No matter your field or discipline, a greater understanding of the ways in which the mind works is vital for a leader, as grasping this can have significant impact on your own performance as well as that of your team or company.
Today, I’m joined by Doug Strycharczyk, Dr Peter Clough, and Dr John Perry, authors of ‘Developing Mental Toughness: Improving Performance, Wellbeing and Positive Behaviour in Others‘. The book is now in its third edition and explores how mental toughness relates to leadership, performance, and motivation, amongst other things.
1. Can I ask each of you to introduce yourselves and tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and how you got to do the work you’re doing today?
(1:02) Doug: I’m Doug Strycharczyk. I’m the CEO for AQR International. And it’s a business, which is now predominantly about taking this concept of mental toughness that we’re going to learn about today and taking it to literally everybody on the planet. It applies to everything that anyone does. So, it’s a big mission for us. I’m privileged and delighted to be part of the core research team that has been taking this concept and applying some thought leadership to the idea, and it’s really created this concept that is extremely valuable. So, that’s me.
(1:43) Peter: Hello, I’m Professor Peter Clough. I’m a research psychologist and I initially developed the model back in 2001/2002 and I’m a third of the core research team Doug was just mentioning. So my areas are theoretical work, psychometrics, and applied psychology.
(2:06) John: I’d be the final third, I guess. I come from an academic perspective. So I’ve worked in universities based over in Limerick in Ireland now and I tried to bridge the gap best I can between academia, research, and some of the applied elements. So my background is actually in sports psychology, which of course, mental toughness, also has a background in as does as Peter. So really, what I most enjoy doing is trying to see how we can continue to develop more evidence for how the construct works, how it can affect people and apply that to practitioners. I think this is something that we often miss in academia which is learnt from the practitioner community and which is why it’s been so good to be involved in these kinds of things, which actually stimulates a lot of really good ideas for new bits of research because sometimes people come up with great ideas. And I think, okay, I don’t think there’s evidence for that, but it sounds like a really good idea. So we can go and research and, and kind of be that conduit really between evidence and practice.
2. Today, we’re going to talk about mental toughness. To help kick us off, could you contextualise it for us? What is your definition of “mental toughness”?
(3:36) Doug: Okay, so we’ve developed a definition of mental toughness that contains two or three keywords. First of all, we now know it’s a personality trait, which means it’s in every single one of us. So it matters to every one of us. And it’s a significant factor in our mental responses to stress pressure, opportunity, challenge. And basically, I’m describing everything that faces us in life. And if you look at leadership those four terms apply to leadership especially so. So that’s a broad definition. The most significant bit of it, though, is it’s a personality trait and people are used to the idea of personality. And most people have completed personality questionnaires, especially in recruitment. But I would say that 99% of the time, they’re looking at behavioural aspects of personality and assessing behaviours which really are, “How do I act when something happens?” What we’re looking at here is “How do I think when something happens?” And how do I think is a big factor in how do I act.
So we’re looking at something quite fundamentally important. We’re looking at, for a big part of the explanation of, “Why do I act the way I did?” That’s really its significance. But some people respond to the term toughness a little bit negatively. It’s one of John and Peter’s predecessors in a sense who coined the term “mental toughness”. So it is what it is, but the concept isn’t about toughness in a macho, aggressive sense of the word. It’s about toughness in the resilience and positivity sense of the word. And that’s quite important because it’s bringing together two concepts or two ideas that people don’t often sit together. The idea that “I need to be resilient to deal with what happens in life. But also, it’s going to be a big advantage if I can be positive about what’s happening in life.” So we’re bringing those two ideas together and in doing so, we actually embrace lots of common ideas that are out. So I think one of the big virtues of the way we have articulated the concept is we’ve been able to join up a lot of dots for a lot of people. So that’s really what mental toughness is.
3. Doug just described it as a personality trait. Does that mean some people are optimistic people, some people are pessimistic people or some people are mentally tough people, and you either have this personality trait, or you don’t? Or is it something that I could develop?
(6:13) Peter: I mean, the good news is, you can develop mental toughness. It’s a matter of personality trait. But our understanding of personality in the psychology community is far more plastic than we thought. So the idea that, you know, you’re an extrovert, you’re an extrovert at seven, your extrovert at 17, doesn’t really hold water anymore. So even the established big five personality factors change and modify. And yet, I think people listening will understand as you get older, your personality changes. That is mental toughness. So, some people are born mentally tough and have a mental toughness advantage. Some people are more sensitive, which is, not a weakness. It’s more sensitive and can develop mental toughness. But the third element we put in is, some people don’t want to develop mental toughness, which is being mentally sensitive. So, we’re not pejorative. But yes, you can change it. You can change it for a short period. Look like exam pressure or a job interview. You can change it fundamentally or you can say where you are. So there’s a whole range.
4. How does mental toughness affect the way we behave or out there, particularly for our listeners in the workplace and in careers?
(7:32) John: Yes, I guess tying in with Doug’s earlier suggestion there, is traditionally we kind of focused on adversity and those kind of difficult situations. So through the 4 C’s model, we talked about: control, which would be where someone would stay calm or take responsibility; commitment, where they’re likely to stay the course or remain focused; challenge, where they’re more likely to adapt and seek kind of see a positive mindset, and confidence, where they’re going to back themselves, and communicate effectively. But one of the things we’ve learnt over the years is that it’s not just that this is a group of people who are less affected by extraneous variables, this situation, the pressure and what other people are saying. But there is this more proactive sense as well where mentally tough individuals are more likely to actually enjoy pushing themselves outside of the comfort zone. They’re going to look for those challenges. Stress is not necessarily this bad thing that just happens to us. Stress is a fundamental hormone essentially that gets us up and gets us active and keeps us going.
So what we found from a more positive slant is, it’s not just about getting through the tough times. But mental toughness helps people to feel comfortable in situations where others might feel uncomfortable, being prepared to push yourself outside what you’re currently able to do or what you know you’re able to do. And that’s how you can learn to actually enjoy experiencing bits of uncertainty and some of those manageable stresses and actually gain greater belief in what you’re able to do. And I suppose I’m coming again from a sports background there. But the way you get better is by doing something that you didn’t realise you could do. So that’s kind of how I see mental toughness permeating itself in the workplace and in behaviours, whereas we traditionally thought it was about, when it’s really tough, you stick at it. It’s actually much more positive and proactive than that.
Very recently, we had, at the London Marathon here in London, I’m having the pleasure of recording from London. And you saw so many people exhibiting this mental toughness: elite athletes, people of all shapes and sizes, people doing their tenth marathon or their first, but pushing themselves further and harder and it not being easy, but them excelling and getting huge smiles at the finish line and there were all of those photos that we shared on social media because they had done something very difficult and completed it. And that’s not to say, I’m sure, they went struggles and challenges along the way. But it was a lovely in-person illustration of people fighting a tough battle and succeeding.
5. I must say when I first read the title, I did think of those connotations of toughness, about it perhaps being a very masculine trait, about not expressing emotion, but that doesn’t really fit with your definition at all, does it?
(10:59) Doug: No. Not at all. I have an advantage that might be a disadvantage. I’m a little bit older than any of you – I’m probably older than any of the listeners you’re going to have but when I first started work, I was sent on a training course and the training course was about Scientific Management Theory. You don’t hear about it anymore, except perhaps in academic classes, talk about the history of leadership as a character called FW Taylor at his belief that if you told people exactly what you expected from them, then you can demand that from them. We’ve moved on a long way since then. And in fact, we probably do almost as much research on leadership as we do on mental toughness because it’s one of the biggest areas of application. And what we’ve learnt is that within all the mishmash of theory and speculation about what is leadership, in fact, two ideas come shining through. One is it’s about performance, trying to achieve something out of the ordinary. Otherwise, there’s no point in leadership.
And the second thing is, you’re going to do it through engaging with people and that’s about motivating them. So if you look at that, both of those are really challenging activities because they don’t come easy. So I’m just going to, for the second, go round the mental toughness concept. It’s got eight factors. So the factors are, broadly: have I got a sense of self-worth, can I do it? A leader has to have that. It’s going to be trouble, so I’m going to find emotional pressures. Can I manage my emotions and maintain points? A leader has to have that. Now, if I’m going to perform and get high performance, I need to know where I’m going, so I need to have a goal orientation. That’s part of mental toughness. And then, if I’m going to go get there, I know I’m going to have to make some effort and get other people to make an effort. That’s about achievement orientation.
And then, in order to do something out of the ordinary, I’ve got to do something that hasn’t been done before. So I need to, to some extent, be prepared to take risks, not reckless risks, but push the boundaries. That’s an aspect of mental toughness and they’re not all of these things will work. Now I can give up and they don’t work or I can say “Right, we didn’t do well there. How can we do it better?” That’s about learning orientation. That’s another aspect to mental toughness. And then finally, we come around to, “Okay, the world’s full of opportunities. I’m the person who’s bringing leadership to this group, have I got the abilities to take us there, and have I got the interpersonal confidence to bring people with me.” So, I’ve just described the eight aspects of mental toughness. The eight factors of mental toughness. Every single one of them is crucially important for leadership.
There’s another dimension in this. When we talk about mental toughness, yes, it’s an inherited trait. But it’s also something that is capable of being developed, and we learn that from being in an environment. So, leaders shape our environment. So here I’m talking about culture. So when I talk about resilience and positivity, I don’t know of an organisation I’ve ever dealt with that doesn’t want resilience and positivity as aspects of his culture. And that’s going to come from the leadership. To have those elements present in the leadership of an organisation, to be able to influence the content of the organisation, and by that I mean, its employees, is extremely significant. But again, there’s another element, that is, self-awareness. And we’ve not used that phrase at the moment yet, but it’s the big phrase in this. It’s one thing to know that there is mental toughness and what mental toughness is. It’s another to understand your own. And because mental toughness sits in the head, it can be invisible.
So, you can get people, who are mentally tough to fail at leadership and they fail because they’re not self-aware. So a very simple example might be, okay, I’ve got to my position and I know I’m the perfect person to lead this group because I’m a real go-getter. And then, when I turn to my colleagues or my followers, I say, “We’ve got a big challenge. I can do it. Why can’t you?” I mean, every time I use that phrase in the presentation, everybody looks at each other, and nods, and smiles. Because you hear that phrase everywhere. And to me, that’s a little indication of, there’s a mentally tough individual. It doesn’t understand his or her mental toughness. So you’ve asked a really, really, really good question there, massively complex, but I’m going to have to stop there or else I’ll take over the whole podcast.
6. Is there anything actionable that I can do when I get back to my desk, or when I’m back with my team? So that not only am I more resilient myself, but I’m setting a good example.
(16:08) Peter: I mean, there’s lots there. Relating that to your marathon running mention, I’d actually did my Ph.D. on people run marathons, believe it or not, in the late 80s. I started off thinking it was about resilience: hanging in, dealing with horror, and they run because they enjoy it, mostly. And it is, you hit on it, when it’s a smile on my face and it’s the achievement. So when you see somebody being resilient dealing with pressure, they look shattered. When somebody’s going in a more mental toughness element that they look positive that they’re reassured. So it sounds here at the outset, a fairly negative concept is a positive concept.
So, to answer your question, it’s about enjoying what you’re doing. Putting yourself in a position where if some people enjoy challenge, when they enjoy challenge it’s about balancing that so that people don’t overstretch themselves and don’t burn themselves out, Well, when I’m talking to undergraduates, there’s no such thing as a stressful situation. As John points out, stress is part of life. Stress is neither good nor bad. What you find stressful, what each of the listeners finds stressful is different from what I find stressful.
So it comes back to that self-awareness: “where are my pinch points?” and working on the pinch points. So, my first annual publication was the classic, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So, it’s about self-awareness, it’s understanding yourself and it’s working on those areas. So it’s not just becoming mentally tough. We get frustrated when people talk about “sucking it up” or just dealing with pressure, or the classic, “don’t worry.” – how to make somebody worry: tell them not to worry. So it’s dealing with what’s going on, understanding yourself, understanding the situation, and then putting in a whole range of different methods. There’s positive thinking, there’s anxiety control, there’s relaxation, there’s visualisation – all based on self-awareness. I’ll borrow one of John’s phrases: all these techniques work, but they don’t all work for everybody. So it’s finding out what works for you, experimenting and taking your time.
Funny enough, if it was that easy, everybody would do it. People understand about diet and they understand about exercise. But if you’re developing your mental toughness, there are no quick fixes. There are slow fixes and there’s monitoring. So hopefully that makes sense. It’s working out what you want to do, bit by bit, inching forward because the fundamental is understanding yourself and actually understanding you don’t enjoy the situation. As an example, when I first started out working with elite swimmers, Olympic swimmers, you’d think what I’d do as a mental toughness expert is say, “Keep going”. But actually, the first question is, “Do you want to do this? Do you want to get up at five’o’clock every morning and swim for four hours?”. Some don’t, some do. So it’s actually more mentally tough sometimes not to do it, to change the situation. And we’re seeing a lot of that with COVID. People changing their working habits, changing their jobs. It’s not being sensitive to change – actually sometimes that’s more mentally tough. So it’s very complex but these techniques, the whole range of techniques, goal setting, do it step by step, work out what works, and don’t be surprised that it works for you. So for example, my wife is a physiotherapist and very keen on yoga. It works spectacularly well for her, but terribly for me! I just fall over! So what we have here is: fit the individual. It’s individual differences based on the foundation.
7. A lot of people are thinking about their own leadership traits at this time and what they can do in a period of great uncertainty, to be a better leader. Is this something that’s come up? Is this something that you’ve found people questioning, wanting more advice and guidance on?
(20:49) John: Certainly what the pandemic has given everybody is a period of reflection. And reflection can be one of the most powerful tools available to us. So, when we talk about mental toughness, Peter was talking earlier about how some individuals might be sensitive and might be content with that. Doug was talking about how some individuals might be mentally tough but lacking self-awareness. And the greatest development tool you can have is to understand yourself. So recognising your own attributes, your own traits, isn’t necessarily about wanting to change who you are or change aspects of your personality, but think, “Okay. How can I align elements of what I do to what I know I’m good at?”
If I undertake an assessment, say for mental toughness, and I find that actually I’m very good at managing my emotions and I’m very good at kind of taking control of situations, then maybe there are elements of my work and my career that I can better align to that. And I think that’s what this is giving people an opportunity to do. The more self-aware people will have identified better opportunities where they can develop individually. And what we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic is, there’s no huge great shift. It hasn’t broken every one. It hasn’t made everyone stronger, but that has perhaps been a little bit more of a separation where there is a mental toughness advantage. If you experience a lot of change, a lot of uncertainty, perhaps a lot of adversity and you’re already mentally tough, then you learn and you grow and you might become more mentally tough.
If you experience that and you don’t have appropriate support around you and you’re mentally sensitive, then it might actually make you more sensitive. So, I think that’s kind of what’s happened over the past 18 months to two years, where the opportunity for reflection has been great for some, but I do think we’ve kind of seen this polarisation a little bit in terms of people’s mental toughness. The important element there was for the mentally sensitive; if they’re not appropriately supported and mentally sensitive, then we have seen a little bit more of a decline towards the bottom end there.
8. What are the signs that the leader might want to try and be more self-reflective? Is there anything that people should be aware of, or considering their own behaviour or mental state, that they might want to take some time out and reflect?[(23:53)] Doug: It’s a really good question, Chloe. And I can link it to the previous question because one of the things that we’ve observed in the 18 months of the pandemic. In the first nine months, business obviously slowed, almost stopped at times, but about 90% of our business came from leaders – people in leadership roles. That wasn’t the case beforehand. Leaders were applying mental toughness to their organisation and not so much to themselves.
Suddenly, they were saying, “I’m struggling. I find myself in a completely different situation. I don’t understand why I’m not dealing well with it.” And I think that’s the first thing. The first point is: is there something that you’re doing or not doing that’s creating a consequence for your effectiveness? When I’ve described the eight factors before, the answer will always lie in one of those eight factors. What we’ve found very, very useful, is that, when we talk mental toughness, it does consist of those eight factors. So there’s no such thing really as “you are mentally tough or mentally sensitive”. You’re mentally tough or mentally sensitive on any of those eight factors. So, you can be mentally tough on six of them and mentally sensitive on two of them. And you might, through your life, have learnt how to cope with those two, but COVID suddenly created a situation that our coping mechanism no longer works and suddenly you’ve got a problem.
So again, we come back to this idea of self-awareness. What is it? What is my profile? Where am I mentally tough, and where am I mentally sensitive? And where will my mentally sensitivity create a problem for me in time? And what can I do about it? And where will my mental toughness create a problem for me in time and what can I do about it? And it’s incredibly hard to create that self-awareness. And so one of the things that the three of us have produced is, we’ve been managed to create a very high-quality psychometric measure. It can give you a very good insight into your mental toughness down to that level of those eight factors. And, like any psychometric measures, it’s not entirely foolproof. It does need consideration and reflection. But it is probably the most important advancement in helping people to become aware of who they are in terms of this important quality. So, the starting point has to be, “Why am I suddenly struggling? Why am I not doing what I expect to do?” And part of the answer, maybe the whole of the answer , will be found in your mental toughness and in your mental approach to events.
9. Of course, leaders aren’t just about looking inwards. They’re also the ones who guide and support and mentor a team. As a leader, what can you do if you can see your team perhaps needs some development or perhaps even more than that, someone’s struggling? How can you coach that in someone else?
(26:55) John: In terms of what a leader can do to support somebody when perhaps they’re becoming a little bit overwhelmed, or stressed, or might look like they’re becoming burnt out, or even bored, I suppose, is recognising that there’s an interaction between perceived demand and perceived resource. And I always kind of imagine these two things as a couple of test tubes or measuring jugs that can fill up and empty at any point. Now, as long as the perceived resource is greater than the perceived demand, that person will keep going. Now, what I would suggest is: we don’t want to just drain away either perceived demand all the time and just say, “Well, let’s wrap everybody in cotton-wool and make the world and lovely, fluffily place”, because ultimately something bad will come along and they’re less able to deal with it. So, we want that stress, that requirement, to be there. So, the other option is, we need to find ways of filling up that perceived resource. Mental toughness is a really big contributor to that. I think a good starting point is to assess their mental toughness, be aware of their own profile.
As Doug said, it’s not about being really mentally tough or really mentally sensitive. Almost everybody that takes it [the test] has so many areas where they’re tougher and some areas where they’re more sensitive. But once you know that, you can work on how you maximise your mental toughness, how you protect your sensitivities and consider ways that you might then develop that mental toughness. And in doing so, you can kind of build up your resource to be able to manage that. So as a leader, if I can help those in the team to build their own personal perceived resource, they’ll manage with higher demands and, even better if their perceived resource is much greater than the demands, they have resource left over to help support other people. Because when you’re kind of using all of your resource to manage getting through each day and somebody comes to you with a problem – and this is a really big one for leader – you just don’t have enough left to be able to offer them it. So, leaders can develop their own resource and help members of their team develop their own resource, so, hopefully, we would have this greater supply of mental toughness, that can kind of be shared because essentially, it means that, if I’m more mentally tough and somebody’s struggling, I’m able to support them. If I’m just about keeping my head above water myself, I don’t really have the emotional mental energy to be able to deal with somebody else’s troubles.
10. Do you have any advice for those either seeking to support their team or navigate the challenges of what’s been a very difficult, for many, eighteen months?
(30:16) Peter: I think it’s about, as we keep saying, understanding your team, but being aware about the differences and asking people what they want. Too often organisations put on a confidence-building course, or “let’s all do assertiveness”, and we’re back to that. Some people need it, but then the people who need it often don’t want to do it. And there’s a whole range. Just try to get people to understand themselves. You understand the rest of the team. And just taking care because people are vulnerable.
Back to this idea: has everybody suffered in COVID? No. People have had challenges. I was reading a recent paper and some people prospered. You know, if you’re a stable introvert, this is an ideal environment. If you’re an extravert, who is slightly sensitive, then it’s more complex. So, it’s about not putting in these quick fixes, such as “We’ll have a ‘Wear a funny tie day’”. Because for some people that feels patronising and difficult. Some people think it’s the best thing in the world. So, I think that that’s the issue. The last bit: it’s not being driven by the noisy people. The noisy people are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them. But they’ll put forward their points of view. The interesting thing’s the people you don’t know. If you sit around, have a list of people you work with and you know a lot about Ben and nothing about Fred. Now that might be what Fred wants as ideal but that’s the starting point.
People think they know people and also people think they know people from the outside stereotypes, you know. With an accent like mine, you think I’m as tough as old boots and the nothing would rattle me and that could be true, or may not be true. And then it breaks into more diversity issues. You know, is that normal for that particular group? And we’re back to: we’re all human beings, we’re all individuals, let’s get around that. So, it’s targeted interventions, understanding, listening and being aware some people just don’t want to be involved in such a thing. That doesn’t make them bad. They’re just fine.
The starting point is, psychologists sometimes overegg the problems, overegg the clinical conditions. At certain parties, most people are okay most of the time. If you ask people, “Do you have a problem?” People will answer, “Yes.” Also, these really are things where you’re struggling where people would tick a box, but most people are okay. Start on that basis. Some people need a lot of help. Some people need a little help but don’t try. It takes me back to that “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”
11. I’d like to finish on a question that we ask all of our guests, which is, what do you think are the three qualities that make a good leader? And crucially, do you think these qualities have changed as a result of the pandemic?
(33:19) Doug: Okay. So if you’re a leader and you think you’re a factor in producing sublime performance and a fantastic work environment, the starting point is: what am I bringing to this? How am I going to do this? So we’ve mentioned it several times: self-awareness. And that is at the heart of our work. And self-awareness becomes more involved because really what leaders are doing is helping us to plot our path through a lot of change. We talked about change all the time, but these days it’s not so much about change – it’s about the pace of change. And you think about the pandemic, it just arrived out of nowhere. And in a couple of months, it changed all our lives. That’s what threw people. It’s the speed at which it happened, it all happens. And, you know, I’m just mindful of a comment I heard the other day, that the pace of change now has never been greater. The bad news is, it’s never going to be as slow as this again. So we think mental self-awareness is going to be more and more important for leaders. They have to become self-aware about that.
(34:34) Peter: I would go reality. So, reality testing, understanding the world as it is. So by that, there’s a lot of push towards positive psychology, which is fine. We’re in the positive psychology of domain. The example I give when I’m physically training: I put on a tutu and think positive that I’m going to be a great ballerina. And I’m not, because there are skills and there are resources and the whole lot. So, you’re positively thinking, “this isn’t a problem”, but it can be a problem. So it’s not about just inspiring people to be positive and motivated. It’s doing a skills audit. It’s supporting people. It’s looking at what people can do.
And sometimes that’s seen as negative. When I’m working with kids I do get, again, a bit frustrated about “you can be anything you want to be” – you can’t! It’s simple. I cannot be a basketball player and I probably can’t run marathons. Now, that sort of positive thinking doesn’t help to that extent. It’s about that reality without being negative and to some extent, yeah, it’s about letting yourself off the hook in these conditions. We all make mistakes. None of us are perfect. We get a bit stroppy and so does everybody else. So it’s not about this perfection. Is there a perfect way of dealing with what’s going on? No, you give it a go, you review. And the mental toughness concept was in the Times when it first came out. They interviewed me and it was seen to some extent, as I’m from Hull [north of England], to be a northern measure and a northern concept because it’s not just about thinking about all the positives you have: it’s also thinking about your negatives you have. Putting them together, and dealing with them. So that’s my starting point. Reality without negativity.
(36:34) John: From my own experience, I’d probably fall on compassion. I think you have to care for people, and they have to know you care and people are clever. They can spot when somebody is just paying lip service and saying “I’ve stuck a well-being seminar on”. I suppose from my own sort of leadership experiences, where I think the benefits come from, is that if you genuinely care for people, and they know that you genuinely care and you want them to do well, they’ll let you off. That means when you do take a risk, when you make a bad decision, when it messes up, when you’ve probably created more hassle for everybody, they know you’re coming from the right place. So it kind of gives you that credit in the long run as well. And I think when these kinds of things happen, leaders who were well respected and had shown care in the past when lockdowns happened, and everything goes wrong and everybody’s having to do this, that or the other and probably getting a bit fed up, I feel like life is probably a little bit easier for those leaders who built up that credit from how they’ve treated people in the past.
Doug Strycharczyk, Peter Clough and John Perry are co-authors of ‘Developing Mental Toughness: Strategies to Improve Performance, Resilience and Wellbeing in Individuals and Organizations’, which is available in hardback, paperback or as an ebook here. Use code HAYS20 for a 20% discount.
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