expressed as a continuum between those who feel an enormous degree of influence over their world, versus those who don’t – in essence, the world does to you, rather than you do to it. And, of course, you have problems at both ends of the spectrum. At one extreme, you become a delusional egomaniac who believes everything revolves around you. The other end features a total lack of impact, which can generate feelings of helplessness and despair.

However, outside of the extremes, research suggests that a person with a higher locus of control enjoys better mental health and generally greater success and happiness. One of our clients, a CEO, recently observed that at the front end of the pandemic – as terrifying and confusing as the conditions were – he still felt a reasonable degree of control over his organization. He was able to clarify policy and procedure, determine who was essential versus non-essential, and how work could be managed remotely. However, as the pandemic played out, his locus of control seemingly shifted to their employees in surprising ways, including the prominent challenge of how to get people to return to the office, which requires a ‘bottom-up’ approach that he hadn’t anticipated.

I think leaders generally prefer having a sense of control, and this, in part, drew them to management in the first place. Although the word ‘control’ is not very attractive – because no one wants to be told they’re ‘controlling’ – if you translate it to ‘being in charge,’ you can see the pull. I believe leaders enjoy influencing their world even more than the average person. And in the current environment, some are struggling as they discover their ability to predict and ‘manage’ are diminished.

One old-fashioned aspect of control for a leader, which still persists for some, is ‘If I can’t see you, I can’t supervise you.’ Of course, this isn’t universal, but it might explain Zoom meeting overload. The new world has required higher levels of trust. One leader said to me, ‘If you can’t trust people to work without your oversight, you’ve got the wrong people.’ That’s one stand, but it’s also easier said than done for many.

We have come from (and are still in) a period of unprecedented uncertainty. It’s a huge test of leadership resilience and adaptability – to see if one can surrender locus of control. Can a leader respond to this dynamic environment effectively, and can they adjust and grow as the conditions require it? Leaders we work with who are strong in both resilience and adaptability are faring better than those who aren’t.”

EB: What causes you to parse out ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability’? Because it seems like one would necessarily feed the other.

CR: “Resilience is a foundational quality: the capacity to maintain balance under challenge, regardless. A good leader needs to develop a sense of their own resilience, keep their feet on the ground, and manage from a centered place. ‘Adaptability’ speaks to the ability to learn from these experiences. You can keep your feet under you, but if you’re not learning and growing from the challenges you face, you won’t ultimately be successful. Some of the leaders demanding a full-time return to office might be terrific at resilience – they brought their companies through the pandemic – but they’re drawing a line: ‘I won’t adjust to that.’ The reason might stem from a true business need, but it is also likely a reflection of a personal need. Your psychological makeup is always going to be part of your leadership style, but if it begins to throw off your judgement, then you’re in trouble. Your ‘issues’ become confounding variables.

There was a recent New York Times article that amplified this point. The environment is giving a great deal more say to employees than they’ve had in the past: where you work, under what terms you’ll agree to work, and the variance around the policies this requires. Exceptions used to be exceptions – you had a star employee who wanted to move and work remotely, and you might accommodate them [as a one-off]. In this environment, it seems employees are more able to call the shots. I view this as a compelling social science experiment, to see how leaders adjust to these new realities, and where they can’t. And what kind of leaders will do so most successfully under these conditions?”

EB: Do you think leaders who were most successful in navigating their organizations through the pandemic will be more successful going forward?

CR: “At first blush, I would be inclined to say ‘yes.’ Leaders who have come through the pandemic demonstrating resilience and adaptability in the face of diminished control should be able to navigate whatever comes next. But I’m not certain it’s a hard and fast rule. Some leaders were almost made for this period of crisis: it brought out their best. However, if the crisis has actually calmed down, and we re-enter a period of greater stability, it’s possible a few leaders may have trouble pulling back the throttle. Still, I think that overall, a leader who has adjusted well and gained a greater appreciation for the power of their leadership, including its limitations and constraints, is likely to be in pretty good shape.

It’s fascinating! In the news, you have one business leader after another putting forward their philosophy for ‘return to work.’ Some big banks and investment firms have been clear: ‘We’re a work-from-office [company].’ I read that James Gorman, the CEO of Morgan Stanley, said, ‘If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.’ Mark Zuckerberg went in a much more flexible direction, saying he himself plans to work from home up to 50% of the time in 2022, and expects most employees may never return to their offices. However, he has also said – as have many other executives – that those who choose to work remotely from a lower-cost location will receive commensurate pay cuts. Deloitte in Australia is letting employees choose their work hours.

The bottom line is, the pandemic has given people a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit back and reconsider life’s priorities, and a leader who fails to appreciate – indeed, embrace – this is likely to confront a harsh new reality.”

EB: Finally, let’s talk more about the role development of trust will play in organizations going forward, in terms of mitigating the shift in locus of control and/or driving retention. What advice would you give in preparing for this shift?

CR: “First, recognize any policy decisions you make need to be viewed and presented as adaptable. Leaders need to reserve the right to change the ground rules, which requires some flexibility on the part of all: no one can predict the future, and the organization has to be able to shift direction as needed. Second, all decision-making regarding how you adjust must have a central anchor: ‘What’s in the best interest of the business?’ It can’t be, ‘What do I like? What do I prefer?’ A third point would be establishing – in real conversations – what’s reasonable and what isn’t. You need to be able to talk with people about what requirements are essential to support the business, and in the same discussion consider, ‘How will we handle exceptions? What makes an exception?’ Courage is required here.

A dialogue that restates or reaffirms the employer-employee contract, which is built on mutual trust, is in order at times like these. Leaders and followers need to remind each other there is something of an honor system in place in this new world. When both parties step up and play well in that new space, and demonstrate trustworthiness, this should be called out. Suspicions of lack of trustworthiness should be approached gently but taken seriously. If this new approach is going to work, it’s going to be a work-in-progress.”


How has your locus of control shifted as a leader during this time? How are you navigating the ‘return to office’ and other emerging challenges? Tell us in the comments below!