Ideas

Mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to challenge, stressors and pressure in order to consistently perform at high levels. In simple terms, people who are mentally tougher or stronger are able to navigate the continuous changes, challenges and pressures of life (and business), and actually thrive on them!

Businessman swimming in a sea of papers

Much of the research, practice, and coaching for mental toughness has focused primarily on the individual: building mind-sets and skill sets around motivation, belief, control, perseverance, stress coping strategies, etc. This is foundational and critical for how to develop mental toughness. In fact, see Terry Dillon’s article on the attributes that distinguish people who thrive under pressure (vs. just surviving).

One of the lesser emphasized areas of mental toughness is the environment – the structures, practices, and norms that we create in organizational life, where people can practice, experience, and develop the skills of mental strength. There are many ways in which the environment we create builds mental toughness, but I will focus on two approaches.

Approach 1: Maximize Supports and Mitigate Constraints

You can shine a spotlight on three elements of any given job by explicitly naming:

1. Demands: the requirements or major responsibilities of the job

2. Supports: the factors available in the environment to help the person fulfill the requirements of the role

3. Constraints: the factors in the environment that constrain, confine, prevent, or make it difficult to fulfill the demands; these days, they are typically increased workloads, unacknowledged conflicting priorities and pace of change.

The end goal is to maximize supports and minimize or mitigate constraints, while keeping an eye on whether the demands of the job are still the right ones.

This requires a deeper understanding of the ‘pressures’ (i.e. events, experiences, occurrences that contribute significantly to stress – actual or perceived) associated with performing in a given role – specifically, not in general. Pressures could reside in any or all of those elements, but they often show up in the constraints category and can create substantial unwanted and unhelpful hurdles for people.


For example, a few years ago, we (The Refinery) had grown quickly as a company and were noticing some things that concerned us. Many consultants, new and experienced, seemed to be lacking in confidence and struggling with the challenges of the work. To learn about our own level of mental toughness and how we could become more resilient, we explored the demands, supports and constraints for the ‘Consultant’ role.

A primary demand of a Consultant at The Refinery is designing and delivering custom learning experiences for leaders in our clients’ organizations. The primary supports to enable a consultant to do that include co-designers and co-facilitators, relevant data from clients, project coordinators to take care of logistics, and our knowledge and experience.

Where this gets interesting is the constraints bucket. In our case, they were different for different people. Our more experienced consultants disclosed that the non-facilitation parts of their job (i.e. business development, responding to client needs, travel, back-to-back client engagements, etc.) were the main things causing pressure. On the other hand, our newer or less experienced consultants relayed that their pressures were the creative process for designing, the negative reactions of program participants, and feelings of inadequacy compared to more experienced facilitators.

Revealing these aspects of the job – which don’t show up on a job description – triggered us to change how we orient new consultants and how we plan and resource our client work, to maximize our supports. In many cases we couldn’t remove the constraints, but we did let them inform how we do things as a company to help mitigate them.


Approach 2: Develop a New Way of Performing

Like individuals, groups can develop patterns that either help or hinder their ability to sustain performance under pressure. The second approach is to identify patterns of how a team performs under pressure, and then develop a new way to performing. A useful tool for this is the MTQ48 assessment, which helps by pointing to specific areas that bolster resilience (the 4 C’s):

  • Commitment: tenacity
  • Control: self-worth, self-efficacy
  • Challenge: seeing opportunity, not threats
  • Confidence: self-belief

For example, in a recent client engagement with a financial service department of a large technology products and services company, we looked closely at both individual tendencies and overall group tendencies around the attributes of control, commitment, challenge and confidence. This department was not only facing a substantial change in how they “serviced” the organization (and subsequently what was required of them), but also large scale shifts in the industry and their business model.

A discussion on their collective tendencies and habits pointed out control and confidence as two areas they could work on as group, with their leaders working right alongside them. They wanted to make it the norm to increase everyone’s sense of control amidst much organizational change, as well as boost confidence in their ability to handle the changes.

A key observation was that the group’s typical behaviours under pressure (i.e. making more lists, working longer, isolating themselves and hold all emotions “in”) were counterproductive to being confident and in control. So, they identified desired behaviours they wanted to demonstrate, such as peer coaching, being better listeners, focusing on what is IN their control, asking better questions, pacing themselves, etc.

Following the identification of the important few behaviours that everyone could do, they agreed to some light ways of checking in and holding themselves (and each other) accountable for acting differently. Inherent in this process was the group’s authority to define and decide what they could and should do to bolster their ability to perform under pressure.


Beyond developing individuals’ capacity to manage under pressure, which is fundamental, you can also work at the level of the environment or context in which people operate. Whether examining and pulling the levers of demands, supports and constraints, or by observing the team patterns of performance under pressure, you will get closer to creating a mentally tough workplace – one where people keep up with and thrive within the challenges you face!

September 7, 2016 • in Development, Opinion
  • At The Refinery, we accelerate development of the leadership you need to achieve your organization’s full potential in a rapidly changing business world.

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