Individual differences: Personality, coping styles, resilience

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Phillip Dewe, Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom.

Introduction

How people cope lies at the heart of the stress process. Yet despite the progress that has been made debate and, at times, controversy still accompanies how coping strategies are measured and the methods used to explore the coping process. The current article will aim to examine this debate in greater detail. More specifically, this article will begin by defining the concept of coping and identifying and classifying coping strategies. Subsequently, this article will then look at the individual differences and their association to coping styles. Finally, the article will examine and discuss the concept of resiliency.

Defining coping

The last 40 years have seen a continual increase in research on coping with work stress. How each of us copes with demanding situations not to mention everyday life, resonates with all of us because of its personal relevance [1]. This interest in coping has an even greater significance for all of us as we witness and are part of those social, economic and political forces that usher in almost continuous change [2]. Yet despite this interest, coping retains a complexity [3], that has lead researchers to question how much our understanding of how people cope has advanced [4] and whether, as researchers, we set our goals too high [5]. Nevertheless the importance of coping as an explanatory variable is not in dispute [6], nor is its significance in contributing to our understanding of the stress process [7].

It should come as no surprise to find that defining coping is not without debate and at times controversy [8]. The Collins Dictionary & Thesaurus (p. 216) [9] defines “to cope’ ‘as to control against; to deal successfully with; to manage” and in suggesting synonyms lists, for example, phrases such as ‘to hold one’s own,’ ‘make the grade,’ ‘manage,’ ‘rise to the occasion’ and ‘struggle through.’ This definition and these phrases reflect the ‘value laden’ nature of the word [10], the connotation of success and leave the reader to speculate as to what may be hidden behind words like manage, resolve, adapt and deal with. Yet researchers do agree that when defining something as coping, attention should be directed towards identifying what exactly is being done, rather than whether what is being done has had some effect or has been successful [11]. In this respect the most commonly acknowledged, but not necessarily agreed, definition of coping is that proposed by Lazarus. Who, in turns, defines coping as “the constantly changing cognitive and behaviour efforts a person makes to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person” (p. 110) [11].

The transactional nature of coping and appraisals

The power of this definition lies in the fact that it is process oriented, capturing the transaction between the person and the environment. Its focus is on what a person is actually thinking or doing, on the meaning (appraisal) the person gives to the encounter, and, in turn, provides a framework for understanding how the process unfolds. Put simply, although as Lazarus suggests with ‘a loss of some information’, coping can be defined as ‘cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage psychological stress‘ (p. 237) [12]. However, it is important to note that Lazarus’s definition is not without its critics. This definition has been critiqued as somewhat limiting and narrow because of its primary focus on strategies set within the context of a stressful encounter [3] [13]; which may fail to take account of ordinary everyday behaviours that simply help people get along [1], habits and routines that individuals engage in [14], and those behaviours that are best described as management skills [1].

At the heart of this argument is: whether behaviours that are adaptive are actually coping behaviours [13] [14] [15]; how intentional coping strategies need be and how much effort coping requires [3]; and how conscious a process like coping has to be [13] [16]. The debate continues. Whether coping should be defined more broadly is, of course an empirical question, and will only be resolved as our understanding of how people cope develops, our ability to acknowledge the complexity of the issues we are dealing with, and addressing the challenges that need facing in terms of how coping is measured [8].

Identifying and classifying coping strategies

Classifying coping in terms of focus, mode and time

Both theory and empirically driven methods have been used to classify coping strategies. The challenge still remains as to whether a generally agreed schema can be, or needs to be identified that provides a universally accepted typology [6] [7] [8] [17]. The classification of coping strategies is fundamental to our understanding of how they are used, the role that they play in any demanding encounter (e.g. work overload, role and individual conflicts and role ambiguities) and, in turn, the purpose they serve. However, the utility of any classification system depends on: the measures used; the analysis performed; the interpretation and description of components; and the need to recognize that classifying a strategy is one thing, but understanding its role and use when considered within the context of a demanding encounter is something quite different. Consequently, presenting researchers when thinking about how strategies should be classified with both operational and interpretive challenges [7] [8].

Nevertheless, a useful framework for classifying coping strategies can be distilled from the literature. This framework explores the classification of coping strategies in terms of three themes: focus, mode and time [8]. The theme of focus has its origins in the work of Folkman and Lazarus [18]. These researchers identified two ‘theory-based functions of coping’, which they described as problem-focused and emotion-focused. Working with this problem-emotion focused approach both Lazarus [11] and Folkman [19] made it clear that neither strategy should be seen as inherently better or worse than the other, and that the relationship between them depends on the meaning given to the demanding encounter.

This problem-emotion focus approach became the standard against which other researchers benchmarked. Debate and discussion has followed this ‘broad brush approach’ (p. 751) [6], and as this discussion ebbed and flowed other categories were added to reflect what Folkman described as ‘major gaps in the original formulation’ (p. 454) [20]. So, in addition to the original problem-emotional focused strategies, meaning-focused (searching for meaning and making sense of a demanding situation) and relationship-social (collaborating, sharing, seeking advice and working together) focused coping strategies were added [20]. Whether we have arrived at a consensus regarding what best reflects a focused-based category of coping still remains a moot point as does whether, by classifying coping strategies, we are somehow losing the richness and complexity of the coping strategies themselves [6] [8].

In order to get a more comprehensive understanding of coping it is important to look beyond the idea of focus and, as Latack and Havlovic argue, consider “the mechanism of mode the person uses during the coping process” (p. 491) [21]. This would involve, for example, distinguishing a number of modes of coping that include: cognitive versus behavioural, social versus solitary and proactive versus avoidance [21]. To build a better understanding of coping Lazarus suggests that researchers should also consider the question of mode in terms of information seeking, direct action, inhibition of action, and intrapsychic processes (p. 205) [22]. Finally Schwarzer [23] draws attention to the question of time and goes on to suggest that when thinking of how coping strategies should be classified it is important to consider any timing issues that are captured or encapsulated the when of coping. Here the distinction is between reactive, anticipatory, preventive and proactive coping [23]. None of these three themes (focus, mode, or time) are mutually exclusive as coping strategies are initiated in response to the meaning given to events, but rather each theme helps to build a better understanding of the different ways coping strategies are used and what function they may be performing. There is no doubting the importance of classifying coping strategies and the understanding that comes from such efforts as it is this understanding that forms the basis for developing appropriate intervention programmes. Nevertheless, classifying a coping strategy should always be considered within the context of a stressful encounter, and it is only then that the richness and complexity of how a coping strategy is being used, its role and its relationship to other coping strategies is best revealed and understood [8].

Coping effectiveness

While researchers have explored the question of coping effectiveness the idea of effectiveness for whom and at what cost [22] still remains “one of the most vexing issues of research and theory on coping” (p. 672) [24]. Definitions of coping include words like, for example, manage, adapt, deal and handle; but it is what lays behind these words that facilitates and further develops our understanding of what is meant by coping effectiveness. Insights into coping effectiveness are, in general, built around two theories. These two theories [6] provide some insight into how coping effectiveness should be studied. The first is built around outcomes; where coping is appraised in terms of some outcome (i.e. meets a deadline, performs well, maintains a sense of well-being) that is significant to the individual and appropriate to the encounter [25]. The second explores ‘the goodness of fit’ between the nature of the outcome and coping (I.e. achieving a goal but not at the expense of ill-health), where the better the ‘fit’ the more effective the outcome. While these two approaches are frequently discussed as if they are independent of each other it is better to think of them as acting together to achieve a satisfactory outcome as how an outcome is evaluated cannot be isolated from the choice of a coping strategy. However each approach leads to questions like, for example: what represents a good outcome; what is an appropriate outcome and who decides; whether outcomes can be achieved; and what is meant by something being resolved? In addition, considering the notion of what is meant by ‘fit’ may lead to many conceptual questions like: how are such evaluations made; how are they related to how the encounter is appraised, what costs or compromises are involved; what contextual and personal factors influence such judgement; what changes as the coping process evolves; and what do individuals mean when they talk about how effective their coping was [6] [8].

When it comes to considering coping effectiveness in terms of demanding work encounters again a number of unresolved issues remain. More often than not, researchers are interested in how frequently a coping strategy is used in relation to work demands or well-being and so it is frequency of use that simply becomes the proxy for effectiveness. Then, as Folkman and Moskowitz [6] point out, more attention needs to be given to the nature of a demanding encounter. These authors go on to suggest that when work stressors are explored in terms of their duration, then, while coping strategies, like, for example, emotion-focused coping may be effective in the short term other strategies may be more effective if the demands continue to persist. Effectiveness also depends on the availability of resources that are available and aid coping in any encounter. How much control a person has over events has received both theoretical and empirical attention [6] [7] [26] [27] [28], as has the related issues of how much flexibility an individual has in coping with the demands of a situation [6], how constraining or supportive the organizational culture is (i.e. how easy is it to express emotions; are there mentors, coaches or counsellors in place to help) when it comes to the use of different forms of coping or the expectations it imposes on how one should act [7] [29] or how an individual appraises the situation [6] [7] [11].

Personal resources add a further complexity when examining the issue of coping effectiveness. Clearly personality as measured by the ‘Big Five’ aspects of personality (i.e., extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) has ‘important associations’ with coping effectiveness (p. 775) [25]; with researchers exploring the influence of personality through such issues as:

  • how competent a person is in using a strategy, conceptually distinguishing between ‘using a strategy and using it well’ (p. 1001) [29];
  • the choices individuals’ make in selecting coping strategies, and exploring whether individuals are predisposed to using particular kinds of coping strategies [30];
  • how persistent individuals are in the way they use different coping strategies, their approach to coping and how they coordinate their coping [31];
  • and how personality influences how events are appraised (i.e. whether individuals are predisposed towards always appraising demanding encounters in negative terms rather than appraising them as challenges or offering some benefits) [11].

It is important to highlight and reiterate that coping effectiveness is, of course, a joint responsibility of both the individual and the organization. Bearing this in mind, this has important conceptual and practical implications for workplace interventions interventions aimed to prevent and manage work-related stress and associated psychosocial issues. The following section will examine this issue in greater detail.

Coping and interventions

A framework for understanding organizational interventions suggests a three level approach [17]. These include: primary level interventions designed to reduce job demands or intrusive work environments; secondary level interventions designed to support and assist individuals develop their coping skills; and tertiary level interventions designed around helping and rehabilitation [7]. Underlying such schemes is the message that any intervention should be seen as a partnership, not just between the individual and the organization; but rather extending beyond organizational boundaries to health and well-being professionals and practitioners as well, since all of whom play a central role in offering a more comprehensive approach to interventions.

Individual differences and coping

Defining personality and coping

Personality, as DeLongis and Holtzman [32] make clear ‘plays an important role in almost every aspect of the stress and coping process’ (p. 1647). By way of reinforcing this point DeLongis and Holtzman point to the different roles played by personality and its link with the occurrence of stressful events, how events are appraised, the probability of using certain types of coping, and coping effectiveness (p. 1647). It is through personality and its concern with individual differences that offers another way of developing our understanding of coping [33].

Personality and coping

Individual differences in coping are often explored through the role of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (including, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience). Reviews link, for example: extraversion, conscientiousness and openness to more engagement coping (i.e. problem-focused coping that focuses on dealing with the issue or emotion-focused coping that is specifically aimed at dealing with the emotions); neuroticism to more disengagement coping (that avoids dealing with the issue or emotions); and, conscientiousness and agreeableness to less disengagement coping [33]. While of course these associations bring with them a complexity nuanced by moderator, contextual and appraisal variables, Carver and Connor-Smith [33] do comment that such associations “provide an elaborated view of how traits influence behavior... and on the coping side it provides a clearer view of who can be expected to engage in which type of coping” (p. 692).

Moving from broader categories of coping to more specific, Connor-Smith and Flachsbart’s [34] review illustrates a more complex set of relationships that show, for example, extraversion and conscientiousness personality traits to be associated with problem-solving and cognitive restructuring coping; and neuroticism demonstrated a greater association with such strategies as wishful thinking, withdrawal and other forms of emotion-focused coping that are more avoidance directed. Connor-Smith and Flachsbart [34] make it clear that there is still much empirical work required; not just in terms of specific coping strategies, but also in terms of how the different facets that make up a particular personality trait influence coping. Other reviews and research have explored coping and ‘personality types’ by exploring how different combinations of traits influence coping. Vollrath and Torgersen [35] found for example, that low neuroticism combined with high conscientiousness featured the most favourable profile of stress and coping, whereas personality types combining high neuroticism with low conscientiousness showed, on average, a higher vulnerability to stress and poor coping. In support of such an approach Grant and Langan-Fox [36] conclude from their work that incorporating the interplay of personality traits may provide not just a more complete picture, but may make possible the opportunity to further target interventions to ‘at risk’ personality types.

Mechanisms linking personality and coping

Reviews have also explored what may moderate the relationship between personality and coping. Reviewers have identified a few of the most important moderators of this relationship, such as: age, stressor type and severity, situational versus dispositional coping, and the time lag between the coping activity and the reporting of that coping [33]. To this list of potential moderators gender and cultural differences [34] and the role of appraisal [11] can be added. DeLongis and Holtzman [32] highlight the importance of the role of social context. For example, social context may influence or effect the way people refer to others in determining what may be viewed as appropriate forms of coping (social referencing), or may provide information about what may be socially/ culturally perceived and reinforced as effective forms of coping; whilst not forgetting the way in which it may inhibit the use of certain forms of coping and even drive people into using ‘maladaptive strategies’. Carver and Connor-Smith [33] echo the views of many of those cited above when they highlight the need for future research to explore: how different coping traits combine to influence coping; the role that the different facets of each broad personality trait play; the methods used and the need to explore more contextually sensitive methods like daily diary methods; and the role of contextual, developmental and cultural factors.

Resiliency

From hardiness to resiliency

While a rich history surrounds the concept of resilience its current status owes much to the positive psychology movement [37]; and may, perhaps, have helped to ‘rekindle positive psychology’ with its focus on ‘successful individual functioning’ (p. 235) [38]. Organizational psychology has long been familiar with the idea of hardiness [39] [40] with its emphasis on the ‘3Cs’ (control, commitment and challenge), and the idea that hardiness or the ‘hardy personality’ reflects a pathway to resilience [41].

Defining resilience

Resilience is all about those individual resources which allow growth in the face of adversity [42]. It is, as Luthans and his colleagues suggests, both a term and a concept that owes its significance to the fact that it is ‘what is right and good about people’ (p. 28) [43]. The meaning of resilience is captured in phrases like ‘overcoming’ or ‘bouncing back’ [44]. Resilience, therefore, is a ‘state of mind’ characterized by proactive actions [43], a capacity to learn and build resources in the face of adversity [45] and to maintain throughout a demanding event a level of positive functioning [41] [46]. In the workplace resilience can be associated with proactive coping; making the effort to build up resources that facilitate growth and well-being [47], positive emotions [48], identifying and developing those work features (e.g. training, knowledge acquisition, networking, social relationships) that generate positive outcomes and build resilience [42], and develop those behaviours and psychological capital that contributes to a sense of positive growth [49].

Conclusions

How people cope lies at the heart of the stress process. Yet despite the progress that has been made there is still considerable debate as to how coping strategies should be measured and what methods should be used that best explore the coping process. Perhaps this represents the creative tension that all fields need to inspire researchers to search for alternative approaches, whilst acknowledging that maintaining the status quo is not an option. Perhaps it reflects a field maturing recognizing the complexity of the issues, the value to be found in more critical approaches and perhaps the need to be less ambitious in the goals we set and the expectations we have. Yet a number of themes emerge that may represent the organizing concepts of the future around which researchers may wish to apply their creative talents. These themes include the fundamental role that appraisal plays in the coping process and, therefore, a need to better understand the meanings individuals give to stressful events as this may represent the causal pathways along which the coping process can be better understood. Other themes also focus on the idea of meaning but this time explore what it is that individuals mean when they talk about effective coping providing substance in our search to define coping effectiveness. In the search for meaning and understanding the theme of measurement cannot be avoid. Finally for those interested in OSH any approach must be guided by responsibilities to those whose working lives are being studied ensuring that any workplace health promotion enhances well being and provides opportunities for individuals to flourish.

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Links for further reading

Cox, T., Griffiths, A. J., & Rial-Gonzalez, E., ‘Research on Work-related Stress’, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2000. Available at [1]

Dewe, P., O’Driscoll, M., & Cooper, C., ‘Coping with work stress: A review and critique’, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Dewe, P., Cox, T., & Leiter, M. (Eds.), ‘Coping, health and organizations (Issues in occupational health)’, London, Taylor and Francis, 2000.