By Jacey Fortin (New York City)
How do you respond to stress? Do you avoid big problems, or confront them head-on? Do you distract yourself with smaller issues, or ignore them to focus on what matters most? Do you seek help from others, or go it alone?
All of these behaviors fall under the banner of ‘coping,’ and each individual does it differently. But if you’re in a position of leadership, your coping style may have a greater impact on your job performance than you think.
Just ask Leslie Pratch. She’s the CEO and founder of Pratch and Company, which specializes in assessing and grooming executives for leadership roles. She also has an MBA and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so her insights go beyond the surface level. Early in her career, she published a study on gender, motivation, and coping [PDF] as indicators of leadership effectiveness. And she found that the only trait that consistently predicted leadership ability in both men and women was an aptitude for ‘active coping.’
“I want to differentiate my use of the word ‘coping’ from the common connotations, which barely scrape the surface,” Pratch explained. “I use it to refer to a sense of mastery. Individuals can learn to master the situations around them and take an active coping stance, assuming they have the willingness to become more self-aware.”
In other words, anyone who wants to improve her coping methods must take an unflinching look at her entire personality—hidden motivations, unresolved issues, confidence levels and more. And if you think this level of introspection sounds better suited to the psychologist’s couch than to the corner office, Pratch says think again. Drawing on years of extensive research and real-world applications, she asserts that “looking at the subconscious levels of coping is actually the best prognosticator in terms of determining leadership.”
The Four Elements of Active Coping
The building blocks of active coping are four-fold and enhanced by self-awareness. “The first element is integrity,” said Pratch, “which depends on the consistency of your behavior in accordance with your values.” A leader with integrity inspires trust in her team members; her responses to problems stem from an unchanging code of values. To behave with integrity, it is necessary to identify your core values before problems arise. Once a behavioral framework is in place, a leader’s coping will follow a more consistent pattern, minimizing stress for everyone involved.
The second element is psychological autonomy. “That’s the ability to recognize and respect the aims and feelings of others while maintaining the ability to make independent choices,” said Pratch. “It’s the opposite of group-think. It gives us the freedom to choose the best course of action.” This doesn’t mean ignoring the opinions of others; rather, it’s about controlling the impulse to seek constant approval. According to Pratch, this element of the active coping style may be harder for females to develop because they are often expected to be socially oriented, seeking consensus rather than acting independently. “Psychological autonomy is an important dimension for women to focus on, because the pressure is on them to conform to the traditional female stereotype,” she said. “It’s important for them to have that grounding of self-trust.”
Integrative capacity is the third element of active coping. It’s important because big problems rarely stem from a single source—one stressful incident is often symptomatic of underlying issues, and must be responded to as such. “I define integrative capacity as an ingrained ability to blend complex elements into a coherent understanding,” explained Pratch. “Those who don’t have this capacity deal with events one at a time, blind to the connections between them.” If you’re managing a team of professionals with differing skills sets and personalities, all while keeping your eye on a strict budget, a tight schedule and an ambitious goal, this skill is of utmost importance. In fact, says Pratch, among already highly accomplished professionals, it’s one of the strongest predictors of leadership effectiveness.
The final element is catalytic coping, the easiest skill to observe and measure. “It’s the ability to invent creative solutions and carry them out,” said Pratch. “Catalytic copers immediately rethink their options and adjust their plans when faced with changes.” It all comes down to having a plan; an effective leader will anticipate roadblocks and be ready with a Plan B. Otherwise, coping becomes a knee-jerk reaction. “Leaders who lack this quality seem lost and confused when problems arise,” said Pratch. “It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Rome burns.”
Mastering the Coping Skill Set
It’s one thing to grasp the concepts of active coping; it’s something else altogether to implement them. Pratch knows from experience that gaining these skills is no walk in the park—there are no easy fixes. A good leader needs to dig deep. “Sometimes we do things we don’t understand,” she said. “We have unconscious motives. And the more aware we become of those parts of our personalities, the more effectively we can manage them.”
They key, she explained, is openness and awareness. A good leader welcomes feedback of all kinds, maintaining flexibility and learning from others. That doesn’t mean abandoning your personal code of conduct—integrity is important, and striking the right balance between rigidity and receptiveness can be a long process full of trial and error. But the end result is a comprehensive self-awareness, which is well worth the trouble. “Getting in touch with who we are is important,” said Pratch. “The more we are able to behave with flexibility and strength, which is a measure of active coping, the more easily we are able to be successful.”