Help Employees Get Out from Under their Desks

Those who remember the Cold War era may recall the air raid drills school children went through periodically. To prepare for a catastrophe like an air raid, students practiced crawling under their desks and covering their heads with their hands. It's not clear whether people believed these practices would stave off destruction, or felt that doing something in the face of potential annihilation was better than doing nothing. Current economic conditions have created a sense of dťjŗ vu: the school children now are adults, many of whom, figuratively speaking, still are hiding under their desks, hoping that covering their heads with their hands will keep them safe from the turmoil that surrounds them. How do we entice them to come out from under their desks?

Albert Bandura is a psychologist best known for his work in two areas: observational learning and self-efficacy. The implications of his research are especially relevant in these days of economic challenge and uncertainty. Observational learning refers to the fact that people behave the way they see others behaving. Self-efficacy is a narrow type of self-confidence: it addresses people's beliefs that they are capable of performing specific tasks successfully. These beliefs are important because they affect how individuals think, behave, feel, and motivate themselves. People with high self-efficacy tend to approach difficult tasks as challenges rather than as threats. In addition, they believe they have control over threatening situations, they sustain their efforts in the face of setbacks, and they recover quickly from failure. Further, a group of people who feel a sense of collective efficacy (e.g., team members) believe they can solve problems and improve their situation through a unified effort. A group's beliefs about collective efficacy influence its choices, including how much effort to devote to a task and the extent to which members persist when quick results are not forthcoming.

Based on Bandura's findings, here are four things managers can do to increase employees' self- and collective efficacy, thereby improving organizational effectivness:

  1. Lead by example. Managers need to be the first to stand on top of the desks instead of hiding beneath them.
  2. Set people up for success. For example, providing the tools they need and ensuring some early "wins," particularly during a lengthy project, will increase employees' confidence in their capabilities. Nothing accelerates self-efficacy more quickly than success.
  3. Set high yet realistic expectations, and encourage employees to meet or exceed them. Bandura's research demonstrates that people who are told that they are capable of performing at high levels will exert a great deal of effort to do so, and they will sustain that effort over time in the face of difficulty.
  4. Help employees see the value in their success. Individuals who understand clearly what's in it for them will be persistent in attempts to achieve the goal.

Organizations whose employees are hiding under the desk cannot possibly be successful. Model the behavior you want others to emulate, and do everything you can to increase their individual and collective efficacy.

(¹Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V.S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press.)

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. Pat can show you how to apply relevant research findings in practical ways to create immediate results in your organization. Contact us today to see how we can help you make a difference!

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