Self-EfficacyThe concept of self-efficacy, as originated by Albert Bandura of Stanford University, has become one of the major variables used in understanding and facilitating individual career development and is also becoming important in the study of organizational and team effectiveness. As originally proposed, self-efficacy expectations refer to a person’s beliefs concerning his or her ability to successfully perform a given task or behavior. These efficacy beliefs are behaviorally specific rather than general. The concept of self-efficacy must therefore have a behavioral referent to be meaningful. We could refer to perceived self-efficacy with respect to mathematics, initiating social interactions, using a computer software program, or teaching children to read. Because self-efficacy expectations are discussed in reference to a specific behavioral domain, the number of different kinds of self-efficacy expectations is limited only by the possible number of behavioral domains that are important for some defined purpose.

Self-efficacy expectations are postulated to have at least three important behavioral consequences: (1) approach versus avoidance behavior, (2) quality of performance of behaviors in the target domain, and (3) persistence in the face of obstacles or disconfirming experiences. More specifically, low self-efficacy expectations regarding a behavior or behavioral domain are postulated to lead to avoidance of those behaviors, poorer performance, and a tendency to give up when faced with discouragement or failure. If, for example, mathematics self-efficacy expectations were low in a given individual, we would expect that person to avoid mathematics course work and math tasks, to perform poorly on math exams or job-related materials based on mathematics, and to give up readily when faced with difficult math tasks and problems.

The first behavioral consequence, approach versus avoidance behavior, has a profound impact on career development because approach behavior describes what people will try, while avoidance behavior refers to things they will not try. It thus encompasses both the content of career choice, that is, the types of educational majors and careers an individual will attempt, and the process of career choice, that is, the career exploratory and decision-making behaviors essential to making good choices.

The effects of self-efficacy expectations on performance can refer to effects such as performance on the tests necessary to complete college course work or the requirements of a job-training program. Finally, the effects of self-efficacy on persistence are essential for long-term pursuit of one’s goals in the face of obstacles, occasional failures, and dissuading messages from the environment, for example, gender- or race-based discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

Research over the past 25 years has shown that self-efficacy is, indeed, important in relation to career behavior, including choices, performance, and persistence. Reviews of this research are well beyond the scope of this entry, but it is fair to say that self-efficacy expectations regarding both career activities and the processes of career decision making and job search have an important relationship to the nature of educational and career choices and the effectiveness of career decision-making behaviors. Self-efficacy is also an important concept in understanding and facilitating the functioning of employed individuals.

The next section briefly mentions domains of self-efficacy that have relevance to initial career choices and the effectiveness of career decision making. Domains to be mentioned include occupational self-efficacy, including self-efficacy for scientific/technical careers, mathematics self-efficacy, self-efficacy with respect to basic activity dimensions of career behavior, and career decision-making self-efficacy.

Self-Efficacy in Initial Career Decisions

A number of researchers have studied perceived self-efficacy with regard to specific content domains of educational and career choices—because self-efficacy is postulated to influence approach versus avoidance behavior, and domain-specific self-efficacy expectations help us to understand the nature of people’s choices and, if appropriate, provide a means of increasing the range of possible career options.

The earliest studies of career self-efficacy used efficacy beliefs regarding specific occupations, for example, law, engineering, teaching, and sales. Typical categorizations of occupations as traditionally male dominated (e.g., engineer) and traditionally female dominated (e.g., social worker) occupations were used. A number of studies have shown significant gender differences in self-efficacy with respect to these occupational groups and, more important, that low self-efficacy expectations reduced perceived career options. Thus, low self-efficacy with regard to male-dominated occupations has been found useful in explaining women’s continued underrepresentation in these career fields.

A related area of research has employed a more focused set of occupational titles, specifically those in scientific and technical careers. Research has shown that high versus low scientific/technical self-efficacy is significantly predictive of grades in science and technical courses, in persistence in an engineering major, and in range of career options in the sciences and engineering. Research has shown that Bandura’s hypotheses hold not only in unselected groups of students but among those who have made tentative career choices.

Other researchers have examined a more fundamental aspect of consideration of scientific and technical careers, and that is mathematics self-efficacy. Twenty years of research on this construct have suggested its vital importance to educational achievement and career options. Measures of math self-efficacy, using everyday math tasks (e.g., balancing a checkbook), self-efficacy for math course work (e.g., calculus), and self-efficacy for solving math problems, have consistently shown large gender differences in math self-efficacy, with males being significantly more confident than females. Empirical research has also supported the predictive relationship of math self-efficacy to math performance and achievement and the importance of math self-efficacy to the science- or math-relatedness of career choices.

There are now also a number of measures of self-efficacy for important dimensions of vocational activity, for example, artistic, business, and social areas. Other inventories assess self-efficacy with respect to narrower domains of vocational activity. These domains include such activity areas as science, teaching, helping, leadership, mechanical activities, sales, data management, and using technology. Overall, research using such measures suggests that they too predict educational aspirations and occupational group membership. Also increasingly useful in career research and counseling are parallel measures of self-efficacy and vocational interests in research and career counseling. The most common paradigm for this would be assessment of both self-efficacy and interests with respect to one or more domains of vocational activity; for example, both interests in science and perceptions of self-efficacy for science would be assessed. Those activity domains for which there is both high interest and high self-efficacy are targeted for career exploration. However, those areas where there is interest but low efficacy may be brought into the realm of career possibility if self-efficacy can be increased through interventions based on Bandura’s theory (see next section). Thus the concept of self-efficacy can help to increase the range of career options open to a given individual.

In addition to career self-efficacy measures designed to predict the type of options considered versus avoided, or the nature of the choices made, self-efficacy theory has also been applied to the process of career decision making. There is now strong evidence to support the importance of self-efficacy in evoking exploration of the self and environment as they pertain to educational and career options. One of the most popular concepts is that of self-efficacy for making career decisions. A frequently used measure assesses self-efficacy with respect to five groups of tasks necessary to making career decisions: (1) accurate self-appraisal, (2) gathering occupational information, (3) goal selection, (4) making plans for the future, and (5) problem solving. A number of studies have shown career decisional self-efficacy to be related to indicators of educational and career adjustment, including career indecision, vocational identity, whether or not students have declared college majors, career exploratory behavior, and academic and social adjustment. Other researchers have developed and examined measures of self-efficacy relative to aspects of the processes involved in the career search. Also, and not surprisingly, there is evidence that self-efficacy for social interactions is significantly related to overall career decision self-efficacy and decisional progress. This makes sense if one considers that some level of social confidence may help in the process of gaining occupational information as well as in the job search process itself—even the most highly skilled job candidates may jeopardize their chances of employment if they perform poorly in a job interview.

Thus these examples of behavior domains studied should illustrate the broad applicability to career development of the self-efficacy construct. Self-efficacy can now be considered one of the major variables influencing the nature and effectiveness of career choice behaviors. In addition, however, the concept has a very useful feature of having embedded within the theory the means of increasing behavior-relevant self-efficacy expectations via four types of experiences, which Bandura called sources of efficacy information. He theorized that our initial learning of efficacy expectations derives from these sources of information and that they can also be used to increase self-efficacy expectations at any time subsequently. The sources of information are (1) performance accomplishments, that is, experiences of successfully performing the behaviors in questions; (2) vicarious learning, or modeling; (3) verbal persuasion, for example, encouragement and support from others; and (4) lower levels of emotional arousal, that is, lower levels of anxiety, in connection with the behavior.

Past performance accomplishments serve as indicators of capability and are the most influential sources of efficacy information. Bandura has indicated that success promotes strong beliefs in one’s personal efficacy. Failure weakens beliefs of personal efficacy, especially if the failure occurs before efficacy beliefs are firmly established. In addition, once a moderate level of self-efficacy develops, establishment of a strong, resilient sense of personal efficacy requires succeeding on difficult, rather than easy, tasks. Succeeding only on easy tasks is unlikely to teach the perseverance necessary in most worthwhile real-world endeavors.

The second source of efficacy information is vicarious learning, or modeling. Observing another person successfully engaging in a behavior can increase the efficacy of the observer, though observing failure in a model can likewise reduce perceived self-efficacy.

Social persuasion from others can be effective in enhancing and sustaining a sense of personal efficacy if the target behavior is within realistic boundaries. That is, social persuasion that is well beyond what the individual is actually capable of doing will not be effective, as the negative results of the individual’s inadequate performances will constitute more powerful feedback than will unrealistic social persuasion. Rather, persuasion and encouragement should be focused on realistic challenges rather than impossible tasks, failure on which will be detrimental to perceived efficacy.

The fourth source, emotional arousal, refers to somatic information conveyed by physiological and emotional states. Physiological indicators can refer to indices of autonomic arousal such as sweating and fast heartbeat or physical indicators such as fatigue or windedness. Anxiety is the most commonly discussed type of emotional arousal. Self-efficacy can be enhanced by reducing the extent to which the individual experiences these indicators, for example, by managing stress and anxiety responses and by increasing physical fitness levels.

There is now research showing the effectiveness of theory-based interventions in increasing self-efficacy. Specifically, there is evidence that using Bandura’s four sources of efficacy information in an integrated treatment program can increase individuals’ self-efficacy with respect to targeted behavioral domains.

Finally, Bandura’s original theory postulated the existence as well of outcome expectations, which refer to the expected consequences of successful behavior. That is, successful performance is not always followed by a desired outcome, and individual beliefs regarding the predictability of desired outcomes can also differ. Social cognitive career theory integrates self-efficacy and outcome expectations, as well as vocational interests, in a comprehensive model of career choice behavior.

Organizational Self-Efficacy and Collective Efficacy

In addition to many useful inventories of self-efficacy related to career choice and decision making, the concept of self-efficacy has been found to be very useful as well in studying the career development and adjustment of employed individuals. Usually self-efficacy is conceptualized as relevant to some task or set of tasks required in the workplace. Research has shown that the higher the self-efficacy, the more likely one is to engage and persist in task-related activity. Research has also shown that higher self-efficacy predicts more positive job attitudes, training proficiency, and job performance, and that higher self-efficacy serves as a buffer of the potentially negative effects of stresses on overall psychological well-being.

Another important area of research is that on managerial self-efficacy. The general task faced by managers involves gathering and processing large and often complex pieces of information so that effective decisions can be made. Research has suggested that people high on managerial self-efficacy are more able to remain task focused, rather than self focused, and efficient yet creative in their decisional processes, in the face of organizational setbacks. Studies using manipulations to threaten the efficacy beliefs of otherwise talented managers have shown progressive deterioration in their performance. They were inflicted with increasing self-doubt and became more erratic in their thinking processes. Poorer organizational outcomes and an increasing tendency to blame others for performance decrements were observed. Conversely, managers whose efficacy beliefs were strengthened set increasingly challenging goals and were able to use efficient and creative-thinking processes to reach them. Not surprisingly in the latter case, organizational outcomes were enhanced. Finally, other research has shown that managers’ self-efficacy with respect to technical, human relations, administrative, and conceptual managerial tasks were related to the success of managers as gauged by promotions, increased responsibilities, and salary.

Although much organizational research has focused on self-efficacy for a given individual, there is increasing interest as well in generalizing self-efficacy to group levels of analysis. Bandura defined collective efficacy as a group’s shared perception of its collective capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce a given level of achievement. Collective efficacy has been shown to be related to group motivation and performance. Some current research is examining the antecedents of collective versus individual efficacy. A particular focus as an antecedent of collective efficacy is the leadership climate within the organization, and some research findings now suggest that leadership climate does influence collective efficacy.

A more specific use of the overall concept of collective efficacy is that of “team efficacy.” Collective efficacy can refer to the collective belief systems of teams, departments, or entire organizations, whereas team efficacy refers to beliefs within a defined work team. Furthermore, team efficacy, like collective efficacy, refers to more than just the sum of the self-efficacy beliefs of the team members; rather, it describes a shared belief in the capabilities of the collective operating as a unit. Research on team efficacy suggests that it, like collective efficacy more generally, is positively related to group performance. Again, specific research on the antecedents of team efficacy is under way.

In summary, the concept of self-efficacy has broad applicability to the understanding and facilitation of career development and organizational behavior and functioning. Self-efficacy and collective efficacy are some of the most interesting and useful concepts in the career development literature.

See also:


  1. Bandura, A. 1977. “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.” Psychological Review 84:191-215.
  2. Bandura, A . 1997. Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W. H. Freeman.
  3. Bandura, A. 2001. “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective.” Annual Review of Psychology 52:1-26.
  4. Betz, N. E. 2000. “Self-efficacy Theory as a Basis for Career Assessment.” Journal of Career Assessment 8:205-222.
  5. Betz, N., Borgen, F., Rottinghaus, P., Paulsen, A., Halper, C. and Harmon, L. 2003. “The Expanded Skills Confidence Inventory: Measuring Basic Domains of Vocational Activity.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 62:76-100.
  6. Chen, G. and Bliese, P. 2002. “The Role of Different Levels of Leadership in Predicting Self- and Collective Efficacy: Evidence for Discontinuity.” Journal of Applied Psychology 87:549-556.
  7. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. and Hackett, G. 1994. “Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Interest, Choice, and Performance.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 45:79-122.
  8. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. and Larkin, K. C. 1984. “Relation of Self-efficacy Expectations to Academic Achievement and Persistence.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 31:356-362.