Job-related stress is a major problem faced by people worldwide. As many as 60% of workers in the major global economies reported experiencing stress at work, and in the United States, a staggering 80% of workers say they are stressed because of their jobs.
Aside from the health implications that job-related stress can have for employees, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it poses potential problems for organizations too. While most working adults try to manage the impressions they make on others at work, periods of particularly intense stress or pressure can draw out what we at Hogan call dark-side personality characteristics.
Bright Side Vs. Dark Side
Bright-side personality characteristics are what you see on an everyday basis. These are the elements of employees’ personalities that likely impressed you during the selection process — characteristics such as tactfulness, self-confidence, or detail orientation, for example.
The dark side of personality is what emerges when the pressure is on. These characteristics come out when people stop monitoring their behavior or when they are dealing with insecurities. Another way to think of dark-side personality characteristics is as overused strengths. When facing significant stress, an employee who is typically tactful might become passive aggressive, another’s self-confidence could manifest as arrogance, and a person hired for detail orientation might become prone to micromanaging. We don’t need to tell you how these types of behaviors might create problems for your organization.
So how can you identify employees’ dark-side characteristics before they become problems? The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) is a personality test that was designed specifically to identify the dark side of personality. This personality test measures 11 dark-side personality characteristics that can be categorized into three groups based on how people react to conflict: Moving Away, Moving Against, and Moving Toward.
People in the Moving Away group might intimidate or avoid others when they get stressed. Five of the scales on the HDS characterize this behavior: Excitable, Skeptical, Cautious, Reserved, and Leisurely.
Excitable people are likely to show passion, energy, and enthusiasm at work when things are going well. But they’re unlikely to remain calm and level-headed when they become stressed. These employees are prone to emotional swings and volatility when faced with pressure, and they might even quit when frustrated. They can easily become disappointed with projects or other people and can be difficult to soothe. They might get hung up on past mistakes or decisions, seeming as though they lack direction or perseverance.
A little bit of skepticism isn’t a bad thing. At their best, Skeptical people think about and analyze the motives and intentions of others, and they challenge assumptions. At their worst, they might be overly critical or even suspicious of their colleagues, worrying that others are lying, cheating, or stealing. This mistrust of other people and organizations might lead them to obsess over what could possibly go wrong and to avoid taking action when it’s needed.
Most occupations require people to use caution — at least to some degree. People who score high on the HDS’s Cautious scale, however, tend to cling too tightly to rules and protocol. These people react to stress by avoiding situations or people that make them uncomfortable and by avoiding decisions for fear of criticism. They might require second or third opinions when additional opinions are unwarranted, or they might allow others to drive decisions or push them around.
When work is going well, Reserved people likely seem self-reliant and independent. Under pressure, they appear calm, even while others are emotional and overwrought. But sometimes this can go too far, leading them to seem reclusive, uncommunicative, and aloof. People who score high on this scale often deal with stress by dropping off the radar, acting unsociable and limiting close relationships, or behaving indifferently to others’ feelings.
Leisurely people can smile even when they’re privately angry or annoyed. But you might only learn about their real feelings if you hear about them from someone else. People who are Leisurely often react to stress with passive aggression or by resisting feedback. They might say one thing and do another, and they can become annoyed if other people get in the way of their agendas, which are typically kept private.
People who respond to stress by moving against other people manage self-doubt by manipulating and charming others. This behavior is characterized by four HDS scales: Bold, Mischievous, Colorful, and Imaginative.
Bold people will let you know who they are. They handle pressure by demanding special treatment, being overconfident, and letting other people know how great they are. Unwilling to give up a fight, people who score high on this scale might not acknowledge their own limitations or take responsibility for their mistakes, or their egos might drive them to try to dominate their colleagues.
Mischievous people will treat their clients and colleagues with respect and support. These are people who enjoy testing the limits and who aren’t afraid to take risks. On the other hand, they believe that rules are boring and unnecessary and often break them, and they tend to take risks without considering the consequences. When this leads to mistakes, they’ll use their charm to finesse the situation.
Colorful people are the life of the party. While they can entertain clients and colleagues with their enthusiasm, the workplace isn’t a party, and its pressures can bring out less-than-desirable behavior for people who score high on this scale. With a tendency to become self-absorbed and obnoxious, they might respond to stress by speaking out of turn and expecting others to appreciate their performances. They can lose focus easily and might cause distraction for others, too, when they dramatically demand the spotlight.
Imaginative people are bright, strikingly original, and often full of inventive ideas and insights. Outside-the-box thinking isn’t always necessary, though, and people who score high on this scale can get absorbed in ideas that might seem novel to them but eccentric or offbeat to others. They might assert that they have a unique vision that others don’t share, become easily bored and overconfident in their ability to solve problems creatively, launch initiatives without following up on them, or lose people while trying to explain their ideas.
The third group of people tend to move toward others when they are stressed, coping by ingratiating others and building alliances. Two HDS scales characterize this group: Diligent and Dutiful.
Diligent people are meticulous hard workers. They’re role models for high standards, but they can take this perfectionistic inclination too far when times get stressful. Delegating work to subordinates can be difficult for them. When they do delegate, they might criticize subordinates’ work, micromanage, and be inflexible about schedules, rules, and procedures. Focusing too much on the details, they can overlook the big picture or the obvious, and they might refuse to let go of a task — no matter how small it is — until it’s perfect.
Dutiful people excel at keeping their managers informed about relevant business developments and problems. They’re agreeable and rise easily in organizations, but their eagerness to please their bosses might lead them to throw their subordinates under the bus. Faced with stress, they will likely tell their supervisors what they want to hear, regardless of their personal opinions. This flexibility can make it tricky for others to know where they stand on issues. They might also have trouble making decisions or acting independently, and they can be inclined to avoid dealing with challenging people issues.
What Can You Do About It?
For most people, the biggest step toward improving how they handle stress is simply understanding how they act when they’re bored or under pressure. Objective measures of reputation, such as personality assessment and 360° feedback, can help employees learn to recognize when they’re going off the rails and adjust their behavior accordingly.