Whether you call it low adjustment, neuroticism, high reactivity to stress, or just being grumpy, higher adjustment tends to be considered a positive thing. At work, most employers are looking for cheerfulness and a positive outlook. We know from the research that those with higher adjustment tend to be more engaged, more satisfied with their work, and more positive about their own success (MacRae & Furnham, 2018).
Yet, adjustment remains relatively stable across career trajectories. Adjustment is rooted in biological and chemical processes. Adjustment levels are unlikely to change, but often the advantages of having lower adjustment are overlooked.
Those with lower adjustment generally have more negative thoughts, worry more about their own performance and their relationships with colleagues. They tend to ruminate about mistakes and remember their faux pas for a long time. Often lower adjustment comes with social anxiety and a tendency to feel more stress in response to challenges at work.
Low adjustment is problematic when it leads to ineffective coping behaviours like avoiding tasks or unleashing negative emotions onto others. Stress is contagious, so those with lower adjustment must be mindful of their reaction to stress.
Conversely, one could argue that those with higher adjustment have an over-optimistic perception of reality. This is consistently demonstrated in studies of optimism bias. Most people believe they are more likely to experience positive events and less likely to suffer negative consequences compared with others. Optimism bias helps explain why people buy lottery tickets, participate in dangerous sports and engage in other risky behaviours. Those with lower adjustment may actually be more accurate at assessing risk.
A thought that may (not) comfort the pessimists is there are advantages to worrying. Anxiety can be productive and effective when it leads to compensatory behaviours. Compensatory behaviours constructively address the source of stress. Anxiety may not go away, but it can be harassed to improve performance.
Lower adjustment could be framed as vigilance or sensitivity when it leads to productive compensatory behaviours. The vigilant employee is always the first to spot problems. The sensitive employee always considers how their actions will affect others. This sensitivity and vigilance can be a strength or weakness, depending on the behaviour that follows.
A Strength for Entrepreneurs
The stories of many entrepreneurs demonstrate the potential benefits of low adjustment. Many successful entrepreneurs report low levels of adjustment. However, these same entrepreneurs emphasize the importance of worry in their work. The worry fuels a continual analysis of all components of the business. There is always something at the back of their mind, a problem or an opportunity that needs to be addressed.
This is particularly useful for startups and smaller businesses. Often the lone entrepreneur is the driving force of the business. But, they are also the finance department, administrative division, sales department and jack-of-all-trades. The entrepreneur who is constantly worrying about what they missed is less likely to let the small but essential tasks slip through the cracks.
Entrepreneurs with lower adjustment often describe how fear of failure is a stronger driver of their achievement than desire for success. They are concerned about the future of the business, the success of their employees and their responsibilities to clients. They always think what could go wrong so they spot potential problems quickly.
Social anxiety, too, can be used effectively. Sensitivity to social cues and concern for relationships with others can be a powerful asset. For example, worrying that a comment was taken in the wrong way can lead to a discussion and resolution of a problem. Of course, this also requires conflict resolution skills. Conversely, those with high adjustment may appear to be insensitive – even if they are not deliberately coarse they may be unaware that their actions negatively impact others.
As in nearly every psychological trait, there is an optimal level. Excesses of any trait are associated with problematic behaviours. Too much self-esteem can manifest as arrogance. Those with very high adjustment may seem distant or detached. Very low levels of adjustment can lead to avoidance of the source of the stress. Moderately low adjustment can be an asset when effectively channeled.
Self-awareness is crucial for harassing lower adjustment. Matching work and career responsibilities with a manageable level of stress will maximise performance. Use adaptive strategies for working with the stress and combating the source of stress.
Finally, it would be advisable to leave a modest gap between the level of stress you are subject to, and the level of stress you can manage. Everyone has a different level of adjustment (their stress threshold). Even those with the highest levels of adjustment have a breaking point. Take the advice given to gamblers: “Know Your Limit, Play Within It”
Ian MacRae is co-author of High Potential: How to spot, manage and develop talented people at work. High Potential (Bloomsbury, 2018) discusses personality traits and how they affect performance at work.