Beyond personality assessments: What the coach can learn about patterns of behaviour and their implications: Anxiety (Part 1) by Lynne Hindmarch

In earlier blog-articles I have discussed the use of personality assessments in coaching, followed by specific articles on Dominance and Conscientiousness.  In this blog-article I will focus on another aspect of personality: Anxiety

I have chosen Anxiety as the theme for this blog because it often has a major impact on other aspects of a person’s behaviour.  Anxiety is a complex area, and difficult to define. However, broadly one could describe it as a person’s capacity to deal with stress and pressure.  

In discussing Anxiety, I will focus on the two areas which emerge most frequently in my coaching conversations: Resilience and Self-Confidence (over two blog-articles).  I start with Resilience. This is a particularly important trait because of the effect it can have on many other aspects of an individual’s personality.  

There are a number of important factors that the psychometrician needs to take into account during feedback when addressing the anxiety scores.  

  • Firstly, are the scores representing state or trait? That is, the person’s score may be reflecting what they are currently experiencing in their life (state), or the score may be indicating more stable and enduring aspects of the individual’s personality (trait).

  • An important part of the feedback is to establish this with the client. A question such as ‘How do you see yourself typically in terms of dealing with stress and pressure?’, or ‘To what extent is your current life situation affecting your score?’ can verify the person’s habitual anxiety level.

  • One also needs to bear in mind that when a person takes a personality assessment, whether it is for development purposes, such as coaching, or for selection purposes, they are often in a process of transition, which in itself can increase an individual’s anxiety level.

REMINDER: As in my earlier blogs, I am focusing on extremes of behaviour, which fall at the upper or lower limits on the normal distribution curve.  These are the aspects of behaviour where we are likely to be most consistent and may be associated with strengths.  However, as we are less inclined to flex our style, in certain situation this may cause us difficulties. 

Behavioural characteristics of a highly resilient individuals

I think of Resilience as the ‘bounce-back factor’ – how quickly a person recovers from a setback.  Someone who is highly resilient is likely to cope with pressure better than most people.  

  • They are emotionally stable, that is, they experience fewer ups and downs in mood than most people.

  • They have a positive outlook – ‘glass half-full’ people.

  • They are calm in a crisis, and their calmness can help calm other people.

  • Their calm manner means that negative emotions are less likely to affect them, and they can think clearly and consider how to tackle the crisis without being overcome by panic.

For example, watching the 2016 Olympics in Rio, you can see how emotionally stable many of the top athletes are; the triple gold medal winning British cyclist Jason Kenny perhaps being the epitome of this.  

It is clear that the highly resilient individual has a number of very desirable characteristics in the workplace.  This becomes even more apparent at senior levels in organisations, when coping with increasingly frequent crises and pressure becomes even more necessary. There are however, aspects of Resilience which the individual needs to be aware of, and this mainly relates to the impact of their behaviour on others.  For instance,

  • Coping so well with pressure themselves, the resilient individual may expect others to react in a similar way, and unwittingly put them under more pressure than they are comfortable with.

  • The resilient person’s capacity to stay calm in a crisis can appear as disengaged, lacking urgency or not caring by others who may be reacting more emotionally to the emergency.

  • Finally, their tendency to have a positive outlook may mean that they don’t allow for potential drawbacks and delays when assessing, for example, how long a project may take to complete.

In coaching, the highly resilient person is likely to deal with tough feedback without becoming overly emotional.  They are more inclined to consider what they can do to address the issue than feeling depressed.


Case study of a highly resilient individual

The client case: Susie was an IT Director in a learning and development company.  She was responsible for a major project: setting up a new on-line learning system.  Susie had been sent for coaching because the company felt that she wasn’t taking the position seriously enough. There had been a couple of incidents when the timetable slipped and this had caused problems in other parts of the business.  

Feedback following a personality assessment: Feedback with Susie covered the advantages of her calm manner and ability to cope and put things into perspective.  It is always important to obtain a client’s ‘back story’, and gentle exploration revealed that she had experienced a major tragedy in her life some years earlier.  This had provided a ‘benchmark’ for later negative events.  Compared to what she had already gone through, nothing else could be that bad.  This had given her the resilience to cope effectively with negative experiences in her life.  She was better than most at putting setbacks into perspective.  

Coaching to move forwards: Our coaching focused on the impact Susie’s high resilience was having on how she was perceived, and how her team experienced her.  Susie took her position and responsibilities very seriously; her team knew how hard she worked and were grateful for her ability to take crises in her stride.  However, Susie’s bosses were less involved in the day to day management of the project, and interpreted her calmness as a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the project. 

Discussing with Susie a way of addressing this (Susie commented ‘What am I supposed to do? Running around like a headless chicken is not me, and in any case would be counterproductive’) she decided to be more proactive in the way she communicated with both her managers and her team.  She kept in closer touch with her managers to update them on progress, and also express any concerns verbally as they weren’t being picked up from her body language.  She also learned to listen more, meeting with her team members on an individual basis, so they felt free to share their worries and how they were coping with the pressure.  This also gave her the opportunity to learn about possible setbacks, to avoid slippage on the progress of the project.  

Behavioural characteristics of individuals with low resilience

A person who is low on resilience is more likely to experience significant changes in mood.  

  • They may experience more highs and lows than most people, and managing their emotional state may take a lot of their attention and energy.

  • They may feel passionate about their work which may be expressed in an emotional and excitable way. This can be motivating for others, but they may equally become disheartened.

  • Their tendency to feel things intensely may mean that they lose control of their emotions in conflict, and lose their temper.

  • They may experience stress and feel the effects of pressure.

Low resilience may affect how other traits are expressed, so for example if they are also spontaneous and enthusiastic, they may be inclined to act impulsively and take risks.    

When I first began feeding back personality assessments, I was concerned at the reaction I would get from clients where their Resilience score was low.  What I quickly realised was that the client already knew that they were not coping well; after all, they had answered the questions!  The positive aspect of this was that it often gave them the opportunity to talk about the issues that were troubling them, their current coping strategies, what was going on in their lives that may be affecting their current score.  The feedback session can sometimes provide a release.  

And so, when working with a client with low Resilience, the coach needs to be particularly sensitive to the client’s emotional state.  It is a good example of where the coach needs to be very clear about their boundaries, and the areas where they can and cannot work with the client.  Supervision can be vital here.  It is possible that further help may be needed from a specialist source: a visit to the GP, counsellor or therapist.  Clients low on resilience can get depressed, so this is something to look for.  Taking setbacks to heart, they may benefit more from small steps in goal-setting, so they experience success, which will help them stay motivated.  


Case study of an individual with low Resilience

The client case: Tony was a Team Leader with a technology company.  Highly intelligent, he was valued by the company for his knowledge and expertise. The company was keen to promote him and he was equally keen to move up, but on two occasions he had been promoted to the next level up, and twice he had been demoted during the trial period because he could not cope with the role.  Unsurprisingly, this had left him feeling low and dispirited.  The coaching was intended to help him prepare better for promotion.  

Feedback following a personality assessment: During feedback, Tony was able to open up about his feelings when we discussed his low score on Resilience.  Checking out how typical the score was of him, he shared that he had always been prone to low moods, but the current situation had exacerbated it.  Talking about his feelings in a safe environment had already made him feel better.

Coaching to move forwards: Coaching Tony, it was important to help him realise that he didn’t need to feel governed by his emotional states; it was possible to make changes, particularly in the way he reacted to situations. One area of exploration was the metaphors he was using to describe his situation: feeling like he was on a slippery slope, like a helpless child, or in a ditch with steep sides so he was unable to climb out.  Helping Tony reframe the loss of control he was describing with more positive and proactive metaphors was one way he could begin to move forward.  

We also worked on small steps he could take (‘low-hanging fruit’) to help him begin to feel successful.  He identified people around him whom he trusted and could support him in his endeavours.  Further work included helping him develop coping strategies, and also learn to manage his moods, particularly anger, using approaches such as breathing techniques and anchoring.  

An interesting footnote.  Tony was on a restricted coaching programme, only 6 sessions.  By the end of the programme, we had made some progress but still had some way to go.  I caught up with him about a year later.  He said that the coaching had been a valuable watershed for him and helped him to recognise that he needed to do further work on himself.  He had had a period of therapy and was now in a much more positive and stable mind-set.  The results of coaching are not always immediate or predictable.

What next…..

This blog-article has explored one aspect of Anxiety: Resilience, and how it manifests itself in behaviour, what that means in relation to a coaching intervention, and also touched briefly on strategies that might be used.  

The next blog-article will explore another important aspect of Anxiety: Self-Confidence, and the behaviours that may be observed with both low and high levels. 

To connect with Lynne:

Organisational Behaviour Consultancy

Business Psychologist



mobile: 07977 129955.