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Managing Stress During COVID-19: The Dark Side of Personality

Gordon Curphy, PhD and Dianne Nilsen, PhD Curphy Leadership Solutions

Learn more about the authors at http://www.curphyleadershipsolutions.com/bio

Crises tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people. On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has people picking up groceries for their elderly neighbors, sewing masks, and sending hand sanitizers to those in need. At the same time, others are hoarding toilet paper, spreading conspiracy theories on social media, and failing to follow health directives from authorities.

Hardly anyone is going through their normal routines of getting ready for work, commuting to the office, spending the day with colleagues, returning home, and enjoying evenings with family and friends. People are struggling with how to effectively work from home while simultaneously being their children’s primary education and day care provider. Health care workers and others deemed essential are working longer hours than ever before, whereas those in the restaurant, bar, entertainment, fitness, hospitality, airline, and cruise industries sit idle.  Consultants and gig economy workers have seen most sources of income dry up, and those still employed have no idea whether their companies will be in business next year. The disruptions to our daily routine, uncertainty about finances, concerns about becoming infected or losing loved ones, and isolation are creating unprecedented levels of stress. No one is going to be at their best under these circumstances; the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for our dark sides to emerge.

Dark side personality traits were first identified and coined by Robert Hogan, who defined them as counterproductive behavioral tendencies that emerge when people are not actively managing how they come across to others. Dark side personality traits emerge during times of high stress and are essentially coping mechanisms people use to manage through these situations. Hogan noted that seemingly normal people can blow their tempers, disappear, avoid making decisions, or micromanage others when stressed. They are also more likely to demonstrate these dysfunctional behaviors at home, as people pay closer attention to managing their public reputations at work than they do with their families. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased the odds that leaders and employees will exhibit the dysfunctional behaviors associated with dark side personality traits.


Dark Side Traits


What Happens During COVID-19 Crisis




Having dramatic mood swings and trouble with emotional control. Waxing and waning on people and projects.

Over-reactions to small issues; emotional outbursts during conference calls; vacillation between apocalyptic and overly optimistic views of the pandemic’s impact.




Cynical and overly sensitive to criticism. Withholding information and difficulty trusting others.

Assuming coworkers are sloughing off while away from the office; spreading rumors and conspiracy theories.




Lacks the self-confidence needed to make decisions. Suffers from analysis-paralysis and is reluctant to take chances. 

Inability to make decisions about priorities; making requests for additional information that can’t be known; hoarding supplies in case the worst happens.




Lacks interest in or awareness of others’ feelings. Disappears or becomes uncommunicative when stressed.

Taking a business as usual approach; tuning out or dismissing others’ worries and hardships. Not considering the human side of work requests.




Seemingly willing to pitch in but doesn’t follow through with commitments. Procrastinates and makes excuses.

Saying yes but not delivering; playing the “pandemic” card as a handy excuse for not getting anything done on time.




Has inflated views of own competency and self-worth. Takes on too much and cannot admit mistakes or learn from experience.

Thinking their way is the only way, discounting concerns, and believing they are the only one talented enough to solve problems; being quick to blame others when things go wrong.




Takes risks, pushes boundaries, and plays games. Breaks rules and will try to talk their way out it when caught.

Routinely violating team norms and company policies, such as not showing up for conference calls or not adhering to coronavirus mitigation recommendations.  




Overly dramatic and attention seeking. Believe others are lucky to have them in meetings or on teams. Can’t focus.

Going on and on about their own personal challenges, flitting between issues, taking up all the airtime, and not listening.  




Has odd or eccentric ideas for solving problems. Overly absorbed in own solutions and discounts others’ ideas.

Offering unusual or overly philosophical beliefs about work, the pandemic, and life in general. Becoming so enamored with their own points of view that they become oblivious to everything else.




Perfectionists who believe there is only one way to do things. Micromanage everything and hard to please. Cannot prioritize.

Emphasizing or enforcing minor rules that don’t make sense given the changed circumstances.  Wanting to review everything before being sent to anyone outside the team.




Eager to please and reluctant to push back on boss’ requests. Won’t get needed resources or stand up for employees.

Following orders without raising legitimate concerns, such as resource constraints. Never sharing bad with superiors.


A few of us are lucky and do not have any dark side traits, but research shows most of us have one to three of these dysfunctional characteristics. And those of us with more of these traits are more likely to see them emerge during the pandemic. What can people do to keep their dark sides in check during these times of high stress? We’ve laid out some ideas to help people better cope with the challenges of the day.  

First, know yourself. Be aware of how you react under stress. One way to do this is to share the table with those you trust and then ask them if any of these behaviors describe you lately.  A more scientific way to gather this information is to complete the Hogan Development Survey, which provides benchmarking feedback on the 11 dark side personality traits. In either case, knowing your dark side is an important first step in being able to cope with the stresses and strains of the coronavirus pandemic.   

Second, use coping strategies.

  1. Take Care of Yourself Every Day. People cope with stress better when they get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, drink only in moderation, meditate, and otherwise take some time out for themselves on a routine basis. Those getting up early or staying up late to get work done around their children’s schedules and not taking care of themselves are more prone to see their dark sides emerge. You need to take care of yourself and encourage your colleagues and house partners to do the same.
  2. Focus on What You can Control. Research shows people can tolerate high levels of stress when they feel in control, whereas low stress levels can have debilitating effects when people feel they have little control. We cannot control what decisions our governments make or what is happening with the global economy, but we can control the practices we use to avoid getting infected, our schedules, work and family activities, how we show up for work, and how we respond to team members. Helping everyone identify and stay focused on what they can control will keep dark side tendencies in check.
  3. Maintain Support Networks. Offer support and take solace in others. You may not be able to do in-person visits with friends or extended family members, but you can connect via phone, video conferencing, Face Time, e-mail, or social media. This is also a good time to reconnect with old friends and clients who you may not have spoken with for some time.  Sharing difficulties with others who are willing to lend a sympathetic ear can go a long way towards keeping your stress level in check. Leaders should check in with employees on a regular basis to see how they are doing and if they are staying connected with family and friends.
  4. Remember the Golden Rule. Just as you would want others to cut you some slack, do your best to lower your expectations of other people. They’re going through some tough times too!


This may well be the most challenging situation we have faced on a global basis, but it also provides opportunities for great personal growth. We can either be buffeted by the winds of the coronavirus pandemic or take control of our fates. Experience is the forge of leadership, and by maintaining focus and keeping your dark side tendencies in check you will emerge from this crisis even stronger. Your family, friends, team members, and company are counting on it.

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s new  Remote Work page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work-life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.

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