• Matthew Lerner

Hiring: Internal Locus of Control

In my time as a VC and as a PayPal exec, I had to evaluate a lot people. One massive predictor of success is an internal locus of control. But how do you interview for that?

What does it even mean?

It’s a term from psychology, it means people believe they have full control over events and outcomes in their lives. So what? These people believe strongly in their own abilities, so they relentlessly try to achieve things that most normal people would consider impossible. (Sounds amazing, right?)

How do you interview for it?

Psychologists have tests, but short of a full psychometric workup… the key is to focus on their attribution of events. In an interview or pitch meeting, candidates will tell you a lot of stories from their lives. After each story, dig into why they think it happened the way it did. If they have an “internal locus of control” they will own their outcomes. (That’s good and bad outcomes, so probe both successes and failures.) With an external locus of control, they will pass off the credit or blame.

This can be tricky in the UK, as people are uncomfortable owning their successes. That false humility is a big red herring. Try asking about their bad outcomes to get a clearer signal - do they blame others, or genuinely “own it?” (And I don’t mean in a fake passive aggressive way like “It’s my fault, I should have fired him sooner.”)

What’s your next “people” decision?

Internal locus of control is:

- Helpful for hiring marketers

- Critical for hiring salespeople

- Indispensable for investors backing founders

If you want to dive deep on this idea, and how it can be applied in business and life, I recommend the book "Learned Optimism" by Dr. Martin Seligman. Here's a good free summary.

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