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How “Leadership Self-Efficacy” Can Make or Break a Leader (And What To Do About It)

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Phil was ready to be a manager. Or at least that’s what his boss had decided. He was a hard worker with advanced technical skills, and his critical reasoning scores were off the charts. Those who worked with him liked him: he was personable and friendly, yet firm and decisive. Phil was excelling in his current role, so the logical next step would be promoting him to a position of leadership, right?

Phil’s boss excitedly broke the news to him and, though Phil lightly protested, saying he didn’t feel he was qualified for a leadership position, his boss assumed he was just being modest. His performance spoke for itself: he was ready.

Fast forward six months. Phil is completely overwhelmed. His pleasant demeanor has soured considerably and his new team has a hard time accepting his authority due to his lack of direction. Phil is discouraged, his team is discouraged, and his former boss is left wondering where he went wrong with such a promising employee and wishing he had been able to see this coming. Why was such a talented individual failing?

What Leadership Self-Efficacy Is (and Isn’t)

Confidence has long been considered an important component of effective leadership, but as illustrated above, what’s really important is a specific manifestation of confidence. The research refers to it as “leadership self-efficacy” or LSE: an individual’s confidence in his or her ability to carry out necessary leadership behaviors, such as delegating, making decisions, and motivating others.

LSE can be easily confused with self-confidence, but their differences are important. Self-confidence is a generalized sense of competence. It’s also considered a personality trait and, therefore, unlikely to change.

LSE, on the other hand, refers specifically to an individual’s perceived sense of their own competence in a specific ability (leadership) and, therefore, can (and does) change. This means that organizations can play a role in building higher levels of LSE in their team members.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Why Leadership Self-Efficacy is So Important

Leadership researchers have found numerous positive implications of leaders high in LSE. For starters, high LSE are more likely to perform better in their roles compared to leaders low in LSE. High LSE leaders receive higher ratings from stakeholders across many dimensions of leadership effectiveness compared to those with low LSE. They are also more likely to be creative and strategic leaders, able to plan ahead and set a unique vision for their teams. Additionally, these individuals are more likely to desire to lead, as their confidence in their abilities encourages them to take on leadership roles with expanded responsibilities.

The benefits of high LSE leaders go beyond the individual. When a leader is high in LSE, the research shows that his or her team will have a greater sense of group efficacy and will attain higher levels of group performance.

How to Identify and Measure Leadership Self-Efficacy

One of the most important implications when it comes to LSE is to not put an employee in a leadership position if they have low LSE. Research shows that they will likely not perform well in the role, and the team they lead will suffer. Therefore, having a grasp of someone’s LSE before putting them in a leadership role is critical.

There are a number of scales available to measure LSE. These self-reporting measures tend to contain items such as “I can usually change the attitudes and behaviors of group members if they don’t meet group objectives” or “I can figure out the best direction for where my unit needs to go in the future,” and ask the responder to rate the truth of the statement. A conversation eliciting similar information would also be helpful as part of understanding an individual’s LSE.

It’s important to seek more than a high-potential’s motivation to be in the role or others’ belief that he/she is capable of being effective; the research around LSE indicates that the individual must also feel that they can excel in order to be successful.

If an individual communicates that he or she does not feel ready to take on the expanded responsibilities of a leadership role, trust them. If you see someone with low LSE as high-potential, work to develop their LSE. Once it has been developed, they will be much more likely to be successful.

How to Build High Leadership Self-Efficacy Throughout Your Organization

Given that LSE is such a powerful predictor of success, both for leaders and their teams, and that it can be developed, it’s worth considering how an organization can cultivate it in its own leaders. Social psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term “self-efficacy”; through his studies, he found four factors that influence individuals’ sense of self-efficacy: performance achievement, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological state.

To build LSE, consider the following:

1. Offer Opportunities to Try and Succeed at Using Leadership Skills

This may seem obvious, but personal mastery experiences are the most influential in the development of self-efficacy. The more a person succeeds in an area that they perceive as challenging, the more confident he/she will be in future success, and the lower the negative impact of failure.

Personal mastery experiences require an individual to gain experience over a period of time. There is no “quick fix” when it comes to developing LSE in this way, and each individual will require a different amount of time to develop. There are some experiences that increase self-efficacy more than others, particularly succeeding in difficult tasks and tasks undertaken on one’s own. By focusing on fostering these experiences, organizations can get the most “bang for their buck.”

2. Provide Exposure to Others Trying and Succeeding

Vicarious experience also develops LSE. Seeing others taking on challenging tasks and experiencing positive outcomes through applied effort will make an individual more likely to think that he/she can also take on those tasks (e.g., “If they can do it, I can do it, too!”). Individuals will be more influenced by the success or failure of others if the person they are observing is similar to them in role, background, etc. Establishing mentoring relationships between employees and individuals who have been in their same roles or held a role that an employee is aspiring to can help an employee see what success looks like and what the pivotal steps are to achieving it.

It’s worth noting that vicarious experiences in the workplace are influenced by the organization’s culture. In particular, the extent to which the culture of the organization encourages change plays an important role. If, for example, employees observe others taking well-thought-out risks, failing, and being harshly reprimanded, they will be less likely to take risks themselves in the future, including the risk of taking on a difficult task (a major developer of LSE). Further, studies show that leaders who perceive their organization to be change-averse will lose faith in their leadership capabilities.

If LSE can be increased, it can also be decreased. In a culture that’s not open to change, a leader may begin to feel they don’t have agency over outcomes, making them feel powerless and ineffective – and dealing a swift blow to their LSE.

3. Tell Them They Are Effective

Words are powerful, and telling someone that they are able to do something can go a long way toward making them believe it’s true. However, if an individual is not provided with the support necessary for success and ends up failing, this will discredit the persuaders and negatively affect self-efficacy. For verbal persuasion to have the desired impact on employee LSE, it requires the organization to “put their money where their mouth is.”

Organizations can support LSE growth in employees by providing them with adequate amounts of feedback from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Naturally it is important to give individuals feedback on their development areas, but it is essential for it to be balanced with positive feedback and sustained encouragement in order for individuals to make gains in self-efficacy. This isn’t about softening the blow of critical feedback with something positive; the goal is to help individuals see both how they can improve, and where they are already succeeding.

4. Encourage Wellness Activities

Individuals are more likely to expect success when they are calm and in a place of emotional stability.

To foster this, organizations can encourage (and possibly incentivize) employees to take part in activities that benefit their mental and emotional health. There are myriad mindfulness and wellness applications (e.g., Headspace; Stop, Breathe & Think; Vision Pursue) that organizations have started providing employees with to encourage emotional stability. Further, organizations can offer courses on topics such as reducing stress and time management to help employees better manage their busy days. In the long term, organizations should strive to create a positive emotional culture. Those who are in charge of setting the cultural tone should work to establish that behaviors and emotions aligned with positivity are expected and celebrated within the organization.

Leadership Self-Efficacy is linked to some very positive organizational outcomes. It’s worth looking out for when going through the selection process for leadership positions, and it is valuable to put structures and plans in place to foster it across the organization. With sustained focus on the four factors above (particularly performance accomplishments), organizations can reap the benefits of high LSE leaders for years to come.

How did you develop Leadership Self-Efficacy earlier in your career?

What steps do you take now to measure and develop LSE in your organization?

This article was written by Caitlin McLysaght, one of our exceptional interns and a Doctoral student at Roosevelt.

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