Lingnan study finds employees with proactive personality foster higher job performance in times of adversity
29 Apr 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted personal lives and created a great deal of uncertainty, imposing additional pressure as well as new challenges at work. However, a survey of healthcare professionals in Wuhan during the COVID-19 lockdown conducted by the Faculty of Business of Lingnan University (LU) found that individual employees with proactive personality do well in the face of challenging circumstances. The research suggests that individual employees also play critical roles in managing crisis and uncertainty, thus maintaining effective organisational functions.
The research team for the project “When There is a Will There is a Way: The Role of Proactive Personality in Combating COVID-19” comprises researchers from LU in Hong Kong, University of Notre Dame in the US, Peking University International Hospital and two other hospitals in Mainland China. The result of this research has been published in the latest issue of the international leading academic publication Journal of Applied Psychology and it is the only COVID-19 related research led by scholars from Hong Kong to be published in this top-tier journal.
A total of 408 frontline healthcare professionals, including 200 doctors and 208 nurses who provided care to COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Wuhan’s locked-down area in Hubei Province, were invited to complete an online questionnaire in April 2020 concerning their experiences at work since the beginning of the pandemic. A total of 32.6% of the participants were male and 87.75% had a bachelor’s degree or above. Their average age was 34.6 years and the average organisational tenure was 11.52 years.
Participants were surveyed about their proactive personality, perceived strengths use, perceived organisational support, routine disruption and physical exposure, withdrawal behaviour, and well-being outcomes (resilience and thriving). They completed the questionnaires on three separate occasions — first in April 2020, second at the two-week mark, and the third at the three-week mark.
In addition to the three sets of surveys, researchers also obtained archival records of the participants’ performance that specifically reflected their overall job performance in battling the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as an objective measure to support the study.
People with highly proactive personalities are those who actively scan for and create opportunities, demonstrate initiative, and are persevering. The survey results indicated that these people are more likely to draw upon their strengths and best qualities to create opportunities for themselves (also called “strengths use”). The researchers argue that those higher in proactive personality are more likely to view stressful and ambiguous situations, such as a pandemic, as an opportunity for adapting and utilising their personal strengths. “Strengths use” subsequently predicted two important behavioural outcomes — higher job performance and lower withdrawal from work, and two important well-being outcomes — higher resilience and thriving.
When frontline workers with highly proactive personality perceived that the disruption to their daily routine is high, the relationship between proactive personality and “strengths use” would become stronger. In addition, strong organisational support plays a significant role in facilitating employees’ performance. The study found that in times of uncertainty, individuals with highly proactive personality are less likely to withdraw from work, are more likely to be higher in resilience, are more likely to thrive, and are better job performers.
Project leader Prof Nancy Chen Yifeng, Associate Dean (Research and Postgraduate Studies) of the Faculty of Business of LU, said that the research findings converge on the importance of a proactive orientation in frontline health care workers’ professional and personal success in dealing with the uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Extending beyond the COVID-19 crisis, the active nature of proactive personality allows those facing uncertainty and adversity to collect a job-related motivational resource, which, in turn, yields greater job performance and well-being.
She suggested that management should help employees understand their own capacity, especially during times of crisis. Furthermore, management should give employees the autonomy to craft their roles based on their strengths. These goals could be achieved through company-wide retreats, goal-setting sessions, or training.