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  • Spring 2015 Case Study in Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories
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The concept of self-efficacy and its role in the larger Social Cognitive Theory was developed by Albert Bandura (1986) as a result of his discontent with the lacking philosophies of behaviorism and psychoanalysis at the time.  As described in detail on the main Wiki page (Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories, n.d.), self-efficacy is one the four processes leading to goal realization in the Social Cognitive Theory.  Self-efficacy can take into account performance outcomes, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological feedback, which all feed in to an individual’s perception of how well they can perform a task, ultimately affecting their performance of that task.  The main Wiki (Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories, n.d.) also does a fantastic job of describing concepts that are related to self-efficacy such as personality, self-esteem, equity theory, and VIE theory, which can sometimes be confused with self-efficacy.  All ideas have similar themes, but ultimately all are unique in their interpretation of the underlying factors that determine the outcome as well as what exactly the outcome is. 

Our case study focuses on the role of the “first line supervisor” in the military setting, but the concepts are applicable to nearly all supervisors attempting to enable their subordinates to be all that they can be. (Go Army!)  In the Army, we explore how Privates supporting the Sentinel Radar leverage repetition to increase self-efficacy in very short order.  In the Air Force, we analyze how complex maintenance duties are broken down and taught to young Airmen in a way that builds their self-efficacy, eventually leading to goal attainment and motivation.  In the Navy, we look at how examining a seemingly simple task and the associated pressures of being watched by superiors results in unnecessary pressures and negative performance.  Enacting some simple changes results in positive performance due to increased self-efficacy.  Looking at three different scenarios from the Army, Air Force, and Navy (the Marines are a sub-set of the Navy, and the Coast Guard isn’t a DoD Branch), it is interesting to see how each is strikingly different, but also similar as they relate to the role of self-efficacy and performance.

As you can see, there are a number of factors that contribute to the success of personnel coming up through the military ranks.  We will examine the role of self-efficacy in the growth of these individuals, and how supervisors can leverage Bandura’s ideas to produce better outcomes in their performance.  We will also look at the possible negative effects that having high self-efficacy can have on performance over the long-term, and why this is seldom seen in the military setting.  This conclusion could explain how a higher “ops tempo” could help with reducing these negative side effects, and how this concept could be leveraged for use in non-military situations as well.


Case studies:

The first of the three case studies focuses on training in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) on the TACtical Air Navigation (TACAN) system, a navigation system used by military aircraft. Because of the complexity of the system and importance of certification in repairs the training was broken down into manageable tasks then conducted through a methodical training program using detailed Technical Orders (TOs).

An entry level technician (Level-3), is shown how to do basic maintenance by observing more senior technicians which our lesson states is Vicarious experiences (The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) World Campus, 2015) complete the tasks then allowed to do the tasks themselves but only under direct supervision. After several months of learning in a journeyman style setting you are evaluated by the shop foreman (2 levels above you), if you receive a satisfactory review you will then be certified to complete those tasks without supervision which the lesson would call Performance outcome (PSU World Campus, 2015).

An example of the effectiveness of vicarious experience can be seen when an interviewee gave an account of what happened while he was on call and a severe thunderstorm entered the area where the TACAN was located. Lightning damaged the TACAN, causing many flights to be rerouted and effectively shutting down the airfield. When the technician arrived and saw all the alarms going off he became overwhelmed with the situation, also known as Physiological feedback (PSU World Campus, 2015), per his Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) he tried to contact the other repair specialists on call but was unable to raise any of them. Since there were no other technicians available he had to begin troubleshooting the different alarms using Technical Orders (TOs), directives used to establish practice . Our interviewee was able to fall back on his training and methodically go step by step and fix each of the problems, even though those problems were above his skill level, and bring the TACAN back online before the morning shift arrived. A study done by Kauppila (2014) discusses how individuals with a sense of high general self-efficacy (GSE) have clearer perceptions of their roles.  This interviewee had an understanding of what was expected of them and was able to carry out the task at hand. 




The second case study involves a training method the U.S. Army’s (USA) Air Defense Artillery (ADA) school employs to teach new recruits how to emplace and operate the Sentinel radar system while they are attending Advanced Individual Training (AIT). The sentinel radar system is first hands on test that future 14Gs (fourteen golf) learn while they are attending AIT at Fort Sill. Because the system is complex and must be performed in a specific step by step the instructors created a training process that incorporated performance outcome, vicarious experiences, and verbal persuasion (PSU World Campus, 2015, p.6).

First the students learn about the radar system in the classroom. They learn system specifics, and perform computer-simulated exercises to familiarize themselves with the switch actions of the system. Allowing the soldiers to practice and learn the sequence of switches was more beneficial on computers than at the actual radar, when young students were at the radar they were more interested in looking at everything else about the radar than actually paying attention to the sequence providing us with a relevant example of performance outcomes. Next the students moved to the radar set and observed the instructor team emplace and operate the radar system which provides us with an example of vicarious experiences, and at this step the students were able to see how the radar should be emplaced and see that it can be completed in the allotted time (15 minutes).  After watching the instructors emplace the radar and a quick question and answer session, the students began practicing emplacing the radar system. Typically the average time for first time emplacement was around 30 minutes, which is a failing time per the test standards. But through constant repetition with verbal encouragement which our lesson would call verbal persuasion (PSU World Campus, 2015). The actions become second nature and the times typically drop to 11-12 minutes, which is well below the required time of 15 minutes.  Vicarious Experience can be a very beneficial way to build a person’s self efficacy otherwise a person may not fully understand their role.  As a result of these steps the sentinel radar emplacement in 1st time go sits close 95% with second time go at 100%.

Sentinel radar with generator truck

The final case study involves training the U.S. Navy (USN) airmen to fill out complex documents that would normally be left for more senior sailors to complete. In this case the junior airmen felt uncomfortable (physiological feedback) completing important documents when there were senior personnel present during task completion, which also perhaps this decreased behavior due to punishment by application (D. Hockenbury & S. Hockenbury, 2010). To modify this behavior the airmen were first trained in how to fill out the documents properly first with classroom environment instruction that included comparing mock paperwork with properly completed actual paperwork (vicarious experiences) then with hands on (performance outcomes) (PSU World Campus, 2015) experience. During the hands on sessions positive reinforcement (Reinforcement Theory, n.d) was given to the seamen in the form of verbal feedback (verbal persuasion). This training program was implemented after witnessing personnel completing tasks that were less monitored. The assumption was that the airmen were did not feel as effective in completing the tasks while being watched. The initial phase of training showed that personnel were competent in completing the paperwork, but because of the stress induced (physiological feedback) by doing this in the presence of senior personnel they perception resulted in feelings of lower self-efficacy.

Naval Airman Completing Inspection

Naval Airman Completing Aircraft Inspection onboard the USS Nimitz

After one week of this training regiment the airmen were extremely confident in their ability to complete the complex documents even when more senior personnel were available to fill out the paper work. This training allowed the division to have 95% of all personal capable and confident to complete any document regardless of their time in service. This translated into a more productive division with a greater number of personnel completing full inspections on aircraft.

As evidenced by the above case studies,  self-efficacy theory has implications in the development of personnel in both field and training applications. The distinction of self-efficacy can be seen relating to task-specific behavior such as emplacing a radar system, following TOs to troubleshoot a malfunctioning TACAN, and completing inspection paperwork versus self-esteem as it relates to an individuals general feelings of worth (PSU World Campus, 2015). The preceding case study are examples of how the principles of self-efficacy theory can be applied to introductory training programs and field training programs, but the effects of self-efficacy theory have been applied successfully at various levels of employment (PSU World Campus, 2015).

Each service uses a different methodology with its service personnel. What is common across all three is that the goal is to increase self-efficacy by improving and individuals perception that they will be able to accomplish a particular work task. In the military, technical orders, or TOs as they are called, break down a particular task or function into a series of manageable tasks. We also described how the military uses performance outcomes, vicarious experiences, feedback as well as verbal persuasion in order to boost an individual’s chances of success when performing a task.

Self-efficacy theory is generally straightforward in nature; however, as we have seen, the implementation of it in a real world situation can be somewhat complex. The simple act of observation or criticism can affect how a service member performs his or her tasks and the level of comfort that they feel while performing them. Since military operational units function as a team, any effect on an individual service member could result in cascading issues across that person’s platoon, unit, or division. Regardless, clear instruction and confidence building is key to success in these types of programs, and self-efficacy theory provides a clear example of how this can be done.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2010). Psychology (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers. Retrieved from

Kauppila, O. (2014). So, what am I supposed to do? A multilevel examination of role clarity. Journal of Management Studies,51(5), 737-763. doi:

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2015). Lesson 7: Self-Efficacy Theory: Do I think that I can succeed in my work? PSYCH 484: Work Attitudes and Job Motivation. Retrieved from

Reinforcement Theory (n.d.) in PSYCH 484: Work Attitudes and Job Motivation Retrieved February 25, 2014 from

Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories (n.d.) In PSYCH 484: Work Attitudes and Job Motivation. Retrieved February 27, 215 from


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