Self-Efficacy

Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as a person’s belief in his or her capability to successfully perform a particular task. Together with the goals that people set, self-efficacy is one of the most powerful motivational predictors of how well a person will perform at almost any endeavor. A person’s self-efficacy is a strong determinant of his or her effort, persistence, and strategizing, as well as subsequent training and job performance. Besides being highly predictive, self-efficacy can also be developed to harness its performance-enhancing benefits. After outlining the nature of self-efficacy and how it leads to performance and other work-related outcomes, the measurement and sources of self-efficacy will be discussed. We conclude by considering whether it is possible to have too much self-efficacy.

Nature of Self-Efficacy

Because self-efficacy pertains to specific tasks, people may simultaneously have high self-efficacy for some tasks and low self-efficacy for others. For example, a manager may have high self-efficacy for the technical aspects of his or her role, such as management accounting, but low self-efficacy for other aspects, such as dealing with employees’ performance problems.

Self-efficacy is more specific and circumscribed than self-confidence (i.e., a general personality trait that relates to how confidently people feel and act in most situations) or self-esteem (i.e., the extent to which a person likes himself or herself), and therefore it is generally more readily developed than self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-efficacy is a much stronger predictor of how effectively people will perform a given task than either self-confidence or self-esteem.

How Self-Efficacy Affects Performance and Well-Being

A high degree of self-efficacy leads people to work hard and persist in the face of setbacks, as illustrated by many great innovators and politicians who were undeterred by repeated obstacles, ridicule, and minimal encouragement. Thomas Edison, believing that he would eventually succeed, reputedly tested at least 3,000 unsuccessful prototypes before eventually developing the first incandescent light bulb. Abraham Lincoln exhibited high self-efficacy in response to the numerous and repeated public rebukes and failures he experienced before his eventual political triumph. Research has found that self-efficacy is important for sustaining the considerable effort that is required to master skills involved in, for example, public speaking, losing weight, and becoming an effective manager.

When learning complex tasks, high self-efficacy prompts people to strive to improve their assumptions and strategies rather than look for excuses, such as not being interested in the task. High self-efficacy improves employees’ capacity to collect relevant information, make sound decisions, and take appropriate action, particularly when they are under time pressure. Such capabilities are invaluable in jobs that involve, for example, dealing with irate customers when working in a call center or overcoming complex technical challenges in minimal time. In contrast, low self-efficacy can lead to erratic analytical thinking, which undermines the quality of problem solving—a key competency in an increasingly knowledge-based society.

In a dynamic work context, in which ongoing learning and performance improvement are needed, high self-efficacy helps individuals react less defensively when they receive negative feedback. In areas in which self-efficacy is low, people often see a negative outcome as confirming the incompetence they perceive in themselves. This can set up a vicious circle whereby ambiguous results are considered evidence of perceived inability, further lowing an individual’s self-efficacy, effort, and subsequent performance. When people have low self-efficacy, they tend to blame the situation or another person when things go wrong. Denial of any responsibility for poor performance inhibits the chance that an individual will learn how to perform more effectively in the future.

People are inclined to become anxious or depressed when they perceive themselves as unable to manage aversive events or gain what they value highly. Thus, self-efficacy is related to the experience of stress and occupational burnout. Specifically, low self-efficacy can readily lead to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about one’s capability to learn how to cope effectively with the challenges and demands of work. When this occurs, low self-efficacy can be distressing and depressing, preventing even highly talented individuals from performing effectively.

Measurement of Self-Efficacy

Because self-efficacy is task specific, there is no single, standardized measure of self-efficacy. Rather, measures must gauge an individual’s self-assessed capacity to either (a) achieve a certain outcome on a particular task (outcome self-efficacy) or (b) engage in the processes likely to lead to a certain desired outcome (process self-efficacy). For example, an outcome self-efficacy scale in the domain of job search might include items such as “I believe that I can get a new job within four weeks” or “I believe I can get a new job with a starting salary of at least $65,000,” with response anchors ranging from “not at all confident” to “extremely confident.” Alternatively, a process self-efficacy scale for job search would focus on items such as “I believe I can network effectively to at least six people during the next four weeks” or “I believe that I can send out 15 resumes during the next four weeks,” with response anchors similar to the outcome self-efficacy scale. The key point is that measures of self-efficacy are most informative, predictive, and useful when addressing areas in which self-efficacy is lacking or when they are highly focused on specific behaviors, tasks, or objectives.

Sources of Self-Efficacy

There are three key sources of self-efficacy. The most powerful determinant of self-efficacy is enactive self-mastery, followed by role modeling, and then verbal persuasion.

Enactive self-mastery is achieved when people experience success at performing at least portions of a task. It serves to convince them that they have what it takes to achieve increasingly difficult accomplishments of a similar kind. Self-mastery is best achieved through progressive mastery, which is attained by breaking down difficult tasks into small steps that are relatively easy in order to ensure a high level of initial success. Individuals are then given progressively more difficult tasks in which constructive feedback is provided and accomplishments celebrated before increasingly challenging tasks are attempted. Building self-efficacy through enactive self-mastery entails structuring situations that bring rewarding success and avoid the experience of repeated failure. For example, a person who is learning to pilot an aircraft may be given many hours to develop skill and confidence in the separate component skills before attempting to combine them by actually flying solo. Initial flying lessons are designed so that trainee pilots are challenged but also experience efficacy-building successes during each session. For employees to develop self-efficacy through enactive self-mastery, managers need to provide challenges in which individuals regularly encounter and celebrate successes as they develop their proficiency at work tasks.

Role modeling occurs when people observe others perform a task that they are attempting to learn or vividly visualize themselves performing successfully. Role modeling can provide people with ideas about how they could perform certain tasks and inspire their confidence so that they can act in a similarly successful manner.

Effective role models approach challenging activities as an opportunity to learn and develop their knowledge, skills, and effectiveness rather than as a test of how talented they are. They respond to setbacks by exploring what can be done differently in the future. In short, good role models demonstrate the development of skill, persistence, and learning rather than the defensiveness and blaming that cause mistakes to recur and subsequent performance to decline.

Models are most effective at raising self-efficacy when they are personally liked and seen as having attributes (e.g., age, gender, or ethnicity) similar to those of the individuals who observe them. One implication is that managers should think carefully before assigning mentors, especially without the input of those being mentored. Individuals may learn and become more confident from observing both the successes and failures of others, as long as they feel confident that they can avoid repeating the errors they observe.

Verbal persuasion builds self-efficacy when respected managers encourage and praise individuals for their competence and ability to improve their effectiveness. Positive self-talk can also raise self-efficacy. Regardless of its source, verbal persuasion is most likely to increase self-efficacy when it is perceived as credible and emphasizes how success results from devoting sufficient effort to mastering acquirable skills rather than depending on inherent talent. Efficacy-raising feedback highlights how consistent efforts have enabled substantial improvements, as well as the progress made, rather than involving peer comparisons or making reference to how far individuals have to go until their ultimate objective is achieved. Effective verbal persuasion is reinforced with corresponding actions. For example, telling individuals that they are capable but not assigning them any challenging tasks tends to erode both employees’ self-efficacy and the manager’s credibility. In contrast, having individuals draw up a progress chart before complimenting them on their genuine progress can be a potent way of raising employees’ sense of what they can achieve.

Undermining Self-Efficacy

These approaches contrast with the subtle, though common, messages that individuals have low ability, which erode self-efficacy beliefs. Such signals include consistently being assigned unchallenging tasks, receiving praise for mediocre performance, being treated indifferently for faulty performance, or being offered unsolicited help. Faultfinding and personal criticism are particularly destructive because these actions undermine motivation to explore and experiment, whereby individuals discover what they are actually able to achieve. Although encouraging messages can raise self-efficacy, attempts at building self-efficacy through verbal persuasion may easily degenerate into empty sermons unless they are supported by efficacy-affirming experiences (i.e., enactive self-mastery).

Self-Efficacy

Figure 1 illustrates the types of managerial initiatives that build employees’ self-efficacy. Table 1 provides a self-assessment of how frequently efficacy-building behaviors should be engaged in.

Self-Efficacy-2

Too much of a good thing?

Extremely high self-efficacy can lead to excessive risk taking, hubris, and dysfunctional persistence, though in most cases, the resulting failures that people experience soon recalibrate their self-efficacy to a more realistic level. In general, the many benefits of high self-efficacy make it a worthwhile attribute to cultivate. This is best done through the simultaneous and systematic application of enactive self-mastery, role-modeling, and verbal persuasion.

References:

  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
  3. Heslin, P. A. (1999). Boosting empowerment by developing self-efficacy. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 37, 52-64.
  4. Wood, R., & Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory of organizational management. Academy of Management Review, 14, 361-384.

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