Taking a deeper look at the trendy topic of self-efficacy
In the search for reasons for entrepreneurial success, business psychology has long identified the human factor as the most important resource. In global competition, employees are the decisive investment, not products. Accordingly, recruiters are taking a burning interest in one question in particular. Which characteristics and skills ensure that employees make an above-average contribution to value creation? One concept that has received particular attention in this regard in recent years is self-efficacy.
Psychology of self-efficacy
The first discoveries that the belief that one can achieve a goal determines whether one actually reaches the goal were made by psychologists in sports. Some world records in athletics were considered unattainable for decades. But when they were cracked, new best times followed in short intervals: The fact that extremely fast times were possible strengthened the athletes’ awareness that they themselves could be that fast – and they were.
In psychology, this is referred to as self-efficacy expectancy. For simplicity’s sake, self-efficacy is almost always referred to. What is meant is an expectation: a self-efficacious person expects that he or she will be able to actually accomplish a task that lies ahead of him or her. Self-efficacy expectations are defined as the “subjective certainty of being able to cope with new or difficult situations on the basis of one’s own competence” when looking at challenges [nbsp]that require effort and perseverance to overcome . Thus, the expectation of being able to successfully complete a routine task is not an indication of self-efficacy.
Underlying the concept of self-efficacy is the social-cognitive assumption that our thinking and feelings influence the success we have in taking action. This is also an extremely plausible assumption for common sense. Those who are pessimistic about their own abilities are more likely to fail. While the optimistic interpretation of a situation and one’s own abilities is more likely to lead to mastering a challenge as well. In scientific terms, this means “cognitive, motivational, emotional, and actional processes [werden] are controlled by subjective beliefs, especially action-outcome expectations or consequence expectations and self-efficacy expectations or competence beliefs” .
Effect of self-efficacy
Self-efficacy can thus be understood as a form of optimism, having confidence in one’s own competencies. General self-efficacy thus stands alongside other optimism indicators such as dispositional optimism and the conviction of having control over one’s life. All three properties support each other. Other related psychological concepts such as a person’shardiness and sense of coherence also belong to this group of personal resources from which a person can draw in order to live and act in a self-determined manner.
The psychological contextualization of self-efficacy already makes it clear that the concept is deeply rooted in the structure of people’s actions. Self-efficacy is reflected both in the motivation to tackle a challenging task and in the volition to have the necessary bite to actually see the necessary actions through to the end. Interestingly, self-efficacious people set higher goals, are less likely to be distracted from their path by more attractive goals, and are also more willing to fight resistance on the way to their goals than less self-efficacious people.
An even closer look at self-efficacy
As with many well-researched psychological concepts, self-efficacy expectancy has numerous distinctions that more accurately describe the construct. For example, to understand how self-efficacy works exactly, the causation, temporal duration, and generality of an influencing factor can be distinguished.
An event can be caused by a person or by his environment. A self-efficacious person will seek the reasons for his successes within himself (internal), while reasons for failure are more likely to be sought in external circumstances (external). For depressive persons, by the way, it is the other way around: they chalk up failure as caused by them (internal) and blame coincidences or interventions of their environment (external) for their successes.
Effect of self-efficacy
The other two dimensions are duration and generality. The time duration of a success factor can be stable or variable. The degree of generality can be explained with the distinction between global and specific. For self-efficacy, this means that people who are self-efficacious believe that the positive events that led to their success have stable and at the same time global causes. Thus, they believe that their success is based on their personality (global), not on any particular single skill they possess, and that this personality does not change over time (stable). Again, it tends to be the other way around for people with a lack of self-efficacy. Thus, a positive circle of self-efficacy affirmation occurs in self-efficacious people and a negative circle in less optimistic people: Inability and lack of success are interpreted by them as a personality trait, an interpretation that is confirmed and strengthened by every further failure.
In view of these self-reinforcing cycles of expectation, it is not surprising that psychology has actually found great stability in self-efficacy expectation: People often retain attributional patterns acquired in youth into old age. Nevertheless, there is no reason to lose heart. Indeed, psychological research shows that people’s level of self-efficacy varies.
Self-efficacy and the personality
If we have just been successful, we like to think we are infallible. If the opposite was the case, we easily underestimate our possibilities. So there can be no talk of absolute stability. Self-efficacy expectancy is rather stable only in people who have markedly high or particularly low self-efficacy. For everyone else in the middle, there is definitely a lot of variability in their expectations .
This is also confirmed by the relationship to the Big Five personality traits, which can only be described as a tendency: Individuals with the traits Conscientiousness and Extraversion tend to have higher occupational self-efficacy, individuals with the trait Neuroticism tend to have lower. However, absolute stability cannot be demonstrated here either .
Self-efficacy has several sides
The fact that self-efficacy expectancy is not a law of nature is also shown by the fact that general self-efficacy is distinguished from domain-specific and even situation-specific self-efficacy expectancy. This is also in line with everyday experience, where there are people who are basically very self-confident, but in some situations or with certain types of tasks they do break into a good sweat. Nevertheless, people with a general self-efficacy expectation are more likely to be optimistic about their entire life, whereas domain-specific self-efficacies are just about specific actions.
Last but not least, individual and collective self-efficacy expectations can also be distinguished. This is because self-efficacy can be demonstrated not only in individual people, but also in complete teams. As with individual self-efficacy, collective self-efficacy is not determined by the specific skills of the team members, but by the team’s conviction that it can act successfully. The belief in the effective potential of the team even leads to the team possessing greater self-efficacy than its respective individual members. Important for this is the group’s ability to efficiently coordinate and integrate its resources. Central to this is, of course, leadership in the team. Before taking a look at this, however, we will first show what effects of self-efficacy have already been demonstrated.
Empirical effects on self-efficacy
When patients were studied, it was shown that people with high self-efficacy had a significantly better recovery course after bypass surgery. These findings were confirmed in a study of breast cancer patients.
In the work context, the level of a person’s self-efficacy expectancy was shown to have a significantly higher impact on his or her job performance than his or her self-confidence or self-esteem. Moreover, the influence of self-efficacy was even so strong that self-efficacy is probably a causal cause of career success .
In a study of vocational students, it was also shown that specifically increasing cognitive self-efficacy before a test allowed students with test anxiety to perform significantly better. Interestingly, however, students without test anxiety performed worse when they were given targeted self-efficacy boosts before the test. They obviously became overconfident and did not try hard enough .
This danger of arrogance has unfortunately also been demonstrated in other studies. Too much self-efficacy obviously leads to underestimating difficulties and investing too few resources in overcoming them . In addition, studies suggest that excessive self-efficacy of high potentials may affect their willingness to learn .
Promotion of self-efficacy in companies
Although not all that glitters is gold when it comes to self-efficacy, it is clear that a high level of self-efficacy is indispensable for success in life and in business. It is therefore crucial to constantly and continuously promote self-efficacy, despite or rather because of its tendency to stability within the personality, in order to achieve long-term strengthening. This is where the commitment of managers must come in.
The most important reinforcement of self-efficacy occurs through success in achieving self-imposed goals. Especially for people who initially have little self-efficacy, it is important to formulate near-term goals and offer coping strategies to support them in their efforts. If successes are achieved, the employees or the team should be specifically confirmed in having achieved this success. This consciously influences the interpretation of the situation so that a positive reinforcement spiral can be set in motion, through which successes can be traced back to stable and global causes in one’s own personality. It is important here that employees can set their own goals, because they feel more committed to them and thus also experience their success more intensively .
If there is no possibility of having one’s own experience, then the second best option is to report on the experiences of others and suggest behavioral models to imitate their experiences. As a third option, psychology suggests the linguistic persuasion of employees through praise and encouragement. Finally, the weakest form of promoting self-efficacy is generating feelings in employees.
For experienced leaders, it is obvious that the four strategies mentioned all fit perfectly with the transformational leadership model. When employees experience participation and self-determination, when they experience encouragement for their achievements and successes, and when they are emotionally inspired by the vision of the team and the company, then the best conditions are in place to strengthen their self-efficacy on both an individual and a collective level. In this way, successes lead to pride and satisfaction, which in turn boosts confidence in one’s own competencies. In terms of this self-reinforcing dynamic, a leader’s high self-efficacy expectation also implies positive effects on his or her employees, who also feel strengthened in their own expectation of effectiveness by believing in the effectiveness of their team leader. Transformational leadership via visions, performance reinforcement is also helpful for this. Not least to increase the collective self-efficacy of the team .
Self-efficacy does not open a royal road
Nevertheless, self-efficacy does not open a royal road to success, but may only be understood as one aspect among several through which people achieve goals. Psychological research has been able to demonstrate that self-efficacy is largely independent of a person’s intellectual and manual abilities. It is true that the successful application of one’s own competencies can help build self-confidence and thus strengthen self-efficacy. Basically, however, self-efficacy and abilities must be distinguished from each other, and a self-efficacious person is not automatically intelligent – or vice versa.
What is certain is that self-efficacy, optimism, confidence and resilience are important resources for better mastering the challenges of everyday work. Having them makes life easier and helps to go through life actively and positively. However, in terms of a person’s work performance, they should not be overestimated. Compared to intelligence, work experience, and conscientiousness, self-efficacy has comparatively little influence on a person’s job performance .
Self-efficacy is a key requirement
Yet self-efficacy plays a critical role in today’s highly dynamic industries. When corporate tasks and challenges change almost by the hour and all employees are required to act on their own responsibility in the interests of the company, this presupposes that they are also confident in these tasks and believe in the effectiveness of their abilities. Self-efficacy thus does not ensure success, but it is a key prerequisite without which success cannot even be thought of. An important building block for mental and motivational stability, it is urgently needed by employees and managers in an uncertain and unpredictable corporate world. Against this background, promoting self-efficacy with the help of the right leadership tools should be part of every HR department’s portfolio.
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