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Changing employee behavior part three: psychological capital as a lever of change

Published 4 July 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

In order to achieve sustained change in employees’ behaviour, managers should also use the key levers summarized in the MAPS model: motivation, ability, psychological capital and supporting environment. In part two  we looked at motivation. In this segment we will look at psychological capital.

Developing psychological capital

Psychological capital refers to the crucial inner resources a person needs to thrive and succeed. It affects a wide range of work-related outcomes, such as job performance, work satisfaction, citizenship, absenteeism and stress. Personality and self-esteem are also crucial elements, which managers can significantly strengthen through support and creating the right work environment.

The four elements of psychological capital are self-confidence, optimism, willpower and resilience.

Self-confidence refers to one’s belief and level of trust in oneself and one’s abilities. Confident people are more likely to work hard and keep going; achieve behavior change; react positively to training; and learn practical and complex interpersonal skills.

Self-confidence is directly related to internal locus of control – when something goes well, a person believes it is because they have done well. An increasing internal locus of control therefore makes behavior change last longer.

Managers can help their subordinates build confidence in several ways:

  • Using guided mastery – ensuring people understand what they need to do, by planning with them how they will practice a new behavior, and highlighting progress and praising them for it.
  • Wisely identifying a reliable and relatable role model to illustrate that progress is achievable.
  • Persuasion using the Pygmalion effect, i.e. expressing confidence in their abilities, reminding them of their strengths, publicizing achievements.
  • It is possible to reduce anxiety and stress via deep breathing, mindfulness or high-power poses.

Optimism focuses on positive thinking, taking credit for good events and viewing bad events as temporary. Pessimists tend to over-generalize, personalize and have an “all or nothing” attitude. Optimists cope better with setbacks and are more likely to sustain change, but they may underestimate risks and be underprepared for setbacks.

Willpower is the capacity to exercise self-control, to start, continue or stop doing something. Willpower can be built by encouraging people to look after themselves (enough sleep, healthy eating, less stress), to practice simple self-discipline (keeping a diary, good posture, developing the non-dominant hand) and to stop distractions and build focus (via positive, motivational or instructional self-talk and mindfulness).

Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity and grow stronger, to develop alternative ways of doing things when faced with difficulties and failures. It can be built in three ways:

  • Promoting a growth mindset through praise for hard work and improvement; asking people what they learned; and pointing out fixed-mind tendencies.
  • Cultivating self-compassion by comforting people, helping them depersonalize the issue and be more objective about themselves, rather than being totally driven by perfectionism.
  • Planning for setbacks by identifying problems that might arise with the desired behavior change, and how to respond to each.

In part four we will look at how to create an environment that supports change.


Shlomo Ben-Hur

Shlomo Ben-Hur

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur works on the psychological and cultural aspects of leadership, and the strategic and operational elements of talent management and corporate learning. He is the Director of IMD’s Changing Employee Behavior program and IMD’s Organizational Learning in Action, and author of the books Talent IntelligenceThe Business of Corporate Learning, Changing Employee Behavior: a Practical Guide for Managers and Leadership OS.


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