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How understanding employee personalities helps HR build resilience

Stress triggers are different from employee to employee and can impact how people respond to our turbulent times.
By: | January 4, 2021 • 5 min read
(Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Resilience emerged as the holy grail skill set of 2020. But according to research from the ADP Research Institute and its 2020 Global Study of Engagement on what makes us resilient, only 19% of U.S. workers are highly resilient. “Resilience” describes our ability to experience a negative effect and bounce back to a normal state of functioning. “Normal functioning” describes us operating at our best, in our comfort zone or in a sense of flow. The question of whether we can build resilience, as well as the role of stress in that effort, is a growing focus for individuals and organizations during this challenging time.

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For a myriad of reasons, stress levels are reportedly higher than normal right now. Recent research conducted by my organization, The Myers-Briggs Company, showed that people are most stressed about the economy going into a recession (78%), the health of family and friends (73%), people not following public health guidance (70%) and long-term effects of the pandemic on their company/business (59%). While this demonstrates that many of us share the sense of increased stress in our lives, what we experience as stressful, as well as our reactions in times of stress, can be quite personal/individual. And, for HR leaders, it’s important to keep that in perspective as you manage a workforce comprised of individuals all facing unique circumstances and who may react to stress quite differently.

The Role of Personality in Stress Management

Personality type has something to say about what causes us stress, or our individual “stress triggers.” For some, a stress trigger might be too much time in isolation or being forced to change quickly. For others, it might be too many distractions and high levels of interactivity. Still for others, it might be lacking structure and working within a disruption of routine. And there may yet be others for whom the stress trigger is working within an excess of structure and rigid systems that don’t allow for change. The events and realities that translate into personal stress triggers are linked to our personality, as is our sense of wellbeing.

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Research has often drawn the connection between our ability to resist setbacks and bounce back from stress with our ability to recognize where we have some level of control. If we can gain a sense of control, we can begin a process of moving towards helpful activities, thoughts and behaviors that reduce the impact of the stress we are feeling. In times of stress, honing in on areas where we have a degree of control is crucial. But, how can we do that?

Understanding the Cycles of Stress

The MBTI framework lends a cyclical view of our personality style during times of stress:

  • Initially, we are in a comfort zone, or at our best, where we find that we are most able to have energizing days we would consider largely positive.
  • As personal stressors begin to affect us, our inclination is to rely on the strongest, most developed and most preferred parts of our personality to help get us through the stress.
  • However, as our stress levels increase, our natural, “go-to” strengths take on a more exaggerated form. In doing so, things that are normally our go-to-strengths can reach the point of becoming weaknesses, no longer helping us stay in balance, but throwing us off balance as we overuse these natural preferences in detrimental ways.

The further we continue through this cycle, we go from originally being at our best to becoming stretched and stressed, and, finally, entering into distress. It is in this space that we might see and hear ourselves act, think and react in ways that seem unlike us—or that even shock us.

Related: Employees looking for help as pandemic increases financial stress

Here’s a personal example of this MBTI Stress Cycle. At my best, my personality style gains energy and perspective through reflection, a focus on creating possibilities and by having time to think things through. As personal stress triggers increase, such as facing too many distractions or not having time to plan and problem solve, my go-to reaction is to lean harder into my personality preferences. I might seek more time to reflect and think things through. I might also seek to understand by looking for meaning in patterns, change and possibilities for the future.

The more stressed I become, the more this preference turns into withdrawing, too much isolation, overuse of certain patterns and systems thinking, and a sense of frustration with not having the time I need to be creative and do my best work. The result is that those with whom I normally interact, from the workplace to my home life, see a more pensive and withdrawn version of me, and consequently may begin to wonder what is going on.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Stress with Self-Awareness

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Using insight from the MBTI framework, I realize that I need to rebalance to bring my “best self” back to my work, family and friends. Once we understand our personal stress triggers, we can become more intentional about recognizing when these are present in our lives. As we become self-aware of our behaviors during times of stress, we can recognize these in ourselves and others and look to take control by embracing helpful habits in areas in which we have some control. At work, for instance, we may recognize that we have a significant degree of control or freedom in regards to how we go about getting work done. We also might draw positive energy in our work by connecting with how it is meaningful, interesting or motivating to us.

Here Comes the Comeback!

For many of us, building resilience and bouncing back from stressors is more relevant now than ever. While there’s no  one-size-fits-all approach, understanding how to build resilience based on your personality type can give you the advantage of self-awareness, affording greater opportunities to recognize stressors, seek helpful energizers, and rebalance or bounce back after setbacks.

Dr. Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson is a Principal Organizational Development Consultant for The Myers-Briggs Company, and a certified MBTI, FIRO, CPI 260 and Strong Interest Inventory practitioner. She partners with business leaders and HR professionals to create employee and leader learning pathways for increased effectiveness, satisfaction and performance at work. Rachel works across industries and geographies including corporate, government, nonprofit organizations and higher education within the United States and abroad. Rachel holds a doctorate in Transformational Leadership and Change, as well as a master’s degree in Leadership with a graduate concentration in Adult Learning Methods, Curriculum and Instruction. She also served as a founding board member of the Peter F. Drucker Society Global Network, South Florida chapter.

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