Article based on research by Laura Guillén
Not only insufficient but also excessive self-efficacy may not lead to career success, according to a new study by Esade associate professor Laura Guillén.
Self-efficacy (or self-confidence) is defined as the belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. “Low self-efficacy has been claimed to decrease chances to succeed in life,” says Guillén. However, social factors such as social support and a positive organisational culture constitute the antidote counterbalancing the negative consequences of low self-efficacy. And, she says, we also need to bear in mind that high self-efficacy at work does not necessarily translate into achieving better career outcomes – it can actually have a negative impact on success in terms of career advancement and pay.
“In professional settings, organisations attempt to cultivate a high sense of self-efficacy among their employees with the hope that self-confident individuals will be more effective, will be more likely to emerge as leaders, and will end up being influential in their work groups. However, the relationship between self-efficacy and success is more complex.”
Being highly self-confident at work does not necessarily translate into achieving better career outcomes – it can actually have a negative impact on success
Job self-efficacy is a motivational resource that drives how much effort people put into achieving their goals, and how long they will continue to sustain that effort in the face of obstacles and adversity. Managers with a higher sense of efficacy are more likely to exhibit resilient behaviour to overcome those obstacles, which ignites their career success.
But, says Guillén, this can lead to people becoming victims of their high self-regard. Individuals high in self-confidence may go on to exhibit self-complacency and a lack of focus which can potentially harm their results. Accordingly, this ‘too much of a good thing’ principle means that the positive relationship between job self-efficacy and resilience (and success) will reach a turning point, after which the association will turn negative.
In short, too much self-confidence might not help individuals learn and put effort into things, might lead to poor decision making and might even harm interpersonal relationships.
The ingredients for long-term success
What is a key for long-term success, she says, is the support people receive from others in their social environment.
The core idea is that even if someone is not fully certain they can perform a task (low self-confidence), they may show resilient behaviour at work and be successful when they can count on supervisor support in taking risks and pursuing initiatives. The support a manager receives is determined by the extent to which they are perceived to embody the values, the beliefs, the attributes and the ways of behaving that are typical of the organisation. A supportive environment dispels the potential negative consequences of lower self-efficacy.
Managers with a higher sense of efficacy are more likely to exhibit resilient behaviour to overcome obstacles, but excessive self-confidence might not be of help
The study shows that the relationship between self-confidence and career success reaches a turning point after which it becomes insignificant (although not damaging). The research contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of how resilient behaviour can be fostered within organisations and highlights individual factors – such as self-efficacy – that can constitute an asset or a risk factor in the workplace. It also stresses the importance of social factors in offsetting the negative consequences of low self-efficacy.
“These results have implications for practice related to work motivation and career advancement and to HR practices in organisations,” says Guillén. “An employee who believes they can perform most likely will. The belief that a high sense of agency is paramount to success is deeply rooted in Western meritocratic society, where all individuals are believed to be able to climb to the top of the social hierarchy. The secret of their success is showing confidence and conviction in their own ambitions.”
Not surprisingly, training efforts in organisations are targeted to eradicate low self-confidence. But Guillén’s study suggests that such targeting may not be justified – in part because individuals in general tend to hold flattering views of themselves. HR managers and organisations should be aware that cultivating an excessively high sense of self-efficacy can be of little benefit and may even decrease individuals’ willingness to collaborate.
HR managers and organisations should be aware that cultivating an excessively high sense of self-efficacy can be of little benefit
In training and coaching terms, suggests Guillén, it could be advisable to focus only on employees whose low self-efficacy actually impedes performance. “They can then be given help to understand what task attributes affect performance and how these factors can be best controlled. They can then be trained to accurately assess their own abilities, and go on to provide role models and opportunities for active engagement in challenging assignments.”
The importance of a strong and supportive organisational culture shouldn’t be underestimated, adds Guillén. People with relatively low self-confidence can be as successful as those with high (and even excessive) self-esteem if they get the appropriate support at work.
“HR managers and leaders should make deliberate efforts to promote organisational cultures that support employees’ needs and encourage them to engage in continuous learning,” she says. “Organisations should clarify the values they stand for and select candidates who share those values. Ensuring managers are supportive can also serve to strengthen employees’ resilience.”
Employee assistance programmes, development of social support at work and employee development programmes can all provide a robust foundation for positive cultures.
“External networks, family and friends can also give the psychological resources that ignite resilience and success at work,” Guillén adds. “Organisations should encourage these different forms of support and explore how they nurture resilience at work.”
Boosting job self-efficacy is not the only answer to gaining a motivated and valuable workforce; fostering a supportive environment inside and outside work is just as important.
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