Best practice report: Mental Toughness

February 23, 2015 by Limited

Expert Opinion

Mental toughness can be defined as the ability to deal with challenges and pressure, regardless of prevailing (either good or bad) circumstances. Mental toughness has been shown to be a major factor underpinning performance, positive behaviour, well-being, and aspirations:

  • Performance: mental toughness accounts for up to 25 per cent of the variation in individual performance.
  • Positive behaviour: mental toughness leads to people being more engaged and willing to try new things.
  • Well-being: mental toughness leads to people being happier and able to manage stress more effectively. It also makes them less prone to being bullied.
  • Aspirations: mental toughness can make people more ambitious and be prepared to manage greater risks.[1]

Research carried out under the direction of Professor Peter Clough at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom identified the following four key components associated with mental toughness.


Dan Ciampa, based in Massachusetts, United States, is an advisor to senior leaders and boards of directors. In his opinion, knowing how to maintain emotional equilibrium when things are not going well is vital for leaders: it distinguishes those who flourish under pressure from those-otherwise good people-who do not perform well. Mental toughness is required to cope with relentless stress; to succeed at this, leaders must be keenly aware of their roles within given relationships. In addition, they have to be good at taking advice and receiving help. This is particularly important in situations where poor decisions and results might jeopardise:

  • the career of the leader
  • the livelihoods of employees, and
  • the trust of customers and investors, who rightly expect to receive what they have been promised

Being skilled at recognising the need for advice, and responding to good advice when it is given, is of crucial importance. At times, it is easy to feel self-pity or even trapped when facing adversity: it is therefore necessary to take self-management steps to avoid this.

Managing Pressure

Kate Cobb, a learning materials designer with Blended Learning Zone in the United Kingdom, writes that our working lives are often challenging; we talk about “handling pressure” or “building resilience” when what we really mean is “managing stress”. Short-term stress can be a positive thing: many people feel they work better when they have a deadline to meet. However, it is important to keep stress on the motivational side of the equation, because negative stress can affect mental, emotional and physical reactions. Pressure can come from outside sources (such as imposed deadlines) and internal sources (such as an innate sense of perfectionism). Although the issue of how we handle pressure can be complex, small changes can often make a significant difference. The following are five key ways to manage pressure.

  1. Know yourself. It is important to understand how we as individuals experience stress. Where does stress manifest itself? Is it in our bodies or our minds, or both? What is it related to? Constant pressure can bring us to a breaking point. When asked to provide instant responses to requests, we have to have enough confidence to be able to say, “right now, I don’t know the answer to our question”. We should allow ourselves time, and let our colleagues know when we will be able to get back to them with the answer they need.
  2. Know your team. Ensure your team’s workflows and outputs are regularly monitored, and be alert for any changes in behaviour. For example, a normally reliable person may begin to miss deadlines – or perhaps a usually steady worker will begin to work longer hours because of an increased workload.
  3. Find your stress management mechanisms. Each of us has certain ways of handling pressure; therefore, it is helpful to identify the positive methods we use and incorporate them into our daily lives. Positive ways of fighting stress might include getting more exercise or sleep, or using relaxation techniques. Negative ways might include drinking, smoking or overworking. A healthy work/life balance forms an essential part of effectively managing stress.
  4. Manage time efficiently. Having more control over how we spend our time is a very important part of handling pressure – both on and off the job. As human beings, when we feel out of control, we generally experience stress. However, when we sense we have some control over our circumstances, we automatically feel more secure and less threatened.
  5. Build your support network. Find like-minded peers within your organisation or professional network with whom you can have a reciprocal arrangement about combating stress. A monthly meeting to review your work situations and share how you are both coping might be very beneficial. Be proactive and organise this while things are going smoothlyto ensure support is in place when it is needed. Remember, we can’t change the triggers of pressure, but we can change our reactions to these triggers. We can proactively learn new habits to enable us to stay calm, and continue to build on ways that help us to be resilient and positive in all situations. This will not only be good for us on a personal level, it will also benefit those around us. [3]

According to American mental toughness coach Scott Lopez, an unshakable mental toughness is the common factor linking the world’s top athletes, successful CEOs, élite Navy Seals, and powerful world leaders. Lopez believes most people can develop this mental toughness and apply it to their lives and careers. Lopez says that “mental toughness is about improved performance, it is a state of mind that, once you have it, it will empower you to experience a transformational change in your life.” This kind of mental toughness or resilience will enable you to think better and perform better. It will help you control your emotions, thoughts and attitudes, before, during, and after performance, and particularly when you are under pressure. [4]

American sports psychologist Dana Blackmer uses training procedures such as imagery, intensity regulation and thought-control strategies to help athletes stay positive, motivated, confident, energised, and focused. Not only do these skills enable athletes to condition themselves for competition and recover from injuries, they can also be applied in all areas of life. As Blackmer says, “young athletes who learn to cope with their anxiety before a competition can also use the very same techniques to decrease nervousness before a math test.” Non-professionals who learn to use imagery as a preparation for sports activities can use the same techniques to prepare for presentations at work. [5]

According to Brooke Envick, who holds the Goelz Chair in Entrepreneurship at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, four main elements contribute to an indispensable quality observed in entrepreneurs called psychological capital: hope, confidence, resilience, and optimism. For Envick, these four behaviours can be learned and developed by almost anyone. [6]

  • Hope is a desire accompanied by the expectation of fulfilment. It is a motivational state made up of two components:
    • willpower – the physical and mental energy needed to meet desired goals, and
    • waypower – an ability to identify avenues for meeting desired goals.

An entrepreneur can become more successful if he or she has the energy to strive for important business goals (willpower), as well as the ability to identify the avenues required to achieve these goals (waypower).

  • Confidence refers to a person’s convictions about his or her ability to successfully accomplish a given task within an identified context. An entrepreneur should feel confident of the knowledge, skills and capabilities he or she brings to an organisation, in addition to a good work ethic.
  • Resilience is the process of successfully adapting to adversity and stressful situations. Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. [7] Resilient people accept reality without faltering, have the ability to adapt to significant change, and have a deep belief that life is meaningful. [8] Resilience is a trait shared by all successful entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs respond to change
  • and do not blame others for their mistakes; rather, they use failure as a lesson.
  • Optimism is a positive emotion used to bring perspective to both good and bad events. [9] Optimism is a very important characteristic for an entrepreneur to possess. In the words of Jeff Bezos, founder of, “optimism is an essential quality for doing anything hard – entrepreneurial endeavours or anything else.”

Workplace Stress

Writing for the Nursing Standard journal, Erin Dean states that the psychological well-being of employees is enhanced when they feel their employer values them. This is particularly true for nursing staff. The nature of their work can exact a heavy physical and emotional toll, which, if left unchecked, may have a detrimental effect on patient care. Summarising comments by occupational health expert Steve Boorman, Dean argues there is a strong business case for investing in staff health and well-being. Organisations that prioritise staff well-being and resilience perform better: they have improved patient satisfaction, and enjoy stronger quality scores, better outcomes, higher levels of staff retention, and lower rates of absence because of sickness. Employers can promote staff well-being by providing appropriate support, leadership and super- vision. Boorman pointed out that organisations that had addressed the need to reduce stress levels in their nursing staff, had typically introduced good health and well-being projects, including access to gyms, sports clubs, weight-loss groups, and social activities. [10]

According to Sharon Judkins and colleagues, nurses experience more psychological distress than the general population.[12] Among nurse managers, intense job-related demands often result in stress that affects job performance and personal well-being. Nurse managers are expected to ‘do more with less’, using their reduced resources to maintain exceptionally high quality standards. In addition, they are expected to have contented staff who neither suffer from burnout nor change their jobs.

Job-related stress is linked with illness, absenteeism, performance deterioration, and decreased productivity. The complex associations between stress reactions and changes in the immune system may lower resistance to infections and, especially among women, bring about predispositions to various severe illnesses. Kenneth Nowack demonstrated that, over a period of a year, perceived stress significantly contributes to individual predictions of illness, as well as their frequency and severity. [13] Conversely, Simmons and Nelson showed the strong positive relationship between a good outlook and the perception of nurses’ health. [14] For example, it has been perception of nurses’ health. [14] For example, it has been found that people who experience high degrees of stress without becoming ill have developed “hardiness” that differentiates them from others who tend to become sick under stress. [15] [See the study about this phenomenon in the “Survey and Research Data” section of this Best Practice Report.]

Hardy people see where they have options to exercise judgment and how they can make good decisions: they become actively involved, and possess an ability to perceive where change is beneficial. It has been found among nurses and nurse managers that there are significant positive correlations between hardiness and coping styles that attempt to solve or alter stressful situations, rather than seeking to avoid or to escape these. [16] Hardy nurses are more likely to feel they have some level of control over stressful situations, feel committed to their work situation, experience less burnout, and be less likely to give up or resign.

Organisational Resilience

Today’s unpredictable and chaotic environment requires organisations of all types to be resilient. Organisational resilience is the capacity of an organisation to turn adverse conditions into an opportunity. This implies having a positive attitude, as well as the agility to bounce back from unexpected or disruptive events. It is to recognise that disasters and crises require great resilience; however, many unexpected day-to-day events also require organisations to be resilient. Fierce competition, demanding customers, and complex business operations can make organisations vulnerable to many risks. Such volatile environments require organisations to be flexible, adaptable and creative, in order to respond rapidly to changing conditions. This, of course, underscores the need for resilience within organisations and their people.

Resilient organisations prepare for the worst circumstances and develop standards for taking corrective responses. Resilience helps people maintain their hope and strength, despite difficulties. From a psychological point of view, resilience involves toughness, persistence, and a constructive perception of events that helps individuals withstand negative consequences, and recover with optimism and buoyancy. From an organisational perspective, resilience is seen as a measure of system integrity, capable of absorbing change and disruption, and preserving the functional integrity of the organisation. For both individuals and organisations, resilience underlies the capacity to be flexible and ensure recovery and continuity following stress.

Figure 3, see below, depicts four elements that contribute to organisational resilience: pragmatism, openness, strategic capacity, and strategic action. Organisational resilience leads to ongoing organisational renewal as its outcome.

The four elements that contribute to organisational resilience are further described below:

  1. Pragmatism: A sense of reality, practical wisdom and unified commitment lead to greater organisational resilience. A good perception of reality will enable organisations to recognise their strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. While a positive outlook and optimism are key assets for both resilient people and organisations, a keen sense of reality is crucial for detecting vulnerabilities and taking appropriate actions. Understanding organisational vulnerabilities is a crucial strategy for fostering organisational resilience: it helps leaders accept an organisation’s limitations and be able to identify potential internal and external sources to compensate for the perceived limitations.
  2. Openness: Employee empowerment, good communication and a supportive environment will lead to greater organisational resilience. Empowered employees are more ready to engage in decision making – and tend to generate creative solutions to problems. Empowerment improves the self determination and self efficacy of employees, thereby increasing employee involvement during times of work stress. In addition, the effective communication of goals, mission and vision creates knowledge and build trust. Change may create anxiety among employees; this is best counteracted by providing a safe and supportive organisational environment where resilience can develop.
  3. Strategic Capacity: Resource availability, employee capability and a focused strategy all lead to greater organisational resilience. In order to withstand the challenges of various crises, employees need to be able to access adequate resources to enable them to turn adversity into an organisational opportunity. These resources may be quite diverse, and different to those used in daily operations. Employees must have the capacity to exploit resources in challenging times – or at least be equipped to connect with those who are able to handle the situation. The existence of a focused strategy will provide direction and serve as an anchor in times of uncertainty. The possession of a clear vision and an organised approach for managing uncertainty are two important characteristics of resilience.
  4. Strategic Action: Creativity, flexibility and proactiveness lead to greater organisational resilience. Improvisation is an important part of organisational resilience: improvisers can handle pressure and act creatively under stressful conditions, using whatever materials they have at hand. When encountering a problem, rather than pursuing programmed responses, employees should be able to generate adaptive, positive solutions. Organisations need to be flexible, elastic and adaptive to survive under conditions of change. To create organisational resilience and sustainable growth, it is essential to allow a freedom for personnel to be proactive, and therefore enable the organisation to engage in change, rather than resisting it. In a turbulent world, resilience enables organisations to recover from unexpected disruptions. Resilience can also lead an organisation through times of internal and external renewal. [17]

Christine Riordan, a professor of management at the University of Denver in the United States, writes that organisations need to consider whether they have “game-ready” leaders with technical skills in business as well as mental toughness. As with athletes, business leaders need to ask themselves whether they are mentally tough enough to compete. The following six elements of mental toughness-all of which are used in sports psychology-apply equally well to the business world.

  • Flexibility: Game-ready leaders have the ability to absorb the unexpected, while remaining flexible and keeping their good humour during tough situations; they have to remain flexible while looking for new ways to solve problems. They must remain open to re-educating themselves – and always on the look-out for new ways of doing business.
  • Responsiveness: When under pressure, game-ready leaders are able to remain engaged, and connected with situations. They constantly identify the opportunities, challenges and threats within their environment. They make decisions and take action based upon sound information – and their observation of the situation unfolding before them.
  • Strength: Game-ready leaders dig deep, and find the resolve to keep going – even when it seems they are losing the game. They focus on giving their best and maintain persistent intensity throughout the game. Like successful athletes they think, “this is tough, but I am a whole lot tougher.”
  • Courage and Ethics: Game-ready leaders do the right thing for the organisation and for the team. They resist the temptation to cut corners or under- mine others so they come out on top. They have the courage to make the hard but correct decisions for the good of the organisation.
  • Resiliency: Game-ready leaders rebound from disappointments and mistakes, and get right back in the game. They have hardiness, and remain optimistic in the face of adversity. They adapt as required. They find ways to ‘do more with less’.
  • Sportsmanship: Game-ready leaders exhibit sportsmanship.

The behaviour of game-ready leaders when faced by difficult situations sets the tone for the whole organisation. They also support their team-mates and recognise their roles. Riordan states that, “We all need these same markers of toughness to succeed and lead in today’s business environment. We cannot succeed on technical skill alone. Game-ready leaders go into today’s business environment with their best mental game and with an attitude of “bring it on!” [18]