Leadership and mental toughness

Mental toughness. A concept that is often misquoted or used in conversation but never put into practice. First we need to understand what is mental toughness? It’s not about being tough in the macho sense of the word. Rather, it’s about developing resilience and confidence.

We developed a model for mental toughness and found that people who display characteristics of mental toughness prosper within the world of work. Data shows that they are generally successful, achieving results and high ranking positions within organisations. They tend to be driven, competitive and ambitious – but not aggressive or domineering. A mentally tough person is someone who is comfortable in their own skin, they take what comes in their stride and enjoy the challenge. Mental toughness is a core skill to have at hand when dealing with challenge and change in the working environment.

Consider the make-up of a typical boardroom – most people fall under the banner of mental toughness regardless of which sector they operate in. Success and mental toughness go hand in hand no matter what sector, nationality, gender or race – it cuts across all demographics.

These signs of success can be spotted relatively early on – the best predictor of a good degree grade is mental toughness rather than achieving good A level results. Research shows mentally tough students excel better and develop a portfolio of skills that will allow them to maximise their educational potential and allow them to compete in the job market.

These toughness skills are clearly desired by employers, as exampled by the recent CBI comments relating to the need for ‘character’ in graduates. How can businesses assess mental toughness and develop it among staff? Psychometric measures such as MTQ48 enables users to assess mental toughness, taking into account four factors: control, commitment, challenge and confidence.

However, what about employees who aren’t mentally tough? They are not considered weak by any means. Instead they tend to display characteristics of being sensitive. It is important to understand that in our model of toughness, the opposite of toughness is not weakness, it is sensitivity. This is a unique perspective. Sensitive people have many skills and attitudes that are highly desirable – but it is clear they may often find transitions and assessments more difficult.

Businesses need to recognise these qualities in staff recognising this when considering the makeup of their organisation. Does an organisation need staff who are predominantly mentally tough or would a balance of both tough and sensitive types better suit their requirements? How best to nurture both types of employee?

The ratio of mentally tough and sensitive people varies, of course, from one business to another. Generally speaking, however, you do need a broad range of personality types within a workplace to ensure a diverse approach to activity and decision making. Sensitive workers do need to be identified and supported. ‘Support the sensitives’ is a key approach taken by many organisations, such as schools for example. Mental toughness is increasingly important in the education sector as schools now have more accountability for student achievement and well-being. By identifying sensitive individuals, organisations can provide more targeted support and begin to develop their toughness skills.

When looking at how best to nurture these two types of employees, it’s worth considering that mentally tough people learn from their failures. They move on fairly swiftly from any hiccups and do not let it hinder their approach or their performance. While not emotionally sensitive necessarily, mentally tough people are emotionally intelligent. This means they recognise characteristics in their colleagues and know how to respond to them. Mentally tough people generally proposer in stressful situations. Sensitive people, on the other hand, tend to thrive on success.

Can we develop mental toughness? Yes, either by aspiring to be more mentally tough or by learning to do what the mentally tough do when dealing with stress. Sometimes the latter leads to the former as a behaviour becomes a habit.

Mental toughness applies to fundamental areas of a business such as staff development and leadership development.

Peter Clough is Chair in Applied Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and a world-leading academic in applied psychology. His main research area is mental toughness and he is delivering a keynote conference session at the World of Learning – ‘Does your organisation have determination and drive? How to cultivate ‘mental toughness’.

Peter Clough, Chair in Applied Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, is set to explore this in his keynote speech at the forthcoming World of Learning Conference which takes place 29 and 30 September at Birmingham’s NEC – www.learnevents.com.