Self-efficacy for improved performance

Nearly all of us would like to be able to improve our performance and the performance of those around us. One of the ways we can do this is by using self-efficacy theory. In this blog post, I share a story that reveals the secrets to efficacy theory so that you can apply it to boost your performance straight away.

Natalie woke with a smile on her face. She’d had a great night out, made some new friends and, most of all, she’d tackled a big personal challenge of hers, which was all about being proactive in talking to men. Last night, she’d managed to bag a ‘hottie’ and after a great fun night had left with a phone number, a date booked in for Sunday and a steamy kiss, all thanks to a push from her psychologist. Whilst Natalie thought most people seemed to have a stigma about psychologists, for her, she now knew how empowering and constructive their help could be. If only her friend Katia could be open to it. Well, she’d soon find out. 

Katia, one of Natalie’s friends from way back, had just returned to Fingal Bay after who knows how many years travelling the globe. As exciting as that sounded, really Katia had been avoiding sticking at anything that looked like a goal in life, and always defaulted to traveling to escape having to work on a goal.

Natalie threw some running clothes on and crept through the house to the guest room where Katia was staying. Natalie was expecting Katia to be sound asleep, but was surprised to see Katia dressed in her fitness gear lacing up her running shoes.

“Hullo, stranger!” Natalie had been out when Katia arrived and her son had been the only one she had seen so far.

“Oh my god, look at you!” After a big hug, Natalie stepped back and looked at Katia. and noticed something was different.

“I know that look, Nat, and before you give me the third degree, how about we go for a run?”

“Hmm, okay, but you know I’ll grill you on the run. Let’s go.”

As Natalie and Katia went for their run, both brought each other up to speed on what had been happening in their lives so far.

“I’m back for good, Nat. This time, I’m going to give things a real go.”

“I’m so glad to hear that, Katia, what are you going to do differently this time? Do you have some kind of special goal, or some guru magic that you’ve learnt in your travels?” asked Natalie.

“To be honest, I’ve tried lots of astral techniques of manifestation, wishing things would come to me and I think I’ve finally realised that I’ve been running and hiding from the truth. And that’s that I suck at focusing and staying focused on something until I complete it. At the first hint of discomfort or an obstacle appearing, I run the other way, but not this time. I’m going to change.”

“Go, sista, go!” replied Natalie.

“You seem to have life all sorted and your kid Ted is like the perfect kid. How’d you do it all?” asked Katia.

Natalie smiled “I had lots of help. The best help I’ve ever had, in fact, and it came from a psychologist. You know, I even used some of her techniques last night and I’ve got a date tomorrow with a really cute guy”, gushed Natalie.

“Does he have a cute friend by any chance?” Katia asked cheekily.

As they neared the beach, Natalie finished her simple summary of how Dr. Miles had taught her techniques to help her get back in to the dating game. As much as Katia was keen to find herself a nice man, she had bigger fish to fry.

“That sounds great, I’m really happy for you, Natalie. What I need, though, is some help on sticking at something” said Katia.

“I think I might have something for you to help with that. The best thing would be for you to see Dr. Miles, but I’m assuming you don’t have much money in the bank, so I’m happy to share a technique that she shared with me. In fact, sharing that will help me get better at the technique at the same time.”

“That would be so cool, Nat. What was it that she taught you?”

“Well, during one of my sessions, I spoke about some fears I had with my business, and that I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep the business viable. And after a stack of questions, she told me that I needed to do some homework and read up on self-efficacy theory. I think you should do a Google about it yourself, but the crux of self-efficacy is the level of belief that you have in your innate inability to achieve goals and also to be able to sustain effort when you face obstacles.”

“That sounds like me to a tee,” groaned Katia.

Natalie pointed to the grass in the park near the beach.

“Let’s do some abs while I tell you more. There’s a scale they talk about that ranges from low efficacy to high efficacy. Someone who has low efficacy will often believe tasks are harder than they actually are and often see negative situations as being outside of their control.”

“Like the time I blamed the council for closing my pop-up muffin shop because I didn’t have a permit?” suggested Katia.

“Exactly. You blamed them for months after giving up, rather than doing all the paperwork to get the permit and start again,” finished Natalie.

“So, what does high self-efficacy look like? Someone like you?”

“Believe it or not, I was a bit on the low side. Someone with textbook high self-efficacy sees difficult tasks to be mastered versus avoided and they tend to see obstacles as something that stimulates them into more effort”.

“Can we do some lunges? I want to tighten my butt muscles,” asked Katia.

As they started their lunges, Natalie outlined the five core elements of self-efficacy.

  1. Experiencing mastery – physically and emotionally experiencing the sense of achieving and mastering something

  2. Modelling someone else’s behaviour – ‘If they can do it, I can do it’

  3. Social persuasion – encouragement from other people

  4. Physiological factors – knowing that physical sensations do not reflect a lack of ability

  5. Perception of ability – Seeing that you have the ability to acquire a new skill to improve, versus seeing it as impossible to improve or learn to change

“Slow it down, Freud. That’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. Can you give me an example of something you’ve been working on?” asked Katia.

“Sorreeee, I get a bit excited about this stuff, and it was Albert Bandura, not Freud who created this theory. Okay, with ‘Experiencing mastery’, what that means is it’s important to have experienced some sort of success in achieving an improvement of something. So, for me, I was a bit worried that in my business, I was incapable of getting a constant flow of business so that my business was sustainable. I would have lots of work for a couple of months followed by very little work and I’d start freaking out about where the next job was going to come from. What I needed to do was to have a direct experience of mastering a task or controlling the environment and persist through some obstacles.

So, I broke down the bigger goals of more sales and looked at the smaller parts of what that entails. Marketing, making calls and keeping in touch. What I worked out was that I was only working on marketing when business was quiet, and I wasn’t keeping in touch with people when I was busy. I needed to keep in touch with people all the time, otherwise, I would drop off the radar, and then I’d blame the market and say there’s no work around, when I really know my competitors had work on.

I made a promise to myself then that I would send out two handwritten cards a day with some tips I’d come across. That would mean every day, I’d be reaching out to two old clients with a valuable bit of advice and keeping me on their radar. I know that might not sound like much of a big thing, but you’d be surprised at how many times I would say to myself, ‘don’t worry about it, or no one will read them anyway’. Despite these mental obstacles (as well as the ones when I really was flat chat), I managed to keep up the effort and I still do this every week. The bizarre thing is, it works. I get about a 20% response rate just from the snail mail cards I send out, and I’m going to start soon with some ‘follow up’ phone calls as well. What I’ve been experiencing is a sense of ‘I can do sales, and I can do it sustainably even though there will obstacles that pop up’. Does that make sense Katia?”

Nodding her head, Katia replied “I like that, doing a super small activity and mastering that makes lots of sense. I would never have thought of that. Usually, when I try to start something, I invariably tackle the biggest thing and give up within hours. What was that second thing, modelling?”

“Modelling is my favourite, because it’s so easy. Too often, we compare ourselves to people who may have had years of experience mastering something and we might be just starting out, and we end up thinking it’s all too hard and that we don’t have the skills to do anything about it. Well, for me, what I did was ask myself, ‘who do I know that is no smarter than I am who seems to be going really well in selling their services in a small business?’  

“I don’t know if you remember that super geek Dom Jones from High School, but Dom had been working as accountant for one of the giant accountancies in the city and wanted a ‘sea change’ and came back here to Fingal Bay to set up his own accountancy business. Despite not having been around the area for years, he’s been drumming up business really quickly and expanding rapidly. When I caught up with him a while back, I asked him how he was so good at sales and he reckons that he hates selling, but knows you can’t have a small business without sales, so he’s just made it one of his daily chores, getting on the phone and calling people. That’s when I started saying to myself, ‘if a nerd like Dom Jones can get good at selling, then so can I.’”

“Oh my god, I remember Dom asked me to the school formal, but luckily I already had a date. What does he look like now?”

“He’s cute in a Clark Kent-ish type of way,” replied Natalie with a smirk.

“Okay, before you start chasing Clark Kent, let’s walk. My arse is killing after those lunges. Let me tell you about ‘Social persuasion’. ‘Social persuasion’ comes from other people who can strengthen our belief that we have what it takes to succeed. Dr Miles was part of the social persuasion for me in helping me see and believe in myself and my business, yet she also encouraged me to join a business ‘meet-up’ group that holds events at Bluefish Point. I was a bit reluctant, thinking it was going to be full of people handing out business cards trying to sell me something. What I actually found was that it was a group of encouraging business owners sharing the strategies that have been helping them grow their businesses. I also discovered that they’re constantly reinforcing to each other that they can do this, and that everyone in that room has the ability to grow their business. So now, I’m always on the lookout for people who are encouraging of others to spend time with them and also be more encouraging of other people as well, and that’s ‘Social persuasion’”.

“When I look back over all the things I’ve done in my life I think the only ones I’ve got close to completing have been when there’s been some supportive people around. Remember when I was going out with Rohan, even though he was a jerk for dumping me, he was always encouraging me and telling me I could do it when I was writing that kids book?” Reflected Katia.

“Whatever happened to that book anyway?” asked Natalie.

“I talked myself out of finishing it, but I still have it somewhere on the computer. Hmmm, maybe I should revisit that one, but first, what’s the next one?”

“The fourth component to the model is ‘Physiological factors’. Dr Miles got me good on this one. She asked me what type of feelings I got when thinking about dating and where specifically I felt them. For me, I told her I got this nervous feeling in my belly, kind of like I had to pee, but maybe throw up at the same time. She asked me if I thought that’s what other women might experience as well when approaching a man they had never met before. That’s when the penny dropped, because I reckon most women would get nervous heading up to talk to a guy they were keen on. Dr Miles started to ask me what kind of signs would someone who was nervous feel in the body and I listed a stack of sensations like butterflies in the tummy, tightness in the neck, higher heart rate, shallow breathing. She taught me to mentally say the following if it happens, ‘Even though I have the feelings of nervousness in my tummy, these are a natural stress response and have nothing to do with my ability to complete my chosen activity’. And you know what, it works”.

“The fifth component is ‘Perception of ability’. In some ways, this is about being able to conceive in your mind what it would feel like and look like to behave effectively or successfully in a situation. I guess you could call it mental and emotional rehearsal. This one is more valuable than it sounds, because it really gets you to think and feel what it would be like to deal with an obstacle and succeed at achieving it. Most people make the mistake of visualising success, but fail to acknowledge and rehearse dealing with obstacles that will most likely encounter.”

 “I’m hearing you, but not getting it. Give me another of your real life examples for this one,” asked Katia.

“Okay, for me, a good example I have is winning the Boathouse interior design job”

“No way, did you design that? I saw some pictures of that on Instagram recently – it looks amazing!”

“Aww, thanks. The design work was easy compared to landing the job. You see, I only found out about it by chance when I was getting a take away cappuccino from there last year. I saw some ‘designer-ish’ people with a set of plans in their arms saying good bye to the owner and so I asked the barista if they were planning on making some renovations. They said they had some plans for the building expansion in with council, but they were still finalising who would be designing the interior.

I went and said hello to the owner after the designers had left and asked them if they had considered any local designers for the interior design. The owner, who lives in the city, said they hadn’t, but they had used the design firm ‘Pepper and Smart’ a number of times and probably would be using them again. Then, she made some excuse that she had to go.

When I got home, I knew I had to do some mental rehearsal around dealing with the obstacles to get a shot at the design job, and so I did a mental and emotional rehearsal dealing with the frustrations I would have to put up with. Chasing up the owner again, persuading them that even though I was local and a one-person show, that I could deliver the goods, and then having to do some conceptual drawings for free to change her mind to consider me. I did one of these rehearsals every day for a week as I set about dealing with obstacles and following up, and low and behold, I won the job despite the other firm being the favourite.”

Katia was impressed. If Natalie could learn this stuff and do it, so could she.

“You know what Nat, if you learn this stuff, I can learn it too!”

I really hope this story has helped you see how self-efficacy theory can work to lift your performance.



nils vesk