The science of self-belief (Part 1): Self Efficacy

Self Efficacy in Action(Image of Efficacious cat used with the kind permission of Professor Albert Bandura)

Self Efficacy is the belief someone has in their ability to perform some activity. Decades of research suggest that Self Efficacy is a key driver of employee performance. In this article I explain Self Efficacy and summarise the scientific evidence for its effect on work performance.

Andy Milward Ph.D.


Self Efficacy: the science of self-belief

The automobile industrialist Henry Ford has been credited with once saying:

 “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

Ford meant that if you are to succeed in something you have to believe in your ability.

Like the cat in the photo above, those who believe in their ability can overcome the most difficult challenges.

When the going gets tough, they try harder and persist until they succeed.

Those who do not believe in their ability see little point in trying and give up without a fight.

Self Efficacy defined

The link between success and belief in ability is not just anecdotal.

The technical term for belief in your ability to succeed in a given area of activity is Self Efficacy.

The idea of Self Efficacy was proposed by the Stanford University Psychologist Albert Bandura.[ref]Bandura, A. (1986a). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.[/ref][ref]Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York.: W.H. Freeman & Co.[/ref]

Bandura defined Self Efficacy as:

‘Beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments’.[ref]ibid p 3.[/ref].

A few words about terminology

Self Efficacy is not the same as self-confidence, which is a more generalised sense of belief that is not directed at any particular challenge.

Self confidence also captures the ideas of self-esteem and self-respect – the overall valuation you place on yourself.

However, Self Efficacy means belief in your ability to succeed in a specific task or area of activity.

Over the last twenty-five years, researchers have accumulated a large body of evidence showing a strong relationship between Self Efficacy and performance in many aspects of life.

These include:

  • Workplace activities
  • Sports
  • Health
  • Military activities
  • Teaching
  • Exam performance
  • Playing a musical instrument

Levels of task difficulty


Monkey Business Images/

Self Efficacy takes into account belief in your ability to perform a task at successive levels of difficulty, and in different aspects of the task.

Bandura uses driving a car as an example to make this idea clear.[ref]Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York.: W.H. Freeman & Co.[/ref]

You may be confident you can drive a car successfully on a quiet road in good weather conditions, but, are you confident you can:

  • Use several controls simultaneously?
  • Keep calm under pressure?
  • Read the road ahead?
  • Drive at speed on a motorway?
  • Drive in the city centre traffic during the rush hour
  • Drive in bad weather?
  • Drive on a winding mountain road?
  • Drive at night?
  • Reverse the car into a tight space?

It is therefore not useful to say you are a ‘confident driver’.

It is necessary to say what aspects, type and level of driving you feel you are capable of.

The concept of Self Efficacy captures this idea of belief in ability with respect to various aspects and levels of a specific task, or domain of activity.

Integrating and organising intellectual, emotional and physical resources

Self Efficacy depends upon how well you can integrate and organise the intellectual, emotional and physical resources necessary to perform the activity successfully at successive levels of difficulty.

In the example above, driving a car needs the physical skill to operate the controls, spatial awareness, the ability to stay calm under pressure, the ability to memorise rules and signs etc., etc.

Self Efficacy to drive is therefore a measure of your ability to integrate and organise these factors in such a way that you can drive at a given level of difficulty.

A work related example might make this idea clearer.

Giving a presentation



Suppose you have to give a presentation.

This involves many different sub tasks, each requiring a mix of intellectual, emotional and physical skill.

For example:

  • You need the intellectual skill to structure the presentation in a logical and coherent way.
  • You need the skill to combine the right language and visual elements.
  • It also draws on your ability to express your emotions by embedding feeling in the way you use language, and through your body language.
  • You will also need the skill to use a computer and a software package for presentation design.
  • Modulate and project your voice so that you hold people’s attention
  • Manage time so your presentation is neither too long or too short
  • Make a visual impact through your general appearance
  • Think quickly on your feet when asked a question and answer appropriately
  • Manage your nerves without showing awkward body language, getting a dry mouth, or forgetting your words
  • Quickly make adjustments in the delivery of your presentation depending upon your sense of audience response

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, but it should give a sense of what is involved.

Each of these capabilities is a combination of physical, intellectual, and emotional skills.

They must all be organised, integrated and applied if you are to give the presentation successfully.

Your mix of skills will affect how confident you are in your ability to successfully deliver the presentation.

Some people may have an imposing physical presence but lack the emotional sense to gauge the mood of the audience and respond accordingly.

You may have strong intellectual skills that enable you to develop a great presentation. However, if you cannot project your voice or control your nerves then your delivery will suffer.

These relative strengths and weaknesses will influence your Self Efficacy to give a presentation.

What sort of presentation do you have to give?

Consider also the different types of presentation you might have to give.

You may have to present to one person, to a small group, a group of twenty or so people, a group of hundreds, thousands in an auditorium or even millions (assuming you are on Television!).

You may feel you are up to presenting to a small group, but you would be hopeless at using an autocue to present to a large audience.

You might be confident with a couple of hundred people but you freeze in front of an audience of thousands.

Consider another example:

Academic performance


Ross Helen/

Perhaps because of the way they were taught at school, many people have low Self Efficacy for certain academic subjects.

Take mathematics, for instance.

  • You may believe that you can do simple arithmetic well enough to work out your salary.
  • You might also believe that you can do some very basic algebra.
  • However, you may be intimidated by the thought of calculus.

Your maths Self Efficacy will not only influence the mathematical tasks you choose to attempt; it is likely to determine your choice of career.

If you do not believe you can ever do advanced maths, no matter how hard you try, you are unlikely to choose a career that needs this ability.

Realising your potential


Bahri Altay/

Many people fail to realise their innate ability to do well because they have low Self Efficacy for a particular subject area .

The causes of low Self Efficacy are often complex, but may arise from simple comments made by parents, teachers, managers, work colleagues, mistaken beliefs that a very special talent is needed to achieve in an area of activity, or a belief that they are unable to learn.

The good news is it is possible to improve Self Efficacy by helping people to understand and overcome the intellectual, physical, and emotional barriers that deter them from attempting tasks.

Providing people set realistic goals, over time, incremental gains in performance will raise their Self Efficacy.

Even if you have no obvious talent for a subject area, you may still  be capable of far more than you believe possible.

For example, many people believe they do not have the ability to draw. However, research suggests that everyone has a reasonable aptitude for art. This aptitude just needs to be developed.[ref]for e.g. see Edwards. B. (2008). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. London: HarperCollins.[/ref]

The same applies to learning to play a musical instrument.[ref]See for example, Marcus, G. (2012). Guitar Zero:The Science of Learning to be Musical. London: Oneworld Publications[/ref]

The importance of realistic expectations

It is though important to have realistic expectations.

If you genuinely have no innate ability to perform a particular task, no amount of training or practice is likely to help you to improve.

Fooling yourself that you can perform in an area in which you have no talent can be as much problem as low Self Efficacy.

The general rule is to choose a career that draws on areas where you have potential.

Pursue interests where you have less potential as hobbies. Your improvements will still raise your Self Efficacy beliefs for your hobby. This will give you enjoyment and satisfaction even if your natural ability suggests you ought not base your career on that activity

Self Efficacy and career choice


Becky Stares/

Self Efficacy may apply to a very specific task, or it may apply to a domain of activities – such as Self Efficacy for Maths.

Developing Self Efficacy in a widely applicable subject area can open up many new career opportunities.

A new found competence in maths, science, or art enables you to pursue a wide range of careers.

Raising your Self Efficacy in a particular activity domain has the potential to change your life by opening up career possibilities you never believed were possible.

There are many examples of people who have changed their jobs from one industry to a completely different industry late in life.

Other people change their job roles to positions that require completely different skills.

Self-Efficacy and performance at work

The motivation to work

The idea of Self Efficacy helps us to better understand the concept of ‘motivation’.

Belief in what you are capable of doing influences how you choose to behave, how much effort you exert and the extent to which you persevere when things get tough.

If you do not believe you can succeed at a task, then you have little reason to try, as your efforts will be in vain.

However, if you have a strong sense of belief in your ability to perform a task, this will motivate you to exert effort and persevere even if the task is very difficult.

The idea of Self Efficacy therefore helps us to  better understand the link between motivation and reward.

Motivation and incentives

In the workplace, managers become frustrated that various incentive schemes, or setting stretch goals seem not to improve performance.

In principle, people invest their efforts in activities that give them some pay-off.

However, if an employee (or employees) have low Self Efficacy for a task, incentives are of limited use.

Setting stretch goals to improve performance can further reduce Self Efficacy beliefs as inefficacious employees become further discouraged when they fail to meet those goals.

This suggests that in diagnosing performance problems, managers should analyse employees’ Self Efficacy, and consider what activities are necessary to raise those beliefs.

Self Efficacy at work: the scientific evidence



Self-Efficacy beliefs are critical in the workplace.

In 1998, Professors Alexander Stajkovic and Fred Luthans carried out a summary analysis of  how Self Efficacy beliefs affect work performance.[ref]Stajkovic, A., Luthans, F. (1998) Self Efficacy and Work Related Performance: A Meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 124, No. 2, 240-261[/ref]

Based on a sample size of 21,626 people across one hundred and fourteen different research projects, they found the average productivity gain from efforts to improve Self Efficacy results in a twenty-eight percent increase in task performance.

Although this relationship between Self Efficacy and performance might seem obvious, the extent of the improvement in task performance compared with other scientifically researched forms of intervention is astonishing.[ref]see for example, chapter 4, p. 43 in Feser, C. (2011). Serial Innovators:Firms that Change the World, McKinsey & Company, New York: Wiley[/ref]

Self Efficacy interventions outstrip by a large margin the performance gains from:

  • Goal Setting interventions (10% improvement)
  • Feedback interventions (14% improvement)
  • Specific Training combined with Feedback (17% improvement).

In contrast, interventions to increase Self Efficacy are associated with a 28% improvement in productivity.

It follows that if you want to raise the performance of your employees, invest in activities that raise their Self Efficacy beliefs.

 Andy Milward

Andy Milward Ph.D. is founder and principal of Milward, a consulting and research firm specialising in Strategic Leadership.

©Andy Milward and Milward: Consulting in Strategic Leadership: Latest Thinking, 2014-2015.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andy Milward PhD and Milward: Consulting in Strategic Leadership: Latest Thinking with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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