Small Wins and Self-Efficacy for Humans and Dogs

(Original post on July 7, 2015)

One of the greatest tools I think I provide my university MBA Leadership students is a working understanding of the Small Wins Principle. Recently I advised some fellow club-mates heading off the island for their first trial away to set their goals in a way that makes them achievable with their effort. For example, great goals were things like: “Maintain my criteria with the different equipment,” “Find and keep our connection in the new environment.” This reminded me of the application of this principle in all aspects of life, not just development of leadership skills.

What is the Small Wins Principle, you might ask? Well, I’m glad you asked! It is a term coined by Karl Weick, one of the top researchers in my field. He argues that the concept of small (and meaningful) wins in the step towards achieving one’s goals is the best way to achieve the big goals. Now, breaking down your goals into feasible steps isn’t anything new, I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but the reason for why it is so important and how to apply it might be.

When it comes to a certain task, be it running in a marathon, competing at the National or World’s level, or even figuring out how to train a new behaviour for your dog, you currently have a level of self-efficacy regarding that task. Self-efficacy is the belief that you will be successful in completing the behaviour/task (defined by Albert Bandura). Self-efficacy is task specific, and can vary from very low (“I can’t do it.”) to very high (“Bring it on!! I’ll ace this!!”)

Your self-efficacy beliefs are developed from your previous experiences (in related tasks or the same task), what others say about your abilities (this is why it is important to surround yourself with people who believe in you, not those who bring you down), also from witnessing others you consider your peer take on the same behaviour/task, and your physiology can also play a temporary role (for example, if you are in pain, you will have lower self-efficacy than if you weren’t in pain; butterflies also diminish self-efficacy perceptions).

Some researchers argue there is a concept of general self-efficacy (in general, how good are you at successfully completing/doing things); however, the specific self-efficacy is what really has the big impact. If you believe you can do it, you will initiate more attempts, you will persist in the face of challenges, and you will be more likely to be successful. Success breeds stronger self-efficacy beliefs. Failures can diminish self-efficacy if they aren’t framed properly (“It wasn’t because of me that I failed, it was because of x,y,z.”) or if the failures aren’t used to identify the next small win (learning experience).

If I were to go out tomorrow and try to run a marathon without any specific training to that skill, I would likely fail. It would also diminish my running self-efficacy. However, if I used Small Wins Strategy and set smaller, meaningful, achievable goals, like running in a 5K next month, or even smaller, run 1.5K in two weeks, I would be more likely to have success. Thus, I would increase my running self-efficacy.

So what does this mean for agility? It means when you have a big goal in mind, check in with your self-efficacy on that task. Is it strong? Is it weak? Also, check in to see if it is built on past experiences. What past successes can you leverage to help you believe more in yourself? What gaps exist in your experiences? Use those gaps to help create Small Wins challenges and training goals for you to prepare for the big goal.

Just like you should document your dog training, consider developing a Small Wins Journal for you. Make sure you don’t lump or over-face yourself. Just like training our dogs, we want to make our paths of success and learning to be successful with appropriate “tests” along the way. Did you realize that when you were using shaping, that you were actually using Small Wins Principle to improve your dog’s self-efficacy? [Imagine: do dogs have self-efficacy? Does generalized learning and back-chaining mean they have more confidence and belief in themselves that they can be successful in their tasks? I’m not sure, but the concepts are similar – small criteria, with high reinforcement rate, equals a confident dog in that learned behavior. As a trainer, do you believe in your dog, and are you supporting them through their learning curve through successes and framing failures as identifiers for future small wins?] Make sure your Small Wins are aligned with your goals, and they will effectively lead you to your big goal.

Finally, find your supporters and your mentors. These are the folks who will help you keep you believing in yourself. Ask them to catch you in any negative self-talk or limiting self-talk (you know, the stuff that eats away at your self-efficacy and diminish the likelihood you will be successful or even TRY to achieve those small wins, let alone the big wins). A good mentor will help you identify your training gaps and give you supportive feedback, while maintaining and preserving your self-efficacy, if not boosting it. A good mentor and training partners believe in you and will cheer you on as you tackle the new challenges. If you find your training partners or mentor bring you down, insult you, or worse, tell you that you can’t do it (at all) or aren’t willing to assist you in finding the small wins, then share with them the Small Wins Principle. Maybe they can use it to learn and improve their coaching and feedback skills.

May the Small Wins Principle be on your side. Happy training and keep on (small) winning!


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