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Self-efficacy: The science behind believing in yourself
I remember the first time I relied on self-efficacy at work.
My then-team was hosting a global summit with employees from all over the world. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I tend to veer away from public speaking engagements.
As my team started to prepare the event agenda, my manager asked me to prepare a segment. I was asked to present to a packed auditorium on the value of storytelling for good — and how our employees can become an ambassador for change.
In all transparency, my first reaction was pure panic. I swallowed the lump in my throat and responded, “Sure, I can do that.”
She reassured me that I would do a great job, that I knew my stuff. And that she believed in me. It deposited a little more belief in my piggy bank that I needed to stay motivated. It was those kernels of self-efficacy that helped me to even start the project in the first place.
When the global summit finally arrived, I spent the morning meticulously going over my slides and my notes. I had rehearsed my talk track. I knew my data, my presentation deck, and my story well. I knew my goal. Yet still, I had that inner critic chirped in the back of my head.
Did I believe in myself? Could I actually present to a packed auditorium? Will my message land? I got up on stage — and everything else seemed to melt away. I can do this, I remember thinking to myself. I can do this.
While I didn’t know the term for it then, I realize now what skills I pulled out of my brain. I was leaning on the theory of self-efficacy.
In this post, we’ll talk about the science behind believing in yourself. We’ll break down why self-efficacy plays a role in how we reach our full potential — and how you can build self-efficacy.
What is self-efficacy?
First, let’s define what we mean by self-efficacy.
What is self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy is a social cognitive theory developed by Dr. Albert Bandura. This theory is based on the belief that a person is more likely to succeed based on how they think, behave, feel — and the support of those around them.
The self-efficacy theory is a psychological concept that essentially states you have a locus of control over your ability to reach a specific goal. At its simplest, it’s the idea that believing that you can succeed helps you succeed in a particular situation. When you believe in yourself, you’re motivated to follow through with it.
Psychologist Albert Bandura researched the social psychology behind the role of self-efficacy in human behavior. According to Bandura, self-efficacy beliefs are foundational to human behavior. In his publication of Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change, Bandura talks about how people have a sense of agency in their behavior.
“Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act. Efficacy belief, therefore, is a major basis of action. People guide their lives by their beliefs of personal efficacy.”
Dr. Albert Bandura, psychologist, researcher, Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change
It’s possible that your levels of self-efficacy are situation-based, too. For example, let’s say you’re a new manager on a team. You’re extremely driven to ensure that your team succeeds and that you’re showing up as an inclusive leader.
Because you have high levels of self-efficacy toward your new role, you’re more motivated to pursue action. You sign up for professional development workshops. You talk with your coach about ways you can build your inclusive leadership skills. You learn about each team member’s individual differences and strengths.
But this same person may also have low levels of their own self-efficacy when it comes to work-life balance. For example, let’s say this new manager has taken on more and more responsibility at work in the last couple of years.
During the pandemic, work-life balance dissolved completely. In fact, this person might unconsciously think that work-life balance and being a good employee are mutually exclusive. Because that belief doesn’t exist, that person is probably less motivated to achieve harmony between work and personal life.
At BetterUp, we’ve studied the impact of self-efficacy. Members high in self-efficacy are 2.3X more likely to receive a promotion or pay raise within 3-4 months of coaching. Compared to those who scored low, BetterUp members who score high on self-efficacy report:
- 26% more resilience
- 21% more innovation
- 14% more productivity
“The lower the sense of self-efficacy, the higher the perceived burnout. If you find yourself on the wheel of weariness, you will be weakening your personal pulse and setting yourself up to be more susceptible to lowered self-efficacy.”
Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD, VP, Coach Innovation, and author, The Burnout Fix
As with many things in clinical psychology, the theory of self-efficacy boils down to a science. So when we look at what sources self-efficacy, Bandura outlines four main areas.
Mastery experiences are experiences that can help give a person insight into their successes and their failures. We all learn from failure. In fact, I’d argue that I’ve learned more from my failures than I have from any of my successes.
But generally speaking, when you do succeed at something, it gives you that extra boost of self-confidence. That means you’re increasing your self-efficacy beliefs with each success. On the flip side, failing at experiences can lower self-efficacy beliefs.
For example, let’s say you learn a new skill, like an Excel hack. When going through metrics and data analysis, you put your new hack to the test. When it works — and you do a good job on the project — you get that little boost.
Oh, to live vicariously through someone else. There are books, TV shows, and movies all based on this concept of vicarious experiences.
As the name suggests, vicarious experiences are modeled after others. Basically, your own belief in yourself to achieve or attain something is based on a point of reference.
In the workplace, you might see this just by observing others. For example, I once had a mentor coach me on my public speaking skills. They challenged me to approach someone whom I admired — a colleague at work who nailed every presentation.
While it made me uncomfortable, it was also a reminder that everyone is human. If that human being can present something flawlessly, why can’t I?
Good at influencing people? This source of self-belief is an interesting one. It’s the idea that a person can convince other people of their capabilities.
Think about your hype work BFF. In what ways do they validate your self-worth? How do they help build your self-confidence?
I know that I’ve definitely benefitted from someone else telling me I’m good at something. Especially when your self-compassion is low, this source of self-efficacy can be helpful. It might just be the reminder that you need to keep going.
Emotional and physiological states
Basically, your vibes matter. Moods, emotions, stress — they all play a role in how you feel about your personal abilities.
If you’re having an off day and don’t feel really confident, you might feel some self-doubt. Maybe that’s a reminder that you need some Inner Work®. Or if you’re feeling confident about yourself, got a good night’s sleep, and ate a big breakfast, you feel ready to take on the day.
Emotional regulation (and self-regulation) play a big role in this source of self-efficacy. It’s important to build that sense of self-awareness to identify your emotions.
It’s also important to stay keenly aware of your emotional health behaviors. Oftentimes, your body will recognize something before your mind (even though your mind is the culprit).
3 examples of self-efficacy in action
Still not sure what this learning theory looks like in practice? Let’s look at some examples.
- Heather has worked as an HR professional for nearly ten years. In the last couple of years, Heather’s department has seen an influx of work. From the pandemic to creating fast-changing policies to hiring pauses, HR has seen a lot. As a high-performer, Heather started to sacrifice her personal time for work.
Soon, Heather slipped into a state of languishing. She was completely burnt out at work and found herself unmotivated to complete even the simplest of tasks. A new exciting project that Heather had pitched last quarter gets approved. Her boss is surprised to see Heather react with self-doubt. Heather’s manager can see a noticeable difference in her self-esteem.
Heather’s sense of self-efficacy levels had slipped on the self-efficacy scale. Because of the impact of burnout, Heather is now experiencing low self-efficacy — and it shows in her work performance. (And yes, there’s science that shows how your levels of self-efficacy affect performance and burnout.)
- Mark recently decided to follow his passion. After working in accounts payable for almost twenty years, Mark quit his job to open up his own small business. Mark is highly motivated by the purpose of his work. He also has a support network of friends, family, old colleagues, and his BetterUp coach to help him as he navigates this big change.
Because Mark is feeling pretty well-supported and confident in his abilities, he is ready to take on the challenge of this new business. While he has plenty to learn, he also believes that he can achieve his dreams. Mark has a high general self-efficacy.
- Talia recently took on a new project at work. It was a stretch project, one that pushed her outside of her comfort zone. But after she received high praise from leadership, Talia felt great about her abilities. She was confident and had validation from the leadership team.
So, when a new project came about, Talia was quick to raise her hand to lead the workstream. Because she benefitted from employee recognition and was given an opportunity to grow her skills, Talia felt confident to take on a new challenge. Talia experienced high levels of self-efficacy.
15 characteristics of high and low self-efficacy
Looking for signs of self-efficacy? We’ve outlined 15 characteristics to help you spot where you (or your workforce) fall on the self-efficacy scale.
High self-efficacy characteristics
- Strong sense of self-confidence
- Self-evaluation and self-awareness are high
- Willingness to take risks or step outside of your comfort zone
- Ability to solve tough or challenging problems
- Highly motivated to reach goals
- Resilient; able to recover from setbacks
- A deep sense of passion (and clarity of purpose)
- Good state of mental health
Low self-efficacy characteristics
- Low self-esteem or self-confidence
- Veers away from trying new things or taking risks
- Focuses on failures and is hyper-focused on negative outcomes
- Symptoms or signs of burnout
- Poor sleep hygiene and nutrition habits
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues
- Aversion to connecting with others
7 ways to build self-efficacy
Bandura’s research on the four sources of self-efficacy teaches what needs to be present for us to take risks. When we feel good about ourselves, have the support of others, see others doing well, and have experiences that we’re proud of, we want to keep growing.
Without these factors, we often become discouraged. This can become a self-repeating cycle that makes it more challenging to try something new in the future.
Applied psychology can feel a little academic and hard to understand. But understanding where this feeling of confidence comes from is key to growth and long-term success. When we stay stuck where we are, we stop believing that we can reach our full potential.
If you’re looking for ways to encourage this science of believing in yourself, here are seven ways to build self-efficacy.
It’s hard to know what you’re building on without knowing your own foundation. Stop and take an audit of how you’re feeling.
At BetterUp, we use the Whole Person Model to help get a comprehensive picture of our human behaviors and state of mind.
Consider taking the Whole Person Assessment to get a gauge of where you are today. In the workplace, you can also ask your employees to participate. It will help in this reflection stage of building your self-efficacy skills.
Once you have an idea of what you want to target, it’s time to set goals.
For example, when I first took my Whole Person Assessment, I scored pretty low in self-compassion. I worked with my coach to reflect on three things that I did well in my work week to help build self-efficacy.
Even though it was a small goal, it helped to measure my outcome expectancies. And, in a lot of ways, it helped hold me accountable for reaching those goals, too.
Make time for upskilling and professional development
You might be looking for ways to build self-efficacy within your workforce. Or you might want to invest in your skills and find ways to learn new things.
No matter where fall, challenging yourself to learn something new can help you build self-efficacy.
Can you sign up for a new class or workshop? Can you read a book that will help you learn something new? Is there a simple skill — like an Excel hack —that you’ve wanted to learn for some time but keep putting off?
Even the smallest learning opportunities can translate into big returns.
Build emotional regulation skills
Your emotional regulation skills are critical to maintaining your well-being. Being able to regulate your emotions opens up so much for your body and your brain.
By building emotional regulation skills, you’ll be better equipped to handle triggers. You can better navigate future uncertainty and change. You’ll also be more resilient to change and adapt quickly to things that might throw you off your game.
Invest in your mental fitness
Investing in your mental fitness is non-negotiable. It’s critical to be proactive about our minds and our well-being, especially when building self-efficacy.
Just like mental health, self-efficacy is parallel to the mental fitness scale. We can exist up and down the spectrum, slipping from languishing and boosting to thriving.
If you’re looking to build self-efficacy within your workforce, start with mental fitness. With access to coaching, our data shows that employees are more productive, more resilient, and less likely to experience mental illness.
In fact, of the people who start out feeling stuck, 77% will significantly improve their well-being state by 3-4 months with personalized support.
Learn more about how you can transform your future with mental fitness.
Be kind to yourself. Words matter, especially the silent ones we mutter under our breath.
But when we practice self-compassion, we’re actually building resilience. We’re better equipped to handle stress and uncertainty.
If you need help drowning out your inner critic, try starting a “wins” journal. Keep a record of all of your mastery experiences and positive feedback from others. You can look back on this when you’re feeling discouraged or need an extra boost of confidence.
Build a solid support system
Last but certainly not least, assemble your support system. Your employees need multiple support access touchpoints. Just like humans need different support systems in the real world, so do your employees in the workplace.
Think about access to coaching, mental health support, benefits, professional development opportunities, and more. Take a holistic view of the types of support you’re offering your employees — and where they might want (and need) more.
Start believing in yourself
Self-efficacy measures a person’s belief in themselves. Rooted in social psychology, this social learning theory is proven to help improve your well-being.
While “think positive thoughts” might not be a determinant for success, there’s science behind the theory of self-efficacy.
Invest in a better you — and a better company. After all, we’re all people. We’re human beings deserving of living lives with purpose, clarity, and passion. Start with BetterUp. Together, we can help you tap into your full potential.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.