- Having a “proactive personality” may help people overcome adversity.
- The quality involves anticipating future possibilities, creating opportunities, demonstrating initiative, persevering despite obstacles.
- Research conducted on healthcare workers in Wuhan, China during the pandemic links proactivity with resilience and well-being.
Whether it’s dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on your daily life or having to put the pieces together after suffering a major disaster, such as the Texas power outages, challenging situations can test every ounce of your reserve. What helps some people navigate these trying circumstances successfully, while others become immobilized? Could there a personality trait that characterizes those who cope? If so, is it a quality that you can acquire?
As it turns out, based on new research by Nancy Yi-Feng Chen and colleagues of Lingnan University, such a factor might actually exist in the form of the "proactive personality." It’s this quality that the authors maintain lends truth to the expression: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” In the words of Chen et al., “proactive people scan for and create opportunities, demonstrate initiative, and persevere when facing obstacles.” Furthermore, they “are motivated to reduce uncertainty by actively anticipating future possibilities in external environments and acting in self-directed ways” (p. 2).
Thinking about the people you know who seem to have this very desirable quality, what characterizes their behavior when everything seems to be going wrong? Do they not only stay calm but use the uncertainty of the moment to actually make positive strides forward?
Perhaps one of your friends is one of these “proactives,” (the name given to people high in this quality). When the lockdowns began in early 2020, this person started planning immediately for what would later become shortages, financial losses, and the inability to travel or even eat at a local restaurant. Rather than being stuck in denial, wishing that this would all go away, your friend started assembling a plan of action, beginning with finding a way to stock pantry shelves with rapidly disappearing necessities while also developing new routines to get through each day’s tasks. Fast forward to one year later, and this friend has managed to feel pretty good about life and is optimistic about a future in which the pandemic is in the past.
To the authors, it’s not just the presence of the proactive personality trait that allows people to remain undaunted in the face of disaster, but also their ability to regard themselves as having the strength to cope. This quality of “perceived strengths use,” identified by previous positive psychology researchers, refers to “a person’s unique characteristics and abilities that, when activated, are energizing and permit performance at one’s personal best” (p. 2). In other words, you don’t have to be strong in an objective strength, you have to see yourself as able to tap into whatever qualities you have that you think you can draw on in the current stressful situation.
Measuring Proactivity in Healthcare Workers During the Pandemic
Chen et al. tested the proposition that proactives can overcome adversity by studying hospital workers in what is now known as ground zero for COVID-19, the lockdown area of Wuhan China. Enlisting their participation across three waves during the period of April to June 2020, the final sample of 315 doctors and nurses, averaging 35 years old, were thrust squarely into the unknown territory of caring for very sick patients with a completely novel medical condition. In addition to asking participants to complete three sets of surveys, the authors were able to obtain job performance data from supervisors that gave them a reasonably objective measure of successful coping.
The statistical model the authors tested predicted higher performance through the modifying influences of a combination of disruption in work routines and degree of physical exposure to the virus. In addition to performance outcomes, the researchers also obtained well-being measures from the participants in the final wave of testing that tapped into resilience and well-being. The authors also examined the role of perceived support by the hospital administration as another influence on work performance and psychological outcomes.
In terms of the model, then, proactive personality became the “can do” that, theoretically, would interact with what the authors call the “reason to,” or disruption in routine, and the “energized to,” in the form of the organizational support that could compensate for the “exhaustive nature of routine disruption.” In this model, representing what the authors consider a unique feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, exposure was a “contextual factor that signals the need to capitalize on the resources built up through strengths use” (p. 4).
If you’re curious about exactly what goes into the proactive personality, rate yourself on these 10 items using a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) rating:
- I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to improve my life.
- Wherever I have been, I have been a powerful force for constructive change.
- Nothing is more exciting than seeing my ideas turn into reality.
- If I see something I don’t like, I fix it.
- No matter what the odds, if I believe in something I will make it happen.
- I love being a champion for my ideas, even against others’ opposition.
- I excel at identifying opportunities.
- I am always looking for better ways to do things.
- If I believe in an idea, no obstacle will prevent me from making it happen.
- I can spot a good opportunity long before others can.
The average score among the Chinese healthcare workers in this study was 5.5, with the majority of respondents scoring between 4.6 and 6.4. The proactive personality score, in turn, combined with perceived routine disruption, organizational support and virus exposure to predict, as the authors expected, both performance and the subjective measures of resilience and well-being.
The findings show, then, that a proactive personality won’t completely get you to these positive outcomes in your own life, but based on how the Wuhan hospital workers scored, it could help tremendously.
What if you don’t have a proactive personality? Are you forever doomed to being unable to make it through troubled times? Although conceptualized as a trait, this quality is one you can access via the route of those perceived strengths. Finessing the proactive personality trait, conduct your own internal review of the hidden strengths you didn’t know you had. Think back on the times you actually were able to score a success in a difficult period of transition. What got you through those prior tough times can serve as your compass to get you through the ones you’re living in now.
To sum up, some people seem to have a natural “can do” spirit that allows them to thrive when everyone else is struggling. As much as you might wish you had that inner ability, you can still build yours by focusing on the “reason to” and “energized to” pieces of the coping equation. For some people, fulfillment comes more naturally than others during tough times, but even if you’re not one of the lucky proactives, you can still find yours.
Yi-Feng Chen, N., Crant, J. M., Wang, N., Kou, Y., Qin, Y., Yu, J., & Sun, R. (2021). When there is a will there is a way: The role of proactive personality in combating COVID-19. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/apl0000865