Over the last few decades, enlightened managers sought to bolster their employees’ self-esteem. By lifting the troops’ self-worth so that they feel like triumphant high achievers, you can goad them to dare mighty things.
At least that was the theory.
The role of self-esteem gained such traction that California state officials created a 25-member, three-year task force in 1986 to explore ways to promote it among the populace. In workplaces around the country, the prevailing belief for 20 years has been that it’s the boss’s job to make employees feel great about themselves.
Like an overhyped movie that proves a box-office bomb, self-esteem has lost its luster. In the next year or two, self-efficacy will supplant it.
Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s assessment of his or her personal capabilities. A clerk who thinks he can climb the ladder to become CEO has high self-efficacy. Self-esteem, by contrast, relates to a more generalized sense of personal worthiness.
“It’s easy to have high self-esteem,” says Albert Bandura, the Stanford University professor who helped popularize the concept of self-efficacy. “Just aim low.”
Bandura recently told a Wall Street Journal reporter that people with high self-efficacy can “drive themselves hard but have low self-esteem because their performance always falls short of their high standards.” Psychologists are producing reams of research that indicates that unlike self-esteem (which doesn’t necessarily breed productivity or success), self-efficacy shapes how people feel, think, act and motivate themselves. As a manager, you can harness self-efficacy to your advantage.
Reassure employees of their capabilities as they confront difficult tasks. Remind them of their mastery of similar challenges in the past so that they bring an inner sense of “I can do this” fortitude to the job ahead of them.
Also, cite examples of respected leaders who have maintained steely focus in the face of failure. These stories can inspire your team. By offering vivid accounts of what psychologists call “modeling influences,” you can provide a sturdy baseline for employees to evaluate their competencies. Get them to identify with hard-charging winners and you can galvanize them to dig within themselves to excel.