• Jon D'Alessandro

How to Develop Self-Efficacy, Part 2: Social Learning and Managing Stress

Strategies and tactics for building an unshakeable belief in your effectiveness, competence, and capabilities [Part 3 of 3 in our self-efficacy series].

Recap

Previously, we explored psychologist Albert Bandura's concept of self-efficacy, the level of belief you have in your capabilities, competence, and ability "to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events."


Efficacy beliefs are instrumental to peak performance across domains. Higher self-efficacy not only predicts better personal performance and accomplishment, but the tendency to choose more challenging, meaningful goals, higher resilience in the face of obstacles and failure, and reductions in undesirable emotions (e.g. anxiety, fear).


We also examined the main driver of efficacy beliefs: enactive mastery experiences. We discussed how to identify and engineer these situations, and how to optimize for self-efficacy in your skill development. We analyzed how deliberate practice, perseverant effort, hormesis, and stretch goals all play a role in enhancing self-efficacy, and even touched on how stress and emotion come into play, which we'll discuss further today.


So how do you find the right balance between too little and too much stress? How do you manage your emotions and pre-performance jitters? What role do others play in helping us learn, deal with stress, and develop our efficacy beliefs?


Vicarious experiences

Let's imagine there's a difficult math problem up on the chalkboard, and you watch as the smartest kid in class, Nathaniel Snerpus, steps up to solve it. With the chalk quivering in his hand, Nathaniel struggles, fails, and dejectedly returns to his desk.


Then your name gets called.


Where is your self-efficacy in that moment? Snerpus just got crushed. Does that influence how you feel about your own ability to manage the difficult problem?

We've all been there.

Observing and modeling others can serve as a useful tool for promoting a sense of personal efficacy.


According to Bandura, on one hand this works because “social comparative inference” can open - or close - your mind to what is possible. Your perceptions of your own capabilities and efficacy are impacted considerably by watching comparable others succeed or fail. You might come away thinking if they can do it, so can I. But conversely, seeing someone fail might implant doubts in your mind about your own efficacy.


But modeling influences are not just comparators. As Bandura explains:


“People actively seek proficient models who possess the competencies to which they aspire. By their behavior and expressed ways of thinking, competent models transmit knowledge and teach observers effective skills and strategies for managing environmental demands.”

In his first major U.S. interview, UFC champion Conor McGregor discussed vicarious learning. "I approach this game with a learning mind," he said. "I'm open to all styles, I look to study everyone." He learned from watching and studying the Diaz brothers, for example, with their unique boxing style, or the divergent styles of Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, and George St-Pierre, three of his predecessors and UFC legends in their own right.


We watch others, learn, borrow, and add new ideas and techniques to our toolbox.


Thirdly, we take what we learn from others, and translate those conceptions into action. This can be tangible action, embodying others’ behaviors, manner of speech, physical presence, and so on. (For example, imagine watching your boss or mentor's public speaking style and manner of speech, and then mimicking their most effective behaviors in your own presentation.)


But it can also be an invisible process of visualization and mental imagery. Imagining yourself going through those same motions, or conjuring up the idea of someone in your mind to boost your own perceived efficacy.


Tactics:

In summary, modeling helps build our self-efficacy by way of social comparison, observational learning, and imitation.

  • Immerse yourself in the world of your chosen pursuit, for example joining a club, team, or league, allowing for more opportunities to observe others perform.

  • Find role models who not only inspire you, but set a proper example of the behaviors, tactics, strategies, and ethics you want to embody.

  • Borrow the latest and greatest skills and behaviors, practicing and imitating them, both physically and through visualization.

Others can play another significant role in developing our efficacy beliefs. Here's where peers, coaches, managers, and mentors come in...


Verbal persuasion

Our self-efficacy is hugely influenced by others' encouragement and feedback.


When an individual expresses doubt or insecurity, others have an almost reflexive tendency to reassure them. But vague and ambiguous praise is unhelpful, and often frustrating. On the other hand, realistic, personalized, and genuine reassurance has a powerful impact on self-efficacy. It can even override momentary self-doubts or perceived inadequacies. Bandura explains: 


“It is easier to sustain a sense of efficacy, especially when struggling with difficulties, if significant others express faith in one’s capabilities… People who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to master given tasks are more likely to mobilize greater effort and sustain it than if they harbor self-doubts and dwell on personal deficiencies.”

Efficacy information is also conveyed via evaluative feedback. But there are two important considerations here: First, the feedback provider must possess some level of diagnostic competence and credibility. Think about the difference between a coach, manager, or mentor providing constructive feedback versus an unskilled peer or other random amateur.


Secondly, research shows that the framing of such feedback is vital. To positively impact self-efficacy in the long-term, feedback must focus on both ability and effort, especially for younger people. In providing performance-based feedback, that means not only praising sheer determination and effort, but as one progresses, recognizing the emergence of innate talents or abilities (“I think you have a knack for this!”).


But it’s worth restating — vague encouragement and empty praise are unhelpful, having a neutral or even negative effect on self-efficacy. Similarly, offering excessive praise for mediocre performances, repeatedly offering unsolicited help, and reacting indifferently to faulty performance damages a recipient's judgments of their own capabilities. The misguided verbal persuasion conveys that not much is expected from them, that their bar or standard is set lower.


Tactics:

  • To help build self-efficacy and maintain it when it waivers, surround yourself with trusted people that will provide honest encouragement, balanced praise, and helpful, constructive feedback.

  • Proactively solicit feedback from talented role models, coaches, managers, and mentors.

  • Be genuine and thoughtful when encouraging peers or teammates. When providing feedback, think about whether they would consider you a role model, an equal partner, or a less-skilled peer.

  • Hold peers to a high standard, and agree that they'll do the same for you.


Hormesis and coaching

Last article we explored the utility of hormesis, a phenomenon where, counterintuitively, low doses of a harmful stimulus can create a positive response. Though the concept originated in pharmacology, it applies well to the development of mastery and self-efficacy.


Appropriate amounts of beneficial stress, or eustress, can actually improve performance, productivity, and self-efficacy. This helps explain why we benefit massively from stepping out of our comfort zone, pursuing stretch goals, and persevering through challenges.


But hormesis is not an extreme shock. It's a measured dose. Stress and arousal improve performance but only to a point. Once arousal becomes too great, performance declines rapidly, as demonstrated by the Yerkes-Dodson law below:

But a negative hormetic shock can have lasting consequences. Too much stress too early in the process can injure you physically, through injury or burnout, or cognitively, by crushing your expectations and self-efficacy.


On the other hand, too little stress and challenge will make it impossible to rise up the curve and tap into your real potential. If you recoil from discomfort, you will never grow.


As a performer looking to improve, it's no easy feat to manage the performance curve yourself. This is another area where trainers, mentors, and coaches add tremendous value. They can teach strong foundational skills and effectively provide persuasive encouragement and evaluative feedback. But they also act as an objective, qualified third-party who can help manage variables and performance conditions, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.


Importantly, a good coach or supervisor will structure activities for performers “in ways that bring success and avoid placing them prematurely in situations where they are likely to experience repeated failure.” For example, a manager having their employee speak up more and more, progressively over a series of sales presentations, versus immediately forcing them to run with a pitch themselves.


Tactics:

  • Remember that discomfort is not always bad. It can help improve performance, and frequently acts as a signal that you're in a potential growth scenario.

  • Reduce the number of variables you're responsible for by leveraging objective, qualified third parties.

  • Find coaches and mentors that will challenge you, helping create opportunities to stretch, but not break.

  • If your performance area is athletic, this is more straightforward, but what if you want to work on a soft skill, like resilience or influencing skills, or improve your entire skillset as a rising executive at work?

  • At work, your manager should not only direct and supervise your work, but should alternate between playing the roles of trainer, mentor, and coach. As a trainer, they act a subject matter expert, imparting step-by-step instruction and knowledge transfer. As a mentor, they speak from experience, providing wisdom, advice, and expertise. And as a coach, they facilitate your development, acting as a guide and sounding board to help you to unlock your own potential.

  • If you're lucky enough to already have such a highly capable manager, you can go on to leverage other resources: internal talent development colleagues, or external corporate trainers and executive coaches, who are experts paid specifically for the benefit of your development.

Once you have that covered, it’s time to turn your attention back to yourself — but not too much.


Psychological and affective states

No matter how comfortable you are speaking in public, your nervous system is going to react as you step up to the podium, walk in front of the room, or even take your line off mute. For some, this can be debilitating. For others, energizing. It’s all a matter of how you interpret these signals, and how that interpretation affects your efficacy beliefs.


Human beings are highly susceptible to psychological feedback loops and logical miscalculations. For example: you’re expected to perform, but you’re beset by stress reactions, and so you interpret your reaction itself as a sign that there's something wrong. You rouse yourself to an even higher level of agitation, creating a vicious cycle, and dampening your self-efficacy beliefs.


Consciously or not, you’re ensnared by flawed logic: If I was good at this, then I wouldn’t feel this way. And unfortunately, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it doesn’t stop there. People interpret psychological factors like negative mood states, and physical factors like fatigue, windedness, aches, and pains as signs of inefficacy, planting seeds of self-doubt about their ability to perform. And, you guessed it, their performance tends to suffer as a result.

However, Bandura posits that interventions which help reinterpret psychophysiological reactions can “heighten beliefs in coping efficacy with corresponding improvements in performance.” This means learning to interpret certain mental and physical responses differently can improve your efficacy beliefs, and thus your performance.


For example, by interpreting butterflies in your stomach not as anxiety but as excitement, you’re more likely to feel effective and capable of performing.


Tactics:

This is how we hack the performance curve.

  • The goal is not to suppress our emotions. Strong feelings, like music or a motivational movie scene, can heighten arousal, and we know that equates to improved performance.

  • By interpreting emotions positively and appropriately channeling them , we can ramp up our level of arousal in a controlled manner, creating enough pressure and eustress to perform exceptionally. Imagine what that would do to your self-efficacy, in the level of belief you have in your ability to execute.


Paying attention to attention

Efficacy beliefs can also be improved by practicing selective attention. Bandura notes that when performers are overly focused on their internal versus external experience, they’re more likely to notice, and misinterpret, stress reactions. They're more susceptible to the trap of "multitasking," or trying to attend to multiple variables at once, which can cause racing thoughts, fatigue, and overwhelm. The key is to practice mindfulness — to pay attention to attention:


“Attention has a very limited capacity, so there are only a few things to which one can attend at any given time… One cannot be focused both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously. Hence, the less absorbed people are in activities and events around them, the more they focus on themselves and notice their aversive bodily states and reactions”

So the key is to be conscious of your attention, to choose to deliberately focus on just one thing at a time, and shift it away from yourself and toward the task at hand.


This helps explain the increasing popularity of mindfulness meditation for elite performers, like pro athletes. It also ties into a growing body of research on the performance-enhancing nature of flow states, of which one major requirement is “complete absorption in the present activity.”


Frequently, Sport and Performance Psychologists will also teach performers to use self-talk to redirect “individuals’ attention to task-relevant stimuli.” In fact, there is an entire body of research around attention control theory and how individuals can improve cognitive and physical performance by inhibiting, shifting, and updating: “inhibiting” attention to irrelevant stimuli, “shifting” focus toward task-relevant details, and continually “updating” the information held within your working memory.


Tactics:

  • Don't ignore your internal state, but don't let it control your performance. Let emotions and arousal act as performance enhancers, and as a compass, guiding you toward what is valuable in the external world at that moment.

  • Be conscious of how much your locus of attention is oriented internally vs externally. Practice mindfulness meditation for greater access to and control over your attentional system.

  • Use self-talk to help reinterpret mental and physiological arousal to be beneficial, like our anxiety vs. excitement example, and to inhibit, shift, and update your focus.


To self-efficacy and beyond

Self-efficacy is a vital mediating factor in performance across domains. It’s not enough to feel confident, or content with yourself. You must develop a resolute belief in your competence, capabilities, and your propensity to manifest desired outcomes.

We’ve discussed in this article series how to boost your self-efficacy and optimize your performance and growth:

  • Pursue meaningful stretch goals, practice deliberately, and exert perserverant effort in the face of adversity and challenge.

  • Seek out challenging experiences that push you to - but not past - your limits.

  • Don’t be dissuaded by natural stress reactions and the normal fluctuation of your mood. Learn to properly interpret and channel physiological arousal.

  • Be mindful of your attention, and whether it’s overly focused on internal dialogue and sensations as opposed to the task at hand.

  • Find, watch, and learn from inspiring role models.

  • Practice visualization and self-talk to manage (not suppress) stress and emotion.

  • Surround yourself with coaches, mentors, and encouraging peers. Solicit and incorporate their feedback.

We've discussed why these things work using the research of psychologists like Albert Bandura, examples from work situations and the behavior of elite performers, and a multitude of concepts from the psychology of performance.


Now all that's left to do is choose your own adventure, and put these tactics to the test...

P.S. — If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to our newsletter below or via substack directly for more on the psychology of peak performance, advice on creating inspiring, actionable goals, and tactics for improving performance and accelerating your career ambitions!

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