Can Active Coping Be Learned?

Active coping is something that is learned over a lifetime. It is something that someone can get better at, but the improvement process is slow, incremental, and mostly internal. It means learning much more about the ways you’ve learned to protect yourself from what you fear—by retreating, by lashing out, by neurotically doing X—and then choosing to abandon those techniques because there’s a better approach available.

Active coping is helpful wherever it’s not likely that everything will go as planned—that is to say, everywhere and anywhere. Active copers experience each twist and turn in life – even unavoidable losses such as the death of close relatives or their own impending death – as an opportunity as well as a loss. With each new moment, active copers ask:  What can I learn from this event?  How can I use it to strengthen my commitment to the ideals I pursue?  What’s really happening now, and what is the healthiest response I can make?

Active coping is important for not only for leaders and companies evaluating people for leadership positions, but also for leaders who can benefit from understanding their coping style to improve their own performance.

Active coping lets a leader go farther and faster more surely. Consider an analogy with a car. We can get where we need to go driving an ordinary, inexpensive car, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But to drive on curvy, treacherous roads in dark and foul weather, we need a superbly engineered car, and that car will get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown in other situations. A strong framework of active coping enables a leader to survive the rough spots and also to perform better than others would in ordinary times.

If you’d like to improve your active coping, some of the most important things to keep in mind are:

(1) Know what you want; (2) recognize sources of threats or frustration; (3) possess the psychological freedom to act—take the action that is in your own best interest, not the action that feels easiest; (4) be ready to deal with resistance and overcome threats; and (5) pursue what you want in a way that is consistent with your values and ideals.

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Active Coping as a Healthy Response to Stressful Situations

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Looks Good on Paper

As the CEO and president of Pratch & Company, Leslie S. Pratch provides a host of business advisory services focused on identifying executive candidates and evaluating their leadership skills and business potential. A licensed clinical psychologist, Leslie S. Pratch is the author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

In Part I of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Ms. Pratch explores the theory and practice of active coping: “When a person always seems prepared and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping. When a person earns the trust of her friends and colleagues by refusing to take unfair advantage of others and refuses to let others take unfair advantage of her, that is active coping. When a person has the vision and self-confidence to rise above ‘business as usual’ when necessary, that is active coping.”

Ms. Pratch goes on to note: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. ‘Coping’ is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs and the external demands of our environment. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world.”

Further excerpts on active coping and how it relates to responses to stressful situations are available at

Article Examines Cognitive Maturation and Leadership

A licensed clinical psychologist and graduate of both the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Northwestern University Medical School, Leslie Pratch has written extensively on matters related to business leadership. In her paper “Tape Measure for a Job Fitting: Introduction to Stratified Systems Theory,” Leslie Pratch discusses the importance of cognitive development as it impacts managerial capability. Below is an excerpt.

“So far, we’ve described a static system. Individuals have a certain level of cognitive power. A job requires a person to have a certain level. Everybody is either at the right level, too high, or too low. But in fact, the system is not static. For one thing, jobs change. […] More importantly, people change. Cognitive power changes over time. Obviously, the person who is able to run a division was not born with that ability. [Social scientist Elliott] Jaques found that individual’s paths of development follow trajectories within distinct bands, which he called modes. […]

This growth proceeds gradually, as physical growth does, but the passages from one cognitive level to the next occur in discontinuities or spurts. When they occur, the individual’s time horizon increases so that he becomes capable of handling more responsibility in a job with a greater time span at a higher organizational stratum.

A person’s developmental trajectory brings him or her to certain levels by certain ages. This is why we can’t learn a higher cognitive mechanism by study or practice. As with puberty or old age, we have to reach it when the time comes.”

Leslie Pratch Book Examines Psychological Assessment Tests

LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER is the provisional title of a book written by Leslie Pratch, a clinical psychologist. In it, she describes how she tries to identify the psychological qualities associated with effective business leadership. She discusses unstructured, semi-structured, and structured methods of psychological assessment in the excerpt below.

“In psychological assessment there is a frame of reference of tests that are highly structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. This dimension refers to the degree to which a test does or does not have a high degree of specificity in the tasks involved.

“Examples of structured tests include personality inventories (true means this statement describes me; false, this statement does not describe me) or the Graduate Management Aptitude Test. Tasks are so highly defined that the respondent is fully aware of what is expected of her—to find the standard answer rather than the one reflecting personal choice. Because the task requires that the individual respond with a prescribed answer, her responses provide little information about her uniqueness as a person.

“Indeed, on structured tasks, the more unique the respondent’s answers, the stronger the inference that an internal psychological process has become so powerful it has pervaded the situation from which the respondent should be able to exclude it. In such situations, straightforward, objective questions do not bring forth straightforward, objective answers. Instead, answers are so colored by the invading personalized material that they spoil the appropriateness of the response and reflect a diminished capacity for coping with everyday situations.

“In contrast, with unstructured tests, the respondent has minimal information regarding the demands of the task. That means that the respondent must turn to his or her own personal resources to formulate what the task involves and how to cope with it.

“Reviewing a person’s responses to structured, semi-structured, and unstructured tests makes possible comparative inferences on all three levels of personality, to assess whether the person has the capacity to cope effectively with all three types of demands. If the respondent is not successful on all three, then I note whether there is difficulty only in the more personal, unstructured situation, whether the difficulty is more pervasive and includes difficulty at the semi-structured level, or whether the difficulties permeate all aspects of functioning.

“By mapping this continuum of structured to semi-structured to unstructured situations onto life situations, one can understand the degree to which an individual is dependent on external guidance and direction for effective coping. My definition of the effective and emotionally healthy person is based on the concept of the capacity to cope with most of life’s situations, ranging from those that permit little initiative to those that require a great deal of initiative. A battery of tests, of the type just described, provides a basis for judging the individual’s ability to match that definition. From this description, one might expect that more effective coping on unstructured psychological tests would differentiate effective from ineffective leaders, and that active coping across the three levels assessed would characterize most effective leaders.”

The Four Different Kinds of Coping

Leslie Pratch, a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, is the founder and CEO of Pratch and Company, a business advisory firm that specializes in the assessment and development of senior executives for public and private organizations. Dr. Pratch has authored a book provisionally entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, to be published by Columbia University Press in March 2014, on the aspects of personality that contribute to effective leadership. Central to her book is the construct, “active coping.”

Webster’s definition of “cope” is “to deal with or overcome difficulties.” All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes, filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. “Coping” is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs with the external demands of our environment.

We all have to make an effort to achieve our goals. To do so, we usually have to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Some of these are created by our surroundings, some by other people, and some by who we are. Encountering these obstacles creates stress.

When dealing with stress, a person can respond in one of four ways. The first is to identify the stress and remove it, maintaining—even improving— physical and emotional health. The second is to identify and tolerate the stress without changing it, keeping a status quo but not growing. The third is to defend against the stress by denying it, distorting the perception of it, or reacting to it in an unrealistic manner. The fourth is to suffer a complete breakdown in functioning.

The first response is active coping. The second response is passive coping. The third response is neurotic, defensive coping. The fourth response accompanies personality disintegration.

Active coping is the healthiest response to a stressful situation, and the one most likely to lead to a successful resolution.

It is like the structure of a car. We can manage to get where we need to go if we are driving a clunker, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But driving a car with superb engineering will get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown. A strong framework of coping does exactly the same thing.

Formally, active coping is the readiness, willingness, and ability to adapt resourcefully and effectively to challenging and changing conditions. It is a stable, albeit complex, psychological orientation across time and circumstance. Think of it as a constant state of being “open for business” that springs from a healthy personality structure. It comes into play in the now, at each moment of decision or challenge.

Leslie Pratch, Ph.D. – Good on Paper

CEO of Pratch & Company, Leslie Pratch, Ph.D., specializes in assessing candidates for senior leadership roles in organizations, public and private. She is presently writing a book, provisionally entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, to be published in March, 2014 by Columbia University Press.

Leslie Pratch emphasizes that it is not enough to assess the candidate in the abstract. It is also important to try to get some sense of what new problems might face the business so that the assessment can focus on the qualities needed to cope with those kinds of problems. For example, George Fisher had been an outstanding leader at Motorola. He seemed an ideal candidate to reposition Kodak from film-based to full-spectrum-imaging technology. But he failed to grasp that the shift to digital imaging would make the manufacture and production of paper and film obsolete. Leslie Pratch’s assessment might have predicted that his self-confidence included a blind spot to the scale of disruptive technological change.

To evaluate leadership potential, a psychological assessment works hand in hand with insightful business analysis. Assessing a candidate begins by understanding the situation in which the executive is expected to perform. For this insight her principal source is the client, along with her own research into the industry, the company, customers, and competition.

It is possible to predict, at least much of the time, how an executive will cope with unexpected complexities and changes. For this, Leslie Pratch does not rely on a model that seeks to explain a wide variety of situations in general, one-size-fits-all terms. She does not seek to establish the average effect of one powerful variable on a large set of companies. Rather than establish the average effect, she seeks to tailor-make a fit.

Just as investors evaluate a company to understand the underlying basis for its earnings growth, Leslie Pratch assesses an executive to predict his potential to grow and perform in a specific role. Identifying a candidate’s coping style forms the core of her evaluation process, but not the full extent. The comprehensive predictive model she has developed takes into account the interactions of the executive, the corporate strategy, and the operating environment. Each situation is unique, but knowing the effects of each component with a high degree of detail strengths her ability to predict whether executives will perform as required.

Leslie Pratch developed her psychological model of leadership by by studying the theories behind the concept of active coping and the qualities required for effective leadership. She thought about what effective leaders did, felt, and thought; why they behaved as they did, why they made the decisions they made, and why those actions were effective—or not. She condensed these thoughts and theories to create her personal definition: leadership is effective when it influences the actions of followers toward the achievement of the goals of the group or organization.
With this definition, Leslie Pratch identified four elements of the active coping style that underpin effective leadership: integrity, psychological autonomy, integrative capacity, and catalytic coping.

Leslie Pratch Discusses Catalytic Coping

A clinical psychologist, Leslie Pratch specializes in helping public organizations and private equity firms identify executives that have the psychological resources necessary to succeed in particular leadership roles. In preparation for her career, she not only enrolled in the highly-selective program on adult development, an accredited program in clinical psychology, where she earned her PhD in clinical psychology, she then went on to earn an MBA in finance and strategy from The University of Chicago.

The following discussion of catalytic coping comes from a draft of the manuscript for Leslie Pratch’s forthcoming work entitled Good on Paper. The book explores the personality structures conducive to success in business leaders.

“Catalytic coping is the ability to invent creative, effective solutions to problems and then carry them out. It is the most overt expression of active coping, the easiest to observe and measure. Leaders strong in catalytic coping always seem to have thought out several options to resolve each problem. If there isn’t an option, they create one. They develop detailed plans and execute them. That does not mean they are rigid; if conditions change and the plan ceases to be effective, catalytic copers immediately rethink their options and adjust the plan. Leaders who lack catalytic coping skills do not look, think, and plan ahead. If they come up with a plan, it often lacks depth or creativity, and they will stick to it whether it suits current conditions or not. They seem lost when faced with difficult or unusual conditions, and may fail to take timely action or any action at all.”

Good on Paper: Integrity in Business Executives

Leslie Pratch, a licensed clinical psychologist, offers a short excerpt from her forthcoming book, Good on Paper, which delves into the psychology behind what makes a successful business executive and how to predict the performance of business leaders. Leslie Pratch earned her Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University, one of the most prestigious and selective medical schools in this field. She began her research for this book during her time at Northwestern.

She offers the following on integrity in business executives:

“Integrity as part of active coping is not only ethically desirable but also a practical virtue. It is particularly important in predicting how an executive will perform. High integrity in executives reduces agency costs because you can believe what they say. By agency costs, I mean both the risk that executives will use organizational resources for their own benefit and the costs of techniques used to mitigate the problems associated with using an agent, such as the cost of producing financial statements or the use of stock options to align executive interests with shareholder interests. You can rely on them to fulfill commitments and meet accepted standards. Executives who demonstrate integrity can help protect a company from illegal or unethical practices. Personal integrity in an executive is crucial because it allows the wheels of commerce to turn more smoothly and efficiently. If executives live up to their values and ideals, they have higher self-esteem and protect shareholder value; these are important effects of active coping and essential for effective leadership. They also uphold the good reputation of their organizations.”

Dr. Leslie Pratch: The Skills and Personality Traits of Active Copers

Dr. Leslie Pratch received her PhD from the prestigious clinical psychology program at Northwestern University’s Medical School. In her book Good on Paper, Dr. Pratch examines active coping, which she identifies as a key attribute of a healthy personality structure. Active coping is the inclination and ability to effectively adapt to new and varying circumstances.

Dr. Pratch posits that an active coping style can produce a number of discernible traits and skills, which include:

1. Awareness: Active copers possess the ability to see and understand reality, including their own needs, aptitudes, and shortcomings.

2. Courage: Displaying a desire for new experiences, active copers are not threatened by the complications they might encounter.

3. Decisiveness: Active copers are able to successfully manage the challenge of choosing among competing goals.

4. Energy, fortitude, and the willingness to persevere: Active copers seek forward movement, even when conditions are tough.

5. Plan execution: Active copers are planners and consider the downsides of possible endeavors, but they also understand that action is as important as introspection.

6. Resiliency and the ability to learn from experience: After a setback, active copers can regroup, learn from their mistakes, and move on.

7. Resourcefulness: Active copers are inventive and enterprising problem solvers.

Williams College

By Leslie Pratch, PhD

One of America’s oldest schools, Williams College was founded in 1793. Dedicated to its enrollees, the Williamstown, Massachusetts, institution offers financial aid plans for international applicants and strives to meet all of its admitted students’ financial needs for four years.

Featuring a 7:1 student:faculty ratio, Williams College divides its offerings into three main options: language and the arts, social studies, and science and mathematics. Between these categories, pupils can choose from thirty-six different majors. The more than 2,000 undergraduates currently enrolled in this school will join an alumni association of over 28,000 people who are involved in a variety of fields.

Moreover, the school possesses an active athletics department. The Williams College Ephs men’s and women’s teams participate in baseball, basketball, tennis, wrestling, track and field, and numerous other sports.

About the Author:
A licensed clinical psychologist, Leslie Pratch, PhD, focuses on active coping, and has presented on using clinical psychology to predict success in business. Before starting her career, Dr. Pratch attended Williams College and garnered a BA in Religion. Today, she remains active with her former school by assisting with its alumni fundraising efforts.