The Silent Team Member: How a Lack of Self-Efficacy Can Lead to Self-Limiting Behavior in the Context of Team Decision Making

Article and Author Information

Lissa Burt wrote this article in December 2011 for the MSLOC Advancing Learning & Performance Solutions course. Lissa graduated from the MSLOC program in December 2012 and is the first graduate of the program to complete the degree while living outside of the Chicagoland area. Lissa is an independent change management and communications consultant in Los Angeles, California.

Introduction

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - - you're right" -Henry Ford

With increased competition, access to information and globalization, work teams have gained popularity and credibility as a way to bring different expertise, perspectives and opinions together for the ultimate goal of increased performance through strategic problem solving and effective decision making (Thompson, 2007). The assumption behind the modern work team is that better decisions are made through sharing and discussion of diverse points of view. If this is the case, then it follows that that the decision making environment must be one where all team members are compelled to disclose their knowledge and experiences (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996), and fully participate in the process. However, there are a number of factors - including organizational culture, personality, cultural diversity, and level of experience - that can prevent team members from feeling confident about their ability to add value to the decision making process.

Team performance is a central topic within the LOC community, and decision making is a key indicator of a team’s ultimate success. This article will explore how an individual team member’s lack of self-efficacy can lead to self-limiting of contributions to the team decision making process, leaving the team to make a decision without the benefit of their perspective. A case study will be used to demonstrate how social persuasion and specific team processes can be used to build self-efficacy and promote participation in a team decision-making environment. Finally, recommendations will be shared regarding practices that leaders or Self-Managing Teams can use to prevent self-limiting behavior and encourage self-efficacy around team decision-making.

Self-Efficacy

Figure 1

Self-Efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a particular task (Bandura, 1977, 1989, 1994), and research has shown that it can have a powerful effect on how people think, feel and behave (Bandura, 1994). In fact, Bandura (1977, 1989, 1994) found a causal relationship between self-efficacy and behavior and outcomes, and proposed that it can be a more important indicator of an individual’s performance in a particular situation than skill, ability and other contributing factors.

Bandura and Wood (1989) suggest that this may be because those with high self-efficacy will focus on “assessing a problem and finding solutions,” while those who lack self-efficacy “concentrate on their own deficiencies, and become so preoccupied that they can’t devote the necessary attention and skill to the task at hand” (p. 2).

An individual’s self-efficacy is not the same across all situations. For instance, one person might have strong self-efficacy with regard to playing tennis, but low self-efficacy with regard to solving algebra equations. In addition, self-efficacy in a particular area can be developed or changed, affecting behavior and performance (Driscoll, 2004). Bandura (Bandura in Driscoll, 2004) provides the following “principles for obtaining and influencing self-efficacy beliefs:

  • Enactive mastery experiences that provide feedback on learners’ own capabilities
  • Vicarious experiences that provide comparative information about the attainments of others
  • Verbal persuasion, which provides the learner with information about what others believe he or she is capable of doing.
  • Physiological states and internal feelings by which learners judge their ability to engage in the task at hand” (p. 318).

Participation self-efficacy and self-limiting behavior

Participation self-efficacy puts general self-efficacy principles in the context of group decision making. Lam and Schaubroeck (2002) define participation self-efficacy as the “extent to which an individual believes that he or she has the ability and skills to successfully participate in decision-making processes.” From this, we can assume that the opposite is also true: a lack of participation self-efficacy relates to an individual’s belief that they do not have the ability and skills to successfully participate in decision making processes.

According to Thompson (2007), if individual team members do not believe they can meaningfully contribute, “they are less likely to air or defend their viewpoints” (p.188). This conscious decision is the expression of acquiescent silence or voice. According to Dyne, Soon and Botero (2003), acquiescent silence is the act of “intentionally withholding ideas, information, and opinions,” and acquiescent voice is “disengaged behavior” - often displayed through statements of agreement and support like “that’s fine with me” or “whatever you think” - that is “based on feeling unable to make a difference” (p. 8). This tendency for individuals to limit their involvement is referred to as self-limiting behavior (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996), and it is a common cause of decision making pitfalls like Pluralistic Ignorance or The Abilene Paradox.

Meaningful participation is an imperative part of the group decision making process; each team member must offer their unique knowledge so the team can make “novel linkages and associations” (Janssens & Brett, 2006, pg. 139). Therefore, teams and leaders need to be aware of individual self-efficacy and create a decision making environment that empowers members to share their views and ideas. The following are a few ways in which a lack of individual self-efficacy can lead to self-limiting behavior, and consequently, inhibit effective team decision making:

Lack of self-efficacy in one's ability to make valuable contributions

Self-limiting behavior may occur when an individual has low “mastery expectations," or self-efficacy regarding their skill and ability associated with a particular task or topic (Veigal, 1991). For instance, an employee might feel lost in a discussion of the technical elements involved in a particular decision and, assuming that the topic is too complex for them to make a valuable contribution, they lack confidence in their ability to provide meaningful input, causing them to disengage and defer to their teammates. This is especially common when there is an expert present during a team decision making meeting. In such a situation, team members may assume that they don’t know as much as the expert, and decide not to provide input at all (Thompson, 2007, p. 186-188).

Lack of self-efficacy in one's ability to negotiate for their opinion or make a difference in the outcome of the situation

Negotiation is a skill which can be acquired through personal experience or practice, and is therefore subject to self-efficacy (Lam and Schaubroeck, 2002). Research conducted by Lam and Schaubroeck (2002) revealed that self-efficacy is a significant factor in the initiation of negotiation. They suggested that the more an individual believes that he or she is capable of “attaining certain goals or performing at a certain level” during negotiations, the more assertive that individual will be in initiating negotiations (Lam and Schaubroeck, 2002). Thus, people with high self-efficacy will utilize participative decision making opportunities to negotiate for their desired outcome, whereas those with low self-efficacy may feel powerless or ineffective in these situations, leading to self-limiting behavior (Lam and Schaubroeck, 2002). For example, a member of a culturally diverse team may have low self-efficacy regarding their ability to articulate and negotiate for their point of view due to a language barrier.

Lack of self-efficacy in one’s ability to affect change

According to Dyne, Soon and Botero (2003), “when employees believe they don’t make a difference, they disengage and are not likely to contribute ideas or suggestions proactively” (p.8). Therefore, if a team member has low self-efficacy in his or her ability to influence the outcome of a situation, they might feel powerless and withhold their ideas regarding a particular decision (Dyne, Soon and Botero, 2003, p. 14-16). For example, a team member who feels that his or her personal contributions were not acknowledged or considered in the past, may believe their input is unlikely to impact current or future team decisions, which can lead to self-limiting behavior (Dyne, Soon and Botero, 2003, p. 14-16). This situation may be common in organizational cultures where leaders routinely ask for input from individuals or teams, but then to do follow-up and explain how those contributions factored into the ultimate decision or outcome of the situation.

ABC Health

ABC Health, a communications and marketing consulting firm, was asked to develop recommendations for a large health insurance provider regarding ways to position the organization - and its leadership - as an industry thought leader. After tasking his team with conducting individual research and forming initial recommendations, David Smith, the Senior Vice President leading the effort, decided to engage his team and several subject matter experts from outside the team in a brainstorming session.

Smith had been with the firm for 10 years and was aware that members of the junior staff often limited their contributions in brainstorming sessions because they didn’t believe they had the experience or ability to provide worthy ideas. Smith also knew that the presence of a particularly brilliant, but particularly arrogant and grumpy, executive was likely to increase this tendency. Because he felt strongly that the junior staff could provide a fresh perspective and key insights regarding industry media and pop culture, and that the curmudgeon executive could provide focused industry expertise, Smith used several techniques to ensure full participation from the whole group.

First, Smith asked everyone to come to the meeting with each of their initial ideas written on a different piece of paper. He also spent time in the beginning of the session waiting for those who had not completed this task, to capture their ideas on paper. Second, Smith collected the papers and asked a team member to write them all in a long list on the wall. By doing this, no one knew who was responsible for which ideas, removing some of the intimidation associated with the presence of a subject matter expert. Finally, Smith assigned each person a role for the first round of idea generation and evaluation, based on their area of expertise. He was careful to mention why he was choosing the junior staff members for a particular role, providing them with social persuasion in the form of feedback to increase their self-efficacy associated with successfully contributing to the discussion.

Smith’s meeting design was very successful for several reasons. By creating a level playing field and leading the group through a systematic approach to the evaluation of the ideas, everyone felt comfortable participating. In addition, by providing verbal persuasion, the junior staff members felt empowered and engaged, ultimately providing several of them with a mastery experience to increase their self-efficacy in future decision making situations.

Recommendations for leaders and teams

Figure 2

The decision making process can be tedious. However, for the best possible outcome, it is important that leaders and teams avoid self-limiting behavior and manage self-efficacy by creating a safe, collaborative atmosphere. This might include:

Before the meeting

  • Controlling team size:

Large teams can prevent individual members from making meaningful contributions (Mulvey, 1996), reducing self-efficacy associated with their participation and increasing the likelihood of self-limiting behavior. Because “self-limiting behavior increases with team size” (Latane in Mulvey, 1996, p.7), leaders should carefully select their team based on the specific requirements of the task, and avoid social or organizational pressure to include more members than are absolutely necessary (Mulvey, 1996, p.7). However, at the same time, it leaders should make an effort to ensure that their team has adequate resources to accomplish the goal. For example, if a team is too small, members may feel overwhelmed, and the daunting nature of the task may lead to self-limiting behavior (Mulvey, 1996, p.7).

  • Asking team members to brainstorm and record their initial ideas prior to the meeting

Not only does this prevent anchoring and group think, but it will allow those who feel uncomfortable speaking in groups or negotiating for their ideas, and those who have language or communication barriers, to prepare their thoughts before sharing them with the group.

During the meeting

  • Setting and maintaining a positive, collaborative tone:

Leaders can create an environment that empowers team members to participate fully by establishing a positive tone regarding the team’s ability to be successful, and setting expectations for the decision making process at the beginning of the meeting. This might include briefly noting why each team member was chosen (if appropriate), highlighting the importance of all member contributions, and requesting that evaluations of any suggestions should be held until after the initial brainstorming session (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996, p.9).

  • Leveling the playing field:

According to Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass (1996)“high-status members are often at the center of communication, thus giving them an even greater aura of expertise that can further erode lower status member’s efficacy regarding their ability to contribute to the team decision-making” process. (p. 7) This may be prevented by eliminating status symbols during decision-making meetings, or minimizing the impact by not referring to members’ titles. In addition, monitoring the time each member is given to present their ideas, and ensuring that higher-status members aren’t monopolizing the discussion can help create a safe environment for team member opinions.

  • Creating a no judgement zone:

Especially because team member who lack confidence in their abilities are “slower to recover their sense of efficacy after a failure or setback,” (Bandura, 1994) team leaders make an effort to ensure that all team members are given equal, “non-judgmental airtime” (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996, p.7).

  • Setting them up for success:

According to Bandura (1994), "the most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences." Therefore, when a team member has low self-efficacy, team leaders can consider their skills and experiences and look for opportunities where they are likely to contribute successfully.

After the meeting

  • Confirming the value of team effort:

Regardless of what ultimately happened as a result of the team's decision, any relevant explanations or rationales about the outcome of the decision should be shared with the team so they know their efforts were not in vain. This is an important factor in the development of team members' self-efficacy about affecting change (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996, page 10).

  • Providing feedback and rewards:

Acknowledging, praising and rewarding team and individual accomplishments can increase efficacy and prevent individuals from engaging in self-limiting behavior in the future (Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass, 1996, page 10).

Conclusion

It is clear from the existing research that individual self-efficacy impacts how team members may or may not engage in the team decision making process. While there is limited research directly associated with how to manage individual self-efficacy in the context of team decision making, current best practices regarding self-efficacy and self-limiting behavior can be applied to this topic. However, this may be an implication for future research regarding best practices in this area.

Since efficacy - both individual and group - is a powerful determinant of performance, and because self-limiting behavior caused by a lack of self-efficacy can erode the team decision making process, team leaders and self-managing teams will enjoy greater success if they gauge and appropriately manage efficacy by guiding the team through a decision making process that is respectful, empowering and outcome-directed.

Cited Works

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