Self-efficacy and coaching

There may be a number of reasons why a client does not progress as well as expected on a coaching programme.  For example, they may lack motivation, or commitment to the goal, or application through overwork or disorganisation.  They may not receive much support from their manager, or have other preoccupations in their lives which demand their attention.  In the open, empathic and supportive relationship that ideally develops between the coach and the client, these issues can often be identified early in a coaching programme, discussed and successfully addressed.   

I am not suggesting that tackling any of the above is easy.  But in my experience an even more difficult situation can arise in coaching if the client lacks belief in their own self-efficacy.  

Self-efficacy, for my working practice, is defined as a person’s belief in their capacity to achieve a desired outcome.  The psychologist most widely associated with the concept is Albert Bandura, who describes the role of self-efficacy in human functioning: that ‘people’s level of motivation, affective states and actions are based more on what they believe than what is objectively true’ (Bandura,1997). 

A high level of self-efficacy will help a motivated client attain their goals.  But another client may be equally committed to the coaching programme and the agreed goals, and highly motivated to achieve them, but little progress is made because they do not believe they have the capacity to achieve the desired outcome.

Assessing self-efficacy

One of the difficulties for a coach is identifying that lack of self-efficacy is an issue. 

Bandura states that self-efficacy is situational, so assessment immediately becomes problematic.  The anxiety scales in a general personality assessment are unlikely to highlight low self-belief that is so domain specific.  

This is the essence of self-efficacy; it is specific to a particular situation. 

So a client may have a high level of confidence in their abilities across most situations, but in one particular aspect (for example, speaking out in meetings) they not only lack confidence, but lack belief in their ability to do anything about it. This means that despite being highly motivated to address the problem, they may struggle because they do not believe they are capable of doing anything about it.  Bandura has in fact developed a number of different scales for measuring self-efficacy in different domains, including exercising, eating habits, teaching and problem-solving, and in 2001 wrote a monograph that provides general guidance for people wanting to develop their own domain specific scales.  

In coaching, this form of measurement is likely to be unrealistic or inappropriate, so other methods of identifying the client’s self-efficacy may need to be considered.

These may range from using carefully structured questioning to elicit the client’s level of self-belief in achieving a specific goal, or even a simple question, such as suggested by Whitmore (2001), who proposes that the coach asks the client to rate on a scale of one-to-ten the degree of certainty that the client will carry out the actions agreed.  He points out that this is not to rate the certainty of the outcome actually being achieved, but to rate the client’s intention to carry out their part of the job.  If the rating is less than ten, it is reasonable for the coach to ask what needs to happen to make the rating higher.  

In my experience, this simple technique can identify issues around the client’s belief in their capability to achieve the goal, so that this can be addressed during the coaching session.

Developing self-efficacy

Bandura (1997) described what he called the sources of self-efficacy as: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, social persuasion and physical and emotional states.  

I have used this as a framework to explore briefly different approaches to increasing self-efficacy in coaching. 

Mastery experiences 

Bandura believes that resilient self-efficacy develops from mastery experiences in which goals are achieved through perseverance and overcoming obstacles.  

This is likely to be an approach which will be used by most coaches.  

Setting appropriate goals, breaking them down into sub-goals so the client feels they are attainable but still provide a certain amount of ‘stretch’, the coach supporting the client through this process, this will be one of the most widely used methods of developing efficacy.  I have used this approach in a career coaching context, for example, when the client’s goal is a career change.  The goal may be highly desirable, but the client may not believe that they have the capacity to achieve it.  By working with the client to break the goal down into a number of small steps, starting with a sub-goal which is within the client’s capability but slightly outside their comfort zone, a pathway can be created to help them achieve their ultimate goal.

One client I worked with was a senior manager in a large media organization.  His coaching goal was to become Managing Director of a particular part of the business.  He believed in his capability to do the role, but despite enthusiasm during the session, he failed to take agreed actions. Discussion during the following session led him to admit how daunting he found the process. This was linked to his belief that he didn’t have the social clout to be considered for the role, or the ability to do anything about it.  As part of the plan to address this, we mapped out his network, qualifying individuals by how well he knew them, how important they were to help him progress towards his goal, and the extent to which they were gatekeepers for other more senior people. I helped him develop an approach which he used with the most familiar people first, to help him master it.  As he began to believe in his ability to build relationships, he felt able to connect with more influential people.  A few months later he had the role he aspired to. 

Vicarious experience

An example of this source of self-efficacy is modeling.  This involves identifying proficient models who exhibit the competencies the client aspires to develop, and who can transmit the knowledge to the client.

This may be used less in the coaching sessions, but may be identified as a possible source of developing self-efficacy outside the sessions – for instance mentors can be a good source for developing self-efficacy.  However, in certain forms of coaching (such as developing emotional intelligence competencies) inevitably the coach will need to exhibit the behaviours in which they are coaching, so an element of modeling will come into play during the sessions.  This can be reinforced by suggesting that the client identifies a colleague who is particularly emotionally intelligent, encouraging them to observe how that person behaves, and what changes they may incorporate into their own behavior.

Social persuasion

The third method of developing self-efficacy that Bandura suggests is persuading a client verbally that they possess the capabilities to master a given activity, and giving them manageable challenges to confirm the coach’s belief.   

This might include challenging a client’s limiting self-belief (‘What is the evidence for your view of your capability in this area?  What alternative perspectives are there on this situation?’).  It might also involve an aspect of Appreciative Inquiry – using questions to call up strengths that have helped the client in the past in difficult situations, and lessons learned that may apply to the present challenge.  

These approaches are widely used in coaching already. 

Indeed, as I write about the different methods that Bandura suggests, I think it is important to emphasise that all of them can be used concurrently.  Persuading a client that there is an alternative way of looking at his or her capability is an approach I use often in coaching, and where self-efficacy may be an issue, would use alongside other methods outlined above.

Physical and emotional states

Bandura also points out that reducing a person’s stress reactions and altering their negative mood can enhance self-efficacy.  One would hope that taking the actions identified above might help the client feel more in control of events, lower stress and help develop a more positive outlook. 

However, Bandura (1994) also indicates that when people are asked to judge how much they expect to benefit from a given procedure, they may relate it to external sources (for example, the expertise of the coach) rather than from their own resources.  The coach needs to reinforce the client’s own capability; to emphasise that it is their own actions which have brought about a successful outcome.  


Bandura (1994) said that ‘Successful efficacy builders do more than convey positive appraisals.  In addition to raising people’s beliefs in their capabilities, they structure situations for them in ways that bring success and avoid placing people in situations prematurely where they are likely to fail often.’

This would seem to indicate that as coaches, we need to pay attention to being ‘efficacy builders’, and that this approach needs to underpin how the coach works with the client.  If self-efficacy is ignored or overlooked, the client may fail to achieve the goal, and opportunities to enhance their self-efficacy beliefs may be missed.

Bandura, A. (1994).  Self-Efficacy. In Ramachaudran, V. S. (ed) Encyclopaedia of human behaviour (Vol 4, 71-81). New York: Academic Press.
Bandura, A. (1997).  Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
Whitmore, J. (2001). Coaching for Performance.  London: Nicholas Brealey

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