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New insights into how employees manage stressful situations

Researchers have developed a new tool which could benefit organisations and their staff by assessing employees’ beliefs about how they manage challenging and stressful situations at work.

Self-efficacy - the belief in one's capabilities to achieve a goal or an outcome - is a key variable for understanding how people manage themselves and their behaviour at work, given its influence on motivation, well-being, and personal achievement and fulfilment.

Employees must not only accomplish tasks but also manage their negative emotions as well as interpersonal relationships. Despite this, self-efficacy has mainly been assessed in relation to job tasks, not emotions and interpersonal aspects.

This research aimed to fill the gap by developing and testing a new work self-efficacy scale to assess individuals’ perceived ability not only in managing tasks, but also negative emotions, being empathic and being assertive. It involved academics at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Norwich Business School, the Department of Psychology at Sapienza University of Rome, Uninettuno Telematic International University, and the Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science at Coventry University.

Results from two studies, involving a total of 2892 Italian employees, provide evidence of the added value of a more comprehensive approach to the assessment of self-efficacy at work. They also suggest the new scale has practical implications for management and staff, for example in recruitment and appraisal processes, as well career development and training.

The findings, published in Journal of Vocational Behavior, show that:

  • The more employees perceive themselves as able to manage their tasks and effectively fulfil their goals (task self-efficacy), the better they perform and the less they are likely to misbehave at work;
  • The more employees perceive themselves as able to manage their negative emotions in stressful and conflict situations (negative emotional self-efficacy), the less they report physical symptoms and the less they experience negative emotions in relation to their job;
  • The more employees perceive themselves as able to understand their colleagues’ moods and states (empathic self-efficacy), the more they are likely to go the extra mile in their working lives and help their colleagues.

Co-author Dr Roberta Fida, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Norwich Business School, said: “Our results also showed that the more employees perceive themselves as capable of speaking up for their rights and ideas, what we call assertive self-efficacy, the more they seem to engage in counterproductive work behaviour targeting the organisation as a whole. This seems to suggest that assertive self-efficacy should be considered as a risk factor.

“However, further analyses showed that reducing individuals to separate elements may obscure their complexity. Indeed, the results of this research showed the importance of considering the relationship between the different self-efficacy beliefs and how they combine with each other. This helps us to understand how individuals organise their capabilities to fulfil their goals and manage themselves in challenging and demanding situations.”

In particular, the findings showed that when employees have high assertive self-efficacy along with high task, negative emotional and empathic self-efficacy, they actually did not show higher counterproductive work behaviour. On the contrary, they are those helping and going the extra-mile as well as those showing high well-being. The opposite is instead true for those employees with high empathic self-efficacy but low task, negative emotional and assertive self-efficacy.

Results also showed that when employees have high task self-efficacy but they do not perceive themselves as able to manage negative emotions in stressful and conflictual situations, understand others’ needs and mood, or speak up for their rights and ideas, they undoubtedly perform well in their job but they ‘pay the price’ in terms of well-being.

Dr Fida said: “By using the scale, management and Human Resources may gain an all-round understanding of their employees over the course of their career, and may assess and monitor individuals’ beliefs in relation to different self-regulatory capabilities.

“For example, in the recruitment process, it may provide relevant information to understand how potential employees may adjust to the work environment. It can also be used in the appraisal system as a self-reflective tool.

“In addition, it can provide relevant information for career development, and for training and vocational counselling. It may inform the design of tailored interventions aimed at promoting employees’ self-regulatory competences in ‘less trained’ self-regulatory capabilities.”

‘“Possunt, quia posse videntur”: They can because they think they can. Development and Validation of the Work Self-Efficacy Scale: Evidence from Two Studies’, Claudio Barbaranelli, Roberta Fida, Marinella Paciello and Carlo Tramontano, is published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

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