Can Leaders Handle Challenge? The Role of Self-Efficacy

Topic(s): engagement, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Fired up or burned out? How developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior
Authors: S. H. Courtright, A. E. Colbert, & D. Choi
Reviewed by: Mary Selden

Many researchers believe that leadership is a skill learned through experience, specifically through overcoming challenging experiences. Studies show that challenging leaders is beneficial because it causes them to demonstrate more engagement, skill, motivation, and transformational leadership behavior. However, leaders occasionally respond negatively to challenges, and this outcome is rarely considered when studying leader development.


According to the authors of a new study (Courtright, Colbert, Choi, 2014) on how developmental challenge impacts leader behavior, leadership self-efficacy helps determine whether leaders will respond to challenges positively or negatively. When leaders believe they are capable of responding to challenges (high leadership self-efficacy) they tend to cope successfully. This, in turn, promotes more engagement and effective behaviors, such as those associated with transformational leadership. On the other hand, leaders who have low leadership self-efficacy, and do not believe they can respond effectively to challenges, exhibit more signs of emotional exhaustion, avoidance, and disengagement. These are the behaviors typically associated with laissez-faire leadership.


The authors of the study tested their hypotheses on junior and mid-level managers from a Fortune 500 financial services company over the course of four months. They found that challenging jobs related to both engagement and exhaustion. When leaders were engaged, they reported a greater number of transformational leadership behaviors. But when leaders were emotionally exhausted, they reported a greater number of laissez-faire leadership behaviors.

Leadership self-efficacy did not seem to play a role when the challenges were met constructively. However, those with low leadership self-efficacy who responded negatively to challenging situations were much more likely to report greater emotional exhaustion and a numerous laissez-faire leadership behaviors.


The results of this study suggest that challenging assignments are useful as leadership development tools, particularly for leaders who have high leadership self-efficacy. But there is also an inherent risk: Leaders who are unsure of their abilities may not benefit from tackling challenging assignments. Instead, the challenge may lead to emotional exhaustion and more laissez-faire behaviors—results which could negatively affect the organization by leading to poor performance, burnout, high turnover, and other problems. However, providing coaching or mentoring programs designed to improve leaders’ self-efficacy may help those with low-leadership self-efficacy gain the coping skills required to grow from challenging experiences.


Courtright, S.H., Colbert, A.E., & Choi, D. (2014). Fired up or burned out? How developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(4), 712-712.