The Importance of Self-Efficacy in Developing Resilient Leaders

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 12:45

Guest blog by Richard Carter

Resilience as a key leadership characteristic is fast becoming a commodity all Australian leaders need.

The unprecedented levels of disruption occurring across most industries means that many leaders are now facing increasing adversity from changes in market dynamics, technological innovation and new competitors. Clearly, being a leader in today’s economy is not for the faint-hearted.

But what does it mean to be resilient? Resilience is the ability to persist in the face of challenges and bounce back from adversity. More specifically, resilient leaders usually demonstrate the ability to:

  • Deal effectively with pressure, maintain focus and energy, and remain optimistic and persistent, even under adversity and while recovering quickly from setbacks.
  • Problem solve with a calm, confident sense of being able to overcome adversity. They approach challenges with learning agility – the ability to learn from each experience, positive or negative.
  • Focus on things that matter when the going gets tough, regardless of whether it’s organisational change, tight deadlines or pressure to perform.

Resilience has been studied by psychologists for 40 years. The good news is that many aspects of resilience can be taught, such as optimism, effective problem solving, self-efficacy, flexibility, impulse control and empathy.

Self-efficacy plays a key role in helping to build more resilient leaders. Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in their personal agency, a sense of control and confidence in their competence to undertake a challenging task and achieve a successful outcome. Leaders with high levels of self-efficacy continue to persist against the odds because of this deeply held belief.

Although self-efficacy is not a widely used term in leadership and management, self-efficacy beliefs underpin motivational ‘empowerment’ – a management concept first popularised some 25 years ago.

Employee empowerment depends on boosting staff self-efficacy beliefs so that they have the confidence to perform their work tasks successfully while concurrently creating a strong sense of personal responsibility to undertake them. Carrots and sticks are not enough.

In the same way that boosting employee self-efficacy beliefs leads to greater empowerment, engagement and performance, creating more resilient leaders in part depends on boosting their self-efficacy beliefs to effectively cope with adversity.

Building self-efficacy beliefs is a bit like teaching yourself a new sport – they can be strengthened via personal mastery (practice makes perfect), vicarious learning (having great role models) and feedback and coaching (praise as well as constructive support).

Leaders with high self-efficacy beliefs are better at dealing with adversity, see problems as challenges – not threats, persevere at challenging tasks and experience less negative emotional arousal. In short they are more resilient under pressure. 

Richard Carter is the Design & Research Director at The Octant Foundation, a senior leader capability development practice of the Australian Institute of Management which is committed to developing senior and high potential leaders in order to drive significant, identifiable and sustainable value creation.