“It’s all about people” – a claim we have all heard and many agree with. The way we cope with a development like Coronavirus that is sweeping the globe depends on many things. First of all, the pandemic may be seriously affecting your own health or the lives and health of your loved ones and friends.
Other factors that are relevant are our age, underlying health, where we live, our financial circumstances (then and now…), our religion even, and, not in the least, how we respond to ‘stuff’ that happens – how we tick.
This is where psychology, and more precisely, personality psychology, comes in. The study and understanding of how we behave as individuals and interact with the world around us; theories, applied research, models and, ideally, predictions that shine a light on how we (will) function, lead our lives. Insight into why we do the things we do – or don’t do, as the case may be…
There is a good deal of agreement amongst scientists in psychology about how our personality affects us. The so-called Big Five Factor Model describes how we differ in the way we make sense of our world, behave and feel. I will touch on each of these briefly and relate them to the current situation of the pandemic that we are living in.
This factor of our personality relates to the extent to which we are likely to accept change and are sensitive to the ideas of others. It also relates to levels of imagination, curiosity and readiness to handle novel experiences. As such, it is related to intellect as well.
People scoring high on this personality dimension show certain traits, that, for instance, make them more likely to find imaginative ways of dealing with the lockdown and being creative with the constraints and opportunities that this new (if temporary) normal brings.
People scoring low on this dimension tend to find it harder to cope with difficult situations. They are more prone to feeling anxious, worried or insecure. People scoring high on this dimension tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and feel less insecure. In between these two opposites, we find “most of us”; we all feel scared and worried at times.
Some people are more emotionally sensitive to the challenges of COVID-19 than others (all other things being equal…!). Another aspect here is that we all differ in the extent to which we are impulsive. Some people can control themselves and retain their self-composure (much) more than others.
In fact, the healthcare professionals, carers, nurses, doctors, chemists, and other workers dealing with patients have no choice but to be calm, even-tempered and imperturbable as much as they can in the face of difficult medical situations – and their underlying personality may help or hinder them.
This part of our personality tells us how compassionate and polite we are. Some of us are more courteous, flexible, conforming, trusting, sympathetic or cooperative than others. People who identify too much with this dimension may be too trusting or too tolerant. One can have too much of a good thing, where certain characteristics are overplayed.
In the context of COVID-19, some people will find it harder to self-isolate than others, concerned as they are for the welfare of others. Then again, some of us may mistrust how politicians respond to the pandemic more than others. You will know some people who will have complied with new rules of social distancing well before they came into force – where others may still to be ignoring the very same rules.
Extroverts have a higher need for excitement, and they are often more assertive. They seek social events and are in their element when they are amongst others. Introverts are not necessarily shy or inadequate at all, but they tend to lack the need for excitement and may ponder more, emphasising accuracy over speed, thinking first and speaking later, and preferring to listen rather than talk.
Extroverts, those who are highly sociable, gregarious, talkative and active, will struggle more with being cooped up inside with this lockdown. They are more likely to literally feel locked down. Modern IT facilities like Zoom, Skype and Teams are a godsend for them. Meet up we shall!
This relates to our individual levels of industriousness and orderliness. If you tend to be careful, thorough, responsible, organised and if you are a planner who works hard, perseveres and likes to achieve things, then you probably score high on this dimension. You pride yourself on self-discipline and dutifulness – or, at least, more so than most around you. Taken too far this can cause challenges too; too conscientious can become tight-fistedness, intolerance and rigid risk-aversion. People scoring low on this dimension might be rash or indiscreet and have a lower sense of responsibility and tenacity.
With this pandemic in the foreground, a sense of perseverance, work ethic and reliability, coupled with the realisation of having to be careful and responsible is clearly linked to this personality dimension.
Psychology of Leadership
Personality also clearly impacts the way organisations large and small, and even countries, are led. It is likely, for instance, that Boris Johnson’s personality differs greatly from that of, say, Jacinda Ahern, New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister…
With scientific support provided by some UK universities we are currently developing a new tool that measures leadership effectiveness and captures personality traits linked to success. This tool is based on personality characteristics that are relevant for people in leadership roles. If you are in a leadership role and interested in helping the validation process of this new tool (even if anonymously…!) and upgrading your effectiveness, then please contact us. You will enjoy contibuting to the development of this new tool and will receive some interesting develomental insight into how effective your leadership approach is.
Self-awareness and Context
Being aware of your own feelings, attitudes and values will help you to deal with things. Empathy, genuineness and warmth on the part of people around us, equally, will be of benefit. Reciprocating this will make you and others around you stronger.
None of the above elements in themselves fully determine how we cope as individuals in this pandemic. Contextual factors play a role. Nevertheless, your personality and, consequently, how you tend to respond to serious challenges may make some difference to how well you cope, or lead the way. Now and in the times to come.
This article is based on a previous version that originally appeared in online magazine Business Biscuit, 17 April 2020.