Why Are We STILL Ignoring Self-Efficacy? (Self-Efficacy Part II)

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Ah... now for the juicy stuff. In Part 1, we discussed what self-efficacy actually is and why it matters. Today, we look at direct influences on Self-Efficacy, complete with examples and practical tips for helping people improve their confidence about working again.

To recap, Self-Efficacy is a strong determinant of whether someone will initiate and maintain a behaviour in the face of adversity. In terms of working again, it means that people who doubt their skills, talent and knowledge to engage in work-positive behaviours are, you guessed it, unlikely to enagage in work-positive behaviours. And this means they are less likely to set realistic goals, and find and maintain employment.

Albert Bandura described Self-Efficacy as being influenced by 4 factors:

Our main man, Albert Bandura. Photo by Fridolin freudenfett.

  • Past Experience
  • Vicarious Experience (learning from others)
  • Verbal Persuasion
  • How we interpret our emotions and bodily sensations during times of stress.

Let's explore these in more detail.

1. Past Experience

The most straight-forward way we develop self-efficacy is through our past actions. Generally, succeeding at a task or behaviour improves self-efficacy, whereas failing diminishes it. Performance is more likely to impact self-efficacy if a person feels that their success or failure can be attributed to something they had control over.

Example: People who have experienced panic attacks while in public will often doubt their ability to cope well in crowded areas. As a result, many people with panic disorder will avoid social situations. 

2. Vicarious Experience

Less influential than personal experience, watching how others perform a task can foster self-efficacy in the observer.

Caveats: the best sources of vicarious learning for increasing self-efficacy are:

  • Similar to the observer, which increases the personal relevance of the task
  • People who succeed through persistent effort, rather than some inherent skill

Example: A recently injured man with quadriplegia joins a support group, where other people who use a wheelchair share stories about working despite their disability.

3. Verbal Persuasion

While this source of information is less authentic than real experience, verbal suggestion from others does impact our self-view, particularly when the source is believed to be credible or expert.

Caveat: Raising expectations of performance can be dangerous if we do not facilitate actual success through providing appropriate support, aids or practice, and it is very likely to undermine our credibility with clients in the future.

Example: A Rehabilitation Counsellor provides positive feedback to a client having applied for a job, while continuing to provide information that will assist their client in their application and future conversations with employers. 

4. Our Bodies

Difficult situations can create physical sensations of distress like a fast pulse, sweating or shortness of breath. We can interpret these reactions as a sign of our inefficacy to perform. In turn, this tends to raise our anxiety further and create even greater physical discomfort. It's a vicious cycle that leads to avoidance behaviour, so we never get a chance to actually test whether these feelings of anxiety are really a sign that we can't perform.

Anxiety is rarely completely abated - in fact, we often perform best when we feel a manageable level of anxiety (or "arousal" in technical terms - how very raunchy of you, psychological science). Solutions to anxiety in the moment can include teaching relaxation and grounding techniques and ways to challenge unfounded self doubt. Real-life exposure to success is often the best bet - more on that below.

Action Points:

  • Start the conversation. Ask questions about how a person feels about their ability to cope at work, what kind of support/encouragement they're receiving, and whether they know people in a similar situation who have succeeded in getting back to work. The reason that your client is stalling might be because they are fearing failure, or maybe they haven't had the chance to see what they're capable of with the right tools and support.
  • Training wheels first. Confidence rarely develops overnight, and this is especially true for people facing significant change such as a recent injury or disability. At first, the people you work with might need guidance with smaller tasks such as how to build a resume or speak confidently to employers. This might expand into on-the-job support as they become familiar with the workplace, their co-workers, and develop ways to self-manage at work and ask for the support they need.
  • Grade it: Success in smaller tasks (especially when performed in a low-risk environment) sets the stage for bigger tasks to be carried out down the line.
  • Provide feedback: If you have taken the time to build rapport with your client, they are likely to see you as a credible and knowledgeable source of information. As a valued source of information, it is important that you provide positive feedback on their successes and ask how their actions this week have helped them toward their goals. Employers can be a valuable source of reinforcement too - so make sure they are involved in the process and ask them to provide feedback to you and your client.
  • Create community: People with negative self-views may not have ever had access to sources of encouragement or positive role models. In addition to providing positive feedback and creating opportunities for graduated success, have discussions with your client about how they can build a better support network - a new activity; a local support group?

Improving work readiness begins with a question. Image by Tim Pierce.

The key point here is that a person's sense of capability is very receptive to new information. Especially in the weeks and months after injury, self-efficacy views will begin to crystallise, which means that this is a prime time to tackle the issues around poor self-views that can sabotage our goals.

As a side note, I've always enjoyed talking to people about how they see themselves - the focus instantly changes to how we can help people feel more in control of their lives.

How do we help people become a force of nature instead of a passenger in this journey?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Sources and Further Information:

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Image Credit: The above images by Fridolin FreudenfettTim Pearson and Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvigare licensed under CC BY SA 4.0 and CC BY 2.0.