Building resilience part 6: what is self-efficacy?

August 12, 2020 - 14 min read

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Back to school during COVID-19

Self-efficacy and resilience

Strengthening your self-efficacy

For you and your kids

Up your success

This is the sixth and final post in our series on resilience, where we examine the key drivers that provide a recipe for building resilience for yourself, your teams, and your workforce. Each post features real-world stories of human resilience.

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that—in an instant—the world can dramatically change. That shift leaves many feeling helpless, like we’ve lost the ability to control our sense of safety, where we can go, or even what we can do. And since we don’t know how long it will take for the world to right itself—and much of that depends on the actions of millions of other people—we are left wondering what is actually within our control and what is not. How you answer this question, and how you act upon those answers, goes a long way toward an understanding of your self-efficacy and it can be the difference between feeling self-doubt or self-confidence, stress or success. 

Back to school during COVID-19

For most parents and kids in the U.S., August and September mark the end of the sunny days of summer and the start of a new school year. This year, however, things are going to be very different. Seeing old friends, sharing stories about what you did over the summer, and meeting teachers will be replaced with a new reality. 

That reality finds parents facing tough decisions and mounting stress, worry, and anxiety. Many of my colleagues report feeling overwhelmed and tapped out. Others are left with impossible choices, like trying to decide what to do if you’re a parent and an essential worker. And that's just the parents’ story. Our kids are growing up in a confusing, uncertain world, sad they aren't going to see their friends, unsure about “distance learning,” and forced to navigate an emotional territory for which we have few maps.

Of course, how different schooling will look varies by where you live. But even children who are returning to school will experience a new reality of social distancing, cleaning protocols, and masks. As for my kids, my 3rd and 5th graders will be attending school virtually in the fall with one day of totally self-directed learning and four days that mix synchronous and asynchronous learning

To be honest, our experience with virtual instruction in the spring was not good. I realized I was in way over my head when I got an email from my 4th grader’s teacher asking if everything was okay. Apparently, my daughter had not turned in a math assignment in two weeks. I was shocked. How was that possible when I had been working with her every day and we were on our third system for keeping them on track? If I couldn’t manage it when I was on parental leave, how will I juggle it all when I’m back at work full-time? 

If I had felt like I was crushing the elementary school teacher thing in the spring, I might have felt stronger as I thought over my options for the fall. But I did not. And that led to me procrastinating even putting together a plan of action for the upcoming school year. What was getting in my way? Was it my confidence? Self-belief? Or something else entirely? 

Self-efficacy and resilience

As I thought about why I felt ill-equipped to tackle this upcoming school year, self-efficacy and resilience came to mind. Self-efficacy is the notion of control or personal agency over your life and events. You can think of it like that old adage, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Self-efficacy is your confidence in your ability to exert control over your motivation, behavior, and social environment. In other words, self-efficacy refers to your self-assessed potential for action: your sense of “I can” or “I can’t.” 

Self-efficacy has an important role in resilience, too. Especially since we are more likely to invest energy when we are confident that the investment will pay off. As we have seen, resilience is so critical for navigating challenging times like this pandemic. Higher self-efficacy is associated with stronger effort, greater persistence, and higher goal attainment. For example, BetterUp’s research found that people in the top 25% of self-efficacy are 10x more likely to be in the top 50% of goal attainment. What’s more, people who believe they can achieve meaningful change by working with a coach actually see more dramatic results. 

As I thought more about how I was feeling—overwhelmed, out of control, and stressed—I took a step back and remembered a super helpful tool for strengthening self-efficacy, and by extension resilience. I’m excited to share it with you here.

Strengthening your self-efficacy

Look, of course, it would be great if we could control everything. But, we can’t. However, when you acknowledge your sphere of control—what you can directly control, what you can indirectly control (influence), and everything else (i.e., the things you cannot control)—you can begin to shift your focus to find successes within the things you can control. This can improve your sense of self-efficacy and self-agency and also reduce stress. Because when you’re able to develop that mental muscle to shift to what you can control more quickly and automatically, you’ll not only begin believing you can tackle the hard things now, you’ll also build your resilience when facing future adverse events. 

Here’s the four-step technique I used to help me strengthen my own self-efficacy by determining what I could and could not control as the school year approached. I encourage you to give it a try if you or your sense of self-confidence are feeling challenged right now.


  1. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Write “what I can control” in the middle of the circle. In the space below, brainstorm a list of everything that is in your control. If you’re feeling really stuck, you might need to enlist support from others to get some ideas. 

    When I was doing this, it took me a while to realize how much was within my control as I thought about the school year. I sought out ideas from my colleagues in the “Families at BetterUp” group at work and from other working moms in my community. With their help, my list became pretty substantial. 

    My list included things like using resources outside my county’s curriculum, the option to enroll my daughters in homeschooling, and the degree of social interaction my daughters could have. For example, I could consider forming a pandemic “pod” or create a micro-school with other families. As I thought about forming a pod, I also realized I had control over what level of risk we were comfortable with. Would we be comfortable with indoor schooling or just outdoor? What kinds of PPE would the children wear? What agreements would we form with the other families? We could also make some choices on instructional support. For example, we could work with other families to each take a day of supervising a group of children. We could try to hire a caretaker to help supervise. We could tutor our children on weekends when we had fewer work responsibilities. The net-net was that I began to move from a place of feeling totally helpless to realizing I had options—there were things I could control even when so much was changing around me.

  2. Next, draw another circle. This time, it should be bigger and go around the first one (almost like a bullseye). At the top of it, write “things I can influence.” 

    This circle may be the trickiest in some ways. Sometimes, we overestimate what’s reasonably within our influence. Other times we underestimate it. Before you finish this step, go over your list again and ask yourself how you would influence it? What would that look like? How much time would it take? What would be your likelihood of success?

    For things within my influence, BetterUp gave me a lot more options than I had originally considered. Our HR team worked with the leadership to identify ways they could better support parents and caregivers during the pandemic. This included everything from a temporary leave of absence to more flexible work schedules. I realize not every company is as proactive, but even without a formal program, you may be able to influence the hours you work or flex the hours your children are in school.

    I also put my children in this circle. I probably couldn’t control what they were doing every second of the day, but I could enlist them in creating a schedule and process and co-design some expectations. I could also influence how my children experienced the year. Did I (and therefore they) focus on what they would be losing or the new found flexibility in their schedule?    

  3. Finally, draw one more circle around the last one. In this circle, you’ll list the things you can’t control or everything else. That circle could get VERY big, so instead of thinking about everything, try focusing on identifying the things that you find yourself fixating on that, in reality, are outside of your control. 

    This outside circle was actually the most important for me. I ultimately couldn’t control what the county was going to do, and I couldn’t control whether my kids would be ahead or behind their peers after this semester. Spending energy on the things in this circle wouldn’t help me or improve the situation.  

  4. Make a commitment to spend the most time on the things in the middle, or what you can control. When you find yourself drifting to other circles, remind yourself of where the biggest return on investment is: in the middle. 

For you and your kids

This tool hasn’t just been helpful for me, it has been helpful for my children, too. Like you, kids are adjusting as well and working with this tool can be a great way for them to build their own self-efficacy. When my children are focused on things they cannot do due to the quarantine, I work with them to refocus on the things they can do or control. 

For example, one of my daughters was commenting that she missed her friends from school. We sat together to make a list of the ways she could still connect with them. We landed on delivering small items every week—a donut or a plant—to allow her to see them from the porch and potentially help others feel seen. When they feel concerned about getting sick, we talk about the measures we are taking to mitigate our risk (e.g., wearing masks, washing our hands, minimizing the number of times we go out). Helping them identify the actions they can take and do have control over helps them feel more empowered amidst the sea of uncertainty. 

Up your success

Focusing on things you can control makes it more likely you’ll succeed. The great news is that success creates a virtuous cycle as a win in one challenging situation builds confidence. That confidence then fuels your motivation to take on the next challenge in your path. So, next time you feel unsure or overwhelmed or even helpless, I encourage you to give the tool above a try. When you’re able to see more clearly where and how you can assert your control, your feelings of “I can do this” will grow and your self-confidence, self-belief, and self-efficacy will be quick to follow.

To learn more about self-efficacy, and discover additional ways to maximize yours, check out our quick guide to self-efficacy.

Take a deeper dive into the 5 key ingredients in the rest of the series:

Part 1: Recipe for resilience

Part 2:  Why cognitive agility matters

Part 3: The role of emotional regulation

Part 4: How self-compassion strengthens resilience

Part 5: How to cultivate optimism 



Published August 12, 2020

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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