Mental Toughness

by Doug Strycharczyk


The Mental Toughness model and its associated measures and programmes have clear applications for any people who work in an environment which is subject to stressors, pressures and challenges. This includes many working environments where it is impossible simply to minimise stressors or challenge.

Some occupations inevitably include high potential stress levels. If one looks at occupations such as nursing, the fire services, ambulance work, police, call centre work, sales, fast-moving consumer goods and so on, it is perfectly clear where the stressors, pressure and challenge come from. It is equally clear there is only so much an organisation can do to create an environment where these are reduced.

Whereas the organisation should do what it can to moderate the environment for its staff, the best solution often lies in helping people develop the capability to both manage and cope with the environment in which they work.

There are two areas where the model adds considerable value.

Firstly, it is invaluable in management/employee development and coaching – either to help people identify and cope with stressors or to show people how they can be more effective in key areas.

The challenge lies in identifying what might be the causes of stress and pressure for each individual and helping the individual to become aware of these. Awareness leads to understanding, which, in turn, can lead to positive action – and improved performance.

Similarly, where the organisation and one’s peers/managers become aware of the potential causes of stress and pressure they are more able to plan and to act to minimise their impact.

It also has value as an assessment tool in recruitment and selection – enabling better fit in a critical area for good job performance.

The following case studies illustrate some applications in the world of work.

Case study 1

Merger situation – Public and Private Sector

GMCP is one of the largest (approximately 800 staff) and most successful career guidance organisations in the UK. It was formed in 2003 from four smaller organisations, one of which was significantly larger than the other three.

As with many merger situations, this gave rise to a number of problems. One was the need to place managers from the four original organisations into the new organisation. This created a lot of anxiety.

Moreover, a prospective development meant that the organisation knew that a further major change in its marketplace was to be implemented in 2008. This added to the uncertainty and anxiety – and ultimately to a failure to meet its key goals and targets.

The organisation was aware that the management team were showing signs of stress and underperformance and commissioned a stress audit. The audit showed that the managers were stressed and this was a major factor in the underperformance of the business.

More significantly, it showed that there was little that the organisation could do to alleviate the stressors – it was a fact of life, given their situation. But they could help the managers to deal with the stressors and challenges more effectively.

A Mental Toughness development programme which involved the use of the Mental Toughness Questionnaire was run with 60 managers, at both individual and group level.

Essentially the exercise showed that the situation was stressful, that the stress could not be avoided and that the issues which were arising did so as a result of the way managers had responded to those stressors.

The solution was to take every manger through a Mental Toughness development programme to enable them to deal more effectively with the prevailing situation.

The results:

  • Within 12 months the organisation had achieved restored performance and was achieving or exceeding all its goals and objectives
  • All managers reported being less stressed and better able to deal with stressors and challenge
  • The organisation was recognised as one of the best performing organisations in its field
Case study 2

Management Development – a large UK retailer

As part of a large organisational development programme, one of the UK’s largest retail organisations introduced an assessment centre programme for managers who were previously identified as having potential for growth and promotion. They were particularly interested in identifying people who would be successful as Regional Managers and as Large Store Managers.

The assessment centre programme comprised a typical mix of psychometrics, group and individual exercises, presentations and structured interviews. The two psychometric measures used were Prevue Assessment and MTQ48.

On completion of the exercise, a validation exercise was carried out which correlated the data used in the development centre programme and data from performance reviews, and an assessment of each individual’s potential and performance in current role. All already operated at an Assistant or Deputy Store Manager level.

The study showed that there was a strong relationship between Mental Toughness scores (MTQ48), performance on the Assessment Centre and performance in the workplace. There was also a strong relationship with key scales in the Prevue Assessment – particularly the ability scales and the independence, conscientiousness and extraversion scales.

A key outcome from the study showed that these two measures – MTQ48 and the Prevue Assessment – were the strongest indicators of potential and performance in the assessment centre programme.

This confirmed the value of psychometric instruments as predictive and development tools – and confirmed the importance of Mental Toughness as a key factor in managerial performance.

Case study 3

Individual performance – a UK Police Force

Within the UK, one of the requirements since 9/11 has been the introduction of ‘Stop and Search’: an activity where the police are expected to routinely and randomly stop members of the public and search them for evidence of terrorist activities.

In fact, the Police Forces are targeted to carry out minimum levels of ‘Stop and Search’ activity. One of the UK Forces found that it was underachieving in this area. Many of its officers were not carrying out sufficient ‘Stop and Search’ activity.

A study was carried out which correlated the level of ‘Stop and Search’ activity carried out by individual officers with their Mental Toughness. Mental Toughness was measured using MTQ48.

The study showed that there was a clear correlation between an individual’s Mental Toughness and their performance in this key area. Specifically, one of the scales within MTQ48 – interpersonal confidence – showed a very strong correlation with performance.

The organisation set about developing a programme to improve personal confidence and applied it to all officers who were required to carry out this activity.

The results:

  • This Police Force is now complying with the requirement to carry out ‘Stop and Search’ activity to the predetermined standard.
  • There is no evidence of increased stress or anxiety amongst officers required to carry out this duty.

Mental Toughness and bullying

Studies in the workplace and in secondary education show that the greater an individual’s Mental Toughness, the less likely they are to report bullying. The probable explanation is that mentally tough people are not as sensitive to slights and comments as are people with lower Mental Toughness.

They will more easily shrug off certain types of behaviour and comment from others than people with lower Mental Toughness, who will see this as bullying.

This indicates amongst other things that developing Mental Toughness in a workforce could significantly reduce or eliminate bullying.

Likewise, although bullying clearly exists, it is very probable that there is not as much bullying in the workplace as is reported. There are many who perceive certain behaviour as bullying but, if more resilient, they would not feel the same way about it.

Mental Toughness and learning

Studies in the workplace and in secondary education show that people who are mentally tough learn more than those who are not, and perform better in exams and tests.

Perhaps not surprising when one looks at exams and tests, the probable explanation for better learning is that mentally tough people will approach learning more positively and therefore will get more from the experience.

Many people are intimidated by attending lectures, training and classes and will approach those events with trepidation. They may even to some extent be intimidated by the tutor or teacher. They are more likely to focus on their fears rather than their learning – and not get from the event what they should.