Closing the Scientist-Practitioner Gap: Can Personality Defeat a Pandemic?

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, 106(2), 199-213.

Synopsis By: Caroline Deal & Brandon Jordan

Introduction on Personality

Personality clearly plays a substantial role in our lives. It impacts everything, such as how an individual interacts with new people, chooses a partner, organizes their living space, and fulfills their job responsibilities.

In light of the pandemic, research by Chen et al. delves into what role a proactive personality may play in combating crises – specifically COVID-19. Their study sampled healthcare professionals in Wuhan, China shortly after the crisis began and found evidence that having a proactive personality can have advantages that significantly increase an individual’s ability to persevere and thrive in challenging times. These advantages are relevant to other obstacles in different spheres of work as well.

First, some important definitions:

  • Proactive Personality – the dispositional tendency to create environmental change; proactive people scan for and create opportunities, demonstrate initiative, and persevere when facing obstacles.
  • Strengths – personal characteristics and abilities that enable greater performance and higher energy levels.
  • Strengths Use – the ability to make use of one’s personal strengths in a way that energizes the individual and empowers them to achieve peak performance.
  • Well-being – this refers to the state of one’s physical and mental health. It was measured in terms of resilience (can recover and bounce back from difficulties) and the ability to thrive (can prosper and succeed).
  • Routine Disruption – this refers to an individual’s schedule changing from a typical schedule to an unpredictable one as a result of an event.
  • Perceived Organizational Support – the extent to which an employee feels that the company they work for supports and cares for them.

“having a proactive personality can have advantages.. to persevere and thrive in challenging times.”

The researchers hypothesized that proactive personality would play a role in improving job performance and well-being in times of crisis. These benefits have applicability in any workplace and help to uncover the roles of several factors that affect routine disruption, perceived organizational support, and physical exposure to the virus.

Key Findings

  1. People with higher levels of proactive personality were more likely to engage in behaviors that utilized their strengths
  2. When employees utilized their strengths, job performance increased
  3. Resilience and thriving, the two components of well-being, were both benefitted when employees utilized strengths
  4. When employees felt supported by their organization, they were still able to utilize their strengths even in the face of routine disruptions
  5. Physical exposure to the virus impacted the relationship between strengths use and job performance such that higher exposure was linked to a greater performance bonus, meaning when employees were exposed to the virus, utilizing their strengths was more important for effective performance
A flowchart illustrating how personality affects resiliance.

To break down these findings a bit, this essentially means that proactive personalities lead to the creation of more opportunities to utilize one’s strengths. These individuals draw on their own unique characteristics in a way that contributes to getting work done better than before. By expressing their strengths, they re-energize themselves and can capitalize on what they are good at to tailor an experience to their values. Naturally, this leads to greater performance in the workplace as these individuals are more invested in what they are doing and can adapt and change their environment to overcome new obstacles successfully.

To give an example of this in action, consider a nurse treating patients in a rapidly filling hospital. Perhaps she is exceptionally skilled at consoling patients who are about to undergo treatment. When COVID hits, she sees it as an opportunity to use her ability to console others during a time when little was known about the effects of COVID or the method of spreading it. She then capitalizes on her ability to help people feel less stressed and may even use it to help her coworkers become more effective by consoling their worries about this new virus.

By using her ability to ease patients’ fears and comfort coworkers during an unexpected crisis, patients feel less stressed and are more likely to go through necessary procedures without hesitation, and coworkers are less likely to make errors as a result of feeling stressed. Therefore, she has altered the environment in a way that increases the rate at which patients are in and out of the hospital and has improved the performance of coworkers.

The ability to shape an environment in a way that allows individuals to better meet their needs by using their abilities contributes to increased resilience and ability to thrive. These two measures of well-being are especially important in overcoming crises such as an unexpected pandemic, the death of a staff member, or even tensions created by war.

By expressing their strengths, they re-energize themselves and can capitalize on what they are good at..”

Proactive individuals shine especially in times of stress and uncertainty, as shown by the positive relationship between proactive personality and strengths use during times of routine disruption. High levels of perceived organizational support are an important ingredient in this combination, meaning that if a proactive individual believes their company cares for and supports them, they will be able to better capitalize on their proactive personality and the benefits it brings in times of chaos.

Recognizing Proactive Individuals

Proactive individuals play a crucial role in the workplace during times of crisis. So, the question arises: How do you recognize an individual with a proactive personality? Here are some characteristics that proactive individuals typically possess:

  • High levels of initiative
  • Ability to bounce back after a setback
  • Energized by opportunities to utilize their abilities
  • Unafraid of change
  • Seeks out opportunities for growth
  • Able to motivate themselves
  • Always looking for new and better ways of doing work

Both are relatively equal in terms of consistency and linking to the desired outcomes, so it all depends on what you want to assess your applicants for!


An active approach to work ultimately results in higher levels of job performance and well-being during times of crisis. By using their strengths to alter the workplace environment in a way that improves how work is done, proactive individuals create opportunities to bring out the best of their abilities. Through doing this, they align their work with their values and become more invested in it, leading to greater performance.

They excel especially in times of chaos and disruption and are more equipped to handle the mental toll if they feel that their organization supports them. They strive to make the process of doing work better and are constantly searching for ways to improve. To them, obstacles are chances to become more efficient and improve the process of work.

Workforce Lifecycle Analytics specializes in identifying personality traits. Our assessments are scientifically driven and specially developed to recognize characteristics in employees – because proactive individuals just might make the difference between success and failure, especially during times of crisis.

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