WHO BOUGHT ALL THE TOILET PAPER? HOW DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES COPE WITH COVID-19 AND THE RETURN TO WORK.
New Zealand is slowly coming to grips with our “new normal”.
Crisis or critical response situations tend to bring out the best and the worst in us, and the uncertainty and disruptions we are all facing are likely to continue for some time. Depending on your situation, going back to work and the regular routine of the workplace might have felt like a relief, but it can also easily feel overwhelming to transition back into more populated environments, and potentially be more stressful than you were expecting.
In fact, a concept called “post-lockdown syndrome” has emerged internationally, where people are experiencing mixed feelings of anxiety, nervousness and worry about returning back to a state of “normal”, referring to the norm prior to lockdown. For many, the lockdown represented safety and a temporary reduction in social pressures, and some people were surprised to discover how much they enjoyed the “Joy of Missing Out”.
The suspended reality of lockdown gave most of us a chance to reflect and re-evaluate, and it is likely that we have all identified personality traits, behavioural tendencies or general modes of operating that we don’t want to carry through to the rest of 2020 or beyond.
So, what is emerging research telling us about how our personality traits impact our behaviour during these uncertain times, and how might we identify or adjust our less than ideal behaviours?
That personality can influence behaviour is well documented, with most research leaning on frameworks such as the five-factor model (or the “Big Five” personality traits Model, as defined by Costa and McCrae) to provide insight into the drivers that sit behind human behaviour.
Personality assessments can tell us a lot about a person’s general traits and preferences, but they can also give us insight into what kinds of behavioural cues we are likely to receive when dealing with prolonged periods of stress and uncertainty. For example, how we interpret that uncertainty and whether we are likely to view it as an opportunity or a risk.
In saying that, there is not a huge amount of research to draw upon that focuses on personality in the context of a pandemic like COVID-19. Below I look at a few examples of common personality traits that we may be seeing or experiencing, as impacting our perceptions or actions.
Extroversion accounts for more variability in human behaviour than any other trait1 and can help us to understand our own or others’ responses. People high on this trait are energized by being around others, so being denied those small, everyday interactions with their team would have been genuinely challenging. When we are back in the workplace, you might see extroverts talking, socialising and sharing even more than previous interactions in an attempt to refill their social energy “tank”. Indeed higher scores on extroversion have been associated with lower adherence to social distancing protocols during COVID-19 and other health protection behaviours and whilst research is still emerging on the topic, it stands to reason that people who attach a high value to social interactions might also be at the highest risk for being infected.
Similarly, although enforced social distancing might have sounded appealing to introverts in some respects, there is such a thing as too much alone time, as tolerance levels are lowered. Introverts might find the buzz and energy of the workplace to be overwhelming in comparison to their time at home, and may find themselves needing more alone time than usual, or becoming even more quiet, reserved, or introspective upon their return.
Conscientiousness, Neuroticism & Agreeableness
Aside from social personality dimensions, other traits that have been associated positively with containment/isolation measures, are where there are higher scores for Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Agreeableness. These have been found to predict health-driven behaviours in response to COVID-19, such as social distancing and handwashing. Research into adaptive personality traits found higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness to predict the appeal of more compassionate (“Help protect the vulnerable!”) and responsible (“Take personal responsibility!”) personal health messages, and neuroticism of the avoidant message (“Avoid the disease!”).
So while highly conscientious co-workers may be thrilled by the prospect of following the new rules in the workplace, people who are low on traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness may not feel particularly inspired by appeals to adhere to hygiene protocols.
Given that the trait of neuroticism is characterised by the propensity to perceive greater contextual threats and experience heightened stress and negative emotions (such as worry, anxiety, irritation and withdrawal), it stands to reason that people high on this trait may have a harder time during a period of re-entry to the workplace. In a recent study, individuals high in neuroticism were found to attend to and worry more about COVID-19-related information, to which they react with more negative affect; therefore it is both harder for them to “turn off” from reading and review pandemic updates or information, and the information they do absorb is more likely to be viewed as an obstacle to new routines.
Practically speaking, you may simply see less of these people during the return-to-work phase if their anxiety is driving them to avoid or withdraw in a social sense. Interestingly, research indicates that people who are higher on the “worry” and “vulnerability” items of neuroticism experience better physical health, perhaps due to a promotion of health vigilance behaviours, which may simply lead these types to work from the safety of their own homes, or observe less social routines.
Research has even been conducted to examine the influence of the perceived threat of COVID-19 and personality traits specifically on toilet paper stockpiling. Conscientiousness was found to be a robust predictor of toilet paper stockpiling, and around 20 percent of the differences in toilet paper consumption that were explained by feelings of threat were based on people’s dispositional tendency to worry a lot and generally feel anxious.
So how might we start to manage some of these less than ideal behaviours as we spend more time back in the workplace?
Spotting some of the more common signs of stress upon re-entry to the workplace (such as agitation, frustration, avoiding others, being forgetful, losing focus, procrastination, or poor decision making etc) isn’t particularly difficult, especially when emotions are running high.
The real challenge for us as teams and individuals is to be aware of the tendency towards these behaviours before they are triggered, and/or get out of hand. For instance, if you have ever completed a Hogan Development survey, you will be well aware of some of your “under pressure” behaviours used as coping mechanisms during stress. More Mischievous types may regularly resist new health and safety protocols in the workplace or violate new team norms. People with Colourful traits may find themselves talking and socialising non-stop upon their return to work, dramatising their personal challenges over lockdown, and failing to listen to (or ask about) other peoples’ experiences. Diligent types may find themselves micromanaging their team or becoming militant about enforcing the rules, and Dutiful drivers may see people following orders without thinking about whether or not they are reasonable, given their personal circumstances.
More general measures of personality such as the CPI 260®, the OPQ, the Wave and the HPI can also provide significant insight into how some of our traits can drive behaviour in the workplace, including how we manage stress, interact with others, approach tasks and make decisions.
You may, for instance, know you are managing a team of highly communicative individuals with strong social drivers and high emotional connection needs, but lower drivers around working in a planned, organised and detailed manner. These people might be looking for more communication and more collaboration, especially during stressful or difficult times. It would be useful, therefore, to establish a predictable pattern of communication and connection with a team like this well ahead of time (i.e. weekly team meetings that happen at the same time, remote or otherwise, with a clear agenda and meeting items to cover), and to check in with them from time to time to see if they need any support with their time-dependent deliverables.
Similarly, if you are working with a group of more reserved individuals who have little desire to share their thoughts and feelings, but very strong drivers around “putting their heads down” and getting on with delivery, it might be even more important to check in on them regularly to ensure that their emotional needs are being met. Members of these teams may need to practice meeting more often and communicating more frequently during times of stress, to avoid creating a siloed culture.