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Employees with a proactive personality do well in the face of challenging circumstances, according to recent research published by Lingnan University (LU). The research suggests that these employees usually play critical roles in managing crisis and uncertainty, helping to maintain effective organisational functions.

Surveying healthcare professionals in Wuhan who went through the Covid-19 lockdown, the report defined people with highly proactive personalities as those who actively scan for and create opportunities, demonstrate initiative, and are persevering. These people are more likely to draw upon their strengths and best qualities to create opportunities for themselves (also called 'strengths use').

The researchers argued that those higher on the proactive personality scale are more likely to view stressful and ambiguous situations, such as a pandemic, as an opportunity for adapting and use 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 a 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 Professor Nancy Chen Yifeng, associate dean of the Faculty of Business and associate professor of the Department of Management of LU, said that the research findings shed light on the importance of a proactive orientation in frontline healthcare 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 wellbeing.

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.

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 of researchers from LU in Hong Kong, University of Notre Dame in the US, Peking University International Hospital and two other hospitals in mainland China. 

Participants were surveyed about their proactive personality, perceived strengths use, perceived organisational support, routine disruption and physical exposure, withdrawal behaviour, and wellbeing 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.