Mental toughness is a set of attributes that make people perform at their best under any circumstances. It is a personal and organizational capability that can effectively deal with today’s continuous changes and pressures. This article explains the mindset and attributes that make up mental toughness, how mental toughness can be measured and how to build mental tough organizations that increase performance.
Practice makes perfect! The 10,000 hour rule, made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 Outliers’ states that at least 10,000 hours of practice is required for exceptional expertise. It almost concludes that greatness is available for everybody who was willing to put in the hours in the skill of their choice.
However, research published in 2014 found that practice only explains on average 12% of skill mastery and subsequent success. Although the 10,000 hours rule might be a myth according to this research, there is a deeper truth behind it. This truth is that for a person to practice a skill for 3 hours a day, every day for almost 10 years, you need will, commitment and dedication. This requires a specific mindset.
The growth mindset
In the book Mindset, Carol Dweck discusses the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their talent and capabilities in life are a given and not a lot of things can be done about them. People with a growth mindset believe that every skill can be trained and feel they are the master of their destiny.
Her decades of research and many experiments show two important things. First of all, people can be influenced to take on a fixed or growth mindset before they take on a task. Secondly, individuals or groups with a growth mindset almost always outperform the ones with a fixed mindset. She also explains some of the growth mindset attributes of arguably one of the biggest stars in sport history; basketballer Michael Jordan. If it was all about talent and capability it must have been obvious in the early days for experienced basketball recruiters to see this superstar in the making right? Wrong!
Michael Jordan was cut from the high school varsity team, he wasn’t recruited by the college he wanted to play for and he wasn’t drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him. As Dweck states; ‘Michael Jordan wasn’t a natural either. He was the hardest-working athlete, perhaps in the history of sports’.
Top athletes have often behavioural and mental attributes, a mindset, that sets them apart from other people. Jordan himself believes that success stems from the mind; ‘The mental toughness and the heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have. I’ve always said that and I’ve always believed that’.
Where the admiring audience saw the mind-blowing physical versatility and perfection of the execution on the basketball field, Jordan always knew that mental toughness got him there.
Mental toughness has been used in elite sport psychology for over 30 years to increase performance. It was first defined in 1995 by performance psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr as ‘the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent regardless of competitive circumstances’.
In their book ‘Developing Mental Toughness’, Peter Clough and Dough Strycharczyk discuss the history of mental toughness. They build on concepts like resilience and hardiness to scientifically define and test a model for mental toughness, which they applied not only on elite sportsmen, but also on businesses. Their resource shows that Mental Toughness explains up to 25% of the variation in performance. Through their research they find four attributes that make up mental toughness:
- Commitment: this attribute is a measures how and why we set goals and also how we respond to them. At the high end of the scale, we find individuals who are able to handle and achieve things when faced with tough and unyielding deadlines. An individual at the other end will need to be free from those types of demand to handle work.
- Challenge: this attribute addresses how we, as individuals, respond to change. At one end of the scale we find those who thrive in continually changing environments. At the other end , we find those who prefer to minimize exposure to change and the problems that come with that – and will strongly prefer to work inn stable environments
- Confidence: this attribute measures the extent to which we have self-belief to see through to a conclusion a difficult task that can be beset with setbacks. Individuals high in confidence have the self-belief to complete successfully tasks that may be considered too difficult by individuals with similar abilities but lower confidence.
- Control: the extent to which a person thinks they are in control of their life. There are two sub attributes to control. Emotional control, where the high scoring individual keep their anxiety in check and life control, where the high scoring individual feel their plans will not be thwarted and that they can make a difference.
Clough developed a peer proven survey to measure mental toughness, the MTQ48. This survey is now available for individuals and businesses that want to measure their mental toughness. Once measured and results on the four attributes are known, individuals and teams can be coached to improve their mental toughness.
Building the mental tough organization
Before embarking on a journey to increase mental toughness in the organizations, a business has to ask itself first if it will benefit from the mental toughness attributes to support its purpose, vision, values and value proposition. Is there a need or desire to become mental tough?
Many businesses will benefit from becoming more mentally tough, but some might not benefit from continuous change and dealing with high pressures. It has to be mentioned that the opposite of mental toughness is not mental weakness, but mental sensitivity. Business that appreciate values that are more mentally sensitive, will not thrive by becoming mentally tough.
Including understanding the need or desire, a business will go through a four step change cycle to build the mental tough organization:
- Need/Desire: create organization knowledge about mental toughness and explore how it helps to deliver the value proposition and day to day life of employees. This can be done with a combination of workshops, roundtables, exercises and literature.
- Awareness: create individual self-awareness and organizational awareness on perceived mental toughness. How mental tough do we think we are in this business? This can be measured with the MTQ48 and results can be fed back at group or individual level by an accredited coach.
- Acceptance: accept the results, the strengths and the improvement opportunities on attribute level. This requires ongoing reflection, feedback and exploration. A coach can help to build confidence and readiness to find intrinsic motivation to take the next step.
- Action: set goals to commit to change mindset and behaviours to improve mental toughness. Hold yourself accountable or use a coach to do so. An organization can set soft targets to improve some attributes or can consider integrating this in individual performance settings and recruitment policies.
In a business environment, mental tough individuals and groups look forward to a challenge, stay confident and focused on their tasks and deal positively with setbacks to deliver on their commitments, whilst keeping their emotions in check.
Only recently at a conference, I heard a Managing Director talk about the commitment her team showed to lead in displaying certain behaviour and organizational change. Now there is no need to only talk about organizational commitment anymore. Businesses now have the opportunity to measure their people, project teams or the whole organization for that matter on commitment as an attribute of mental toughness. It is tangible, can be measured and can be coached to improve. In combination with the other attributes control, confidence and challenge, organizations are now able to understand how mental tough they are.
In our versatile, uncertain business world, with many day to day changes, challenges and pressures, mental toughness provides a capability to make people perform at their best under any circumstances.