Mental toughness has become a buzzword in learning and development – frequently used but often without context. But what exactly does it mean, and can it be taught? Applied psychology academic Peter Clough looks at how organisations can build resilient workers.
Mental toughness. A concept that is often misquoted or used in conversation but never put into practice. First we need to understand what it is. It is not about being tough in the macho sense of the word. Rather, it is about developing resilience and confidence.
Peter Clough is chair in applied psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and a world-leading academic in applied psychology.
He will deliver a keynote conference session at the upcoming World of Learning conference – “Does your organisation have determination and drive? How to cultivate ‘mental toughness’.”
The World of Learning Conference takes place on 29 and 30 September at Birmingham’s NEC.
Book by 28 August and save up to 30%.
Here at Manchester Metropolitan University, we developed a model for mental toughness which shows that people who display characteristics of mental toughness prosper within the world of work. Data indicates 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, and who will take what comes in their stride and enjoy the challenge.
Mental toughness is a core skill to have at hand when dealing with challenges in, and changes to, the working environment.
Consider the make-up of a typical boardroom – most people fall under the banner of mental toughness regardless of the sector that 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 – often the best predictor of a good degree grade is mental toughness rather than achieving good A-level results.
Research shows that mentally tough students excel better and develop a portfolio of skills that will allow them to maximise their educational potential and compete in the job market.
These toughness skills are clearly desired by employers, as shown 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 the MTQ48 questionnaire enable users to assess mental toughness, taking into account four factors: control, commitment, challenge and confidence.
However, what about employees who are not 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 this model of toughness, the opposite of toughness is not weakness, it is sensitivity. Sensitive people have many skills and attitudes that are highly desirable – but it is clear that they may often find transitions and assessments more difficult.
Mental toughness applies to fundamental areas of a business such as staff development and leadership development. Businesses need to recognise these qualities in staff when considering the make-up 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? What is the best way to nurture both types of employee?
The ratio of mentally tough and sensitive people varies, of course, from one business to another. Generally speaking, you do need a broad range of personality types within a workplace to ensure a diverse approach to activity and decision making.
Supporting the “sensitives”
Sensitive workers do need to be identified and supported. This is a key approach taken by many organisations, such as schools.
Mental toughness is increasingly important in the education sector as schools now have more accountability for student achievement and wellbeing. 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 is 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 necessarily emotionally sensitive, mentally tough people are emotionally intelligent. This means they are able to recognise characteristics in their colleagues and know how to respond to them.
Mentally tough people generally prosper 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 and becomes habit, leading to an overall more resilient workforce.