If ever there was a psychological concept more misused in a business context, mental toughness would have to be it. I have observed many wonderful colleagues over the years, constantly pushing themselves beyond reasonable boundaries, all in pursuit of corporate credibility. Sometimes it may be to prove they are “110 percent committed” to the organisation, or just to demonstrate they have “what it takes” to succeed. Often, it manifests itself as working crazy hours, subjecting themselves to gruelling travel itineraries or getting by on less and less sleep (or in some cases, all of the above).
Of course, there’s no doubt these behaviours can be needed from time-to-time e.g. to close a game-changing transaction or win a critical piece of new business. Sadly, they remain standard operating practice for some executives, even in the 21st century where “work-life balance” is supposedly front-of-mind. For some, these entrenched behaviours continue to be worn as badges of honour, rather than rightly described as factors which can actually impede work performance and well-being.
Before defining what mental toughness is, it‘s helpful to spell out what it is not. Mental toughness is not about being physically and psychologically “hard.” It is not about displays of masculinity or ruthlessness, stubbornness or pushing yourself to extremes when it is not healthy to do so. Nor is it about suppressing emotions . In their work with elite athletes, US researchers  developed a clear definition of mental toughness, as well as its key attributes:
Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enable one to cope better than opponents with the many demands sport places on a performer, and be more consistent and better than others in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.
The research revealed mental toughness is a long-term process, incorporating a number of highly inter-related factors. Seven categories of attributes were identified which can be readily extended to a business context:
- Desire and motivation
- Focus (performance related)
- Focus (lifestyle related)
- Dealing with competitive pressure (external)
- Dealing with competitive anxiety (internal)
- Dealing with physical & emotional pain
For an executive aiming to develop bona-fide mental toughness, a critical first step is to acknowledge the important and inter-related nature of each of these attributes. A pared-back approach, one that only addresses one or two of these factors, or simply focuses on pushing oneself harder, is unlikely to yield a sustainable improvement in performance.
Where would you like to be on each of these seven attributes? Where are you now? What would a development plan look like to build on your strengths and challenges in each of these areas?
When it comes to performance enhancement, the idea of mental toughness is more likely to do more harm than good if it is incorrectly defined and inappropriately pursued. When it is understood as a more complex construct of interconnected attributes, it can certainly be all it’s cracked up to be – a key ingredient for generating and maintaining enhanced performance.
- Jones, J.G., & Moorhouse, A., Developing mental toughness: Gold medals strategies for transforming your business performance. . 2008: Spring Hill.
- Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. , The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2008. 26(1): p. 83-95.
Robyn Stubbs is an executive coach with Executive Coaching International, a Non Executive Director in the public and private sector and has had a successful executive career in general management and senior marketing roles in the media, property and fast-moving consumer goods sector. Robyn works closely with senior executives across a wide array of industry sectors in Australia.