Developing mental toughness, With Peter Clough

How many times have you heard phrases like "it's tough at the top" or "you need a thick skin to survive here"? It would seem that the business world is no place for sensitive people, or anyone lacking in self-confidence.

Written by Rachel Salaman
Published 29 March 2021
Developing mental toughness, With Peter Clough

How many times have you heard phrases like “it’s tough at the top” or “you need a thick skin to survive here”? It would seem that the business world is no place for sensitive people, or anyone lacking in self-confidence.

But even if you’re not the most assertive person in the room, you can still develop skills and traits to give you the assertiveness and resilience to ensure that your voice is heard, and that your individual strengths are not lost amidst the “corporate cloning” of organizations.

Mental toughness in the workplace and performance in high-pressure environments are subjects that have been explored in depth by Professor Peter Clough, Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K.

In this podcast, Prof Clough talks about his observations that mental toughness – the ability to deal effectively with challenge, stressors and pressure – puts teams and individuals ahead of the game.

But he also emphasizes that organizations can’t succeed if they’re populated by mentally tough clones: they need people who remain true their creative or sensitive natures, but who can also handle their more assertive colleagues.

In the interview below, he talks about the four pillars of mental toughness – challenge, confidence, commitment, and control – and tells us why sensitivity is no barrier to learning useful resilience techniques.

Listen now: Click here to download the podcast

Interview transcript

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to this edition of L&D Insights from Mind Tools with me, Rachel Salaman. Today, we’re talking about mental toughness, which in the workplace is about how effectively individuals respond to the pressures and challenges of their jobs.

My guest is Peter Clough, a professor at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K. He’s the co-author, with Doug Strycharczyk, of a really useful, practical book called “Developing Mental Toughness: Coaching Strategies to Improve Performance, Resilience and Wellbeing.”

Peter joins me on the line from Manchester. Hello, Peter.

Peter Clough: Hello.

Rachel Salaman: Thanks very much for joining us today. What’s your definition of “mental toughness”?

Peter Clough: I think mental toughness is often mentioned, but one of the problems, it’s rarely operationalized. So, we have a clear definition which is overall mental toughness, and then it being made up of control, challenge, confidence, and commitment. It’s probably the most widely used definition now of mental toughness, but a number of other ones still exist.

Rachel Salaman: How is that idea of mental toughness different from the other things it often gets confused with, like resilience, confidence, hardiness, and things like that?

Peter Clough: Yes, and you can extend it to grit and buoyancy. The key element is they all have different functions. I work with academics across the world who are working on buoyancy and grit and resilience. There is no competition between the areas.

Mental toughness is a more specific operational term. It was developed for actually being able to measure and use it in workplace or in sport or in education.

If you look at resilience, it’s about coping with pressure. Mental toughness is about thriving and operating successfully under pressure. So, if you think about resilience, it’s an engineering term, basically. It’s being able to withstand pressure without falling down. What we’re talking about with mental toughness is somebody who can thrive and prosper under high-pressure situations.

Rachel Salaman: Could you just tell us a bit about the history of mental toughness research?

Definitions of mental toughness

Peter Clough: Mental toughness started in the probably 1960s and 1970s. Dr Loehr developed the ideas of calling it mental toughness, and really its background lies in sport. It’s been popular in sport, it’s been used in sport for many, many years.

After that stage, people then began to try and refine it, and the key thing is can you measure it. People do that two ways, you can talk to people about mental toughness, a qualitative approach. We take a psychometric approach, which is having a valid and reliable measure.

Other measures are also developing all the time, but generally the situation we’re in now is: different definitions exist on mental toughness. The mental toughness measure and approach we use sees it as a trait which can be developed and more than just a mind-set. It’s ability to deal with pressure and you can actually… I think the key bit, although it’s a trait to some extent, it’s a narrow personality trait, it can be developed.

Rachel Salaman: How does it relate to the workplace, then?

Peter Clough: I think in many ways. One of the things which sometimes surprises people is that the opposite of mental toughness isn’t mental weakness. It’s sensitivity.

We’re interested in diversity. What you find is senior managers, senior people in all organizations, tend to be the most mentally tough. The question then arises: what happened to the sensitive people?

They have equal talents but probably do less well on transitions or assessments or pushing themselves forward. So, in the workplace, hand on heart I can say mentally tough people tend to deal more effectively with pressure in the long term.

Sensitive people have a different view and a different approach, and it’s really incumbent on an organization to be able to merge those skillsets. You don’t want everybody tough, you don’t want everybody sensitive, you want a balance.

Rachel Salaman: Are you saying then that the people who are more naturally sensitive should not have their mental toughness developed because it’s not appropriate for them?

Peter Clough: It’s a hard question because a lot of the research we do is in primary, secondary schools, universities, and the sensitive people just tend to do less well on exams and assessments and tend to have a poorer career trajectory.

What we are saying is that sometimes it’s an advantage to be able to behave in a more mentally tough way in certain situations. So, it’s very similar to assertiveness training, which was around in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and is still around. You don’t make anybody necessarily more assertive, but you give them tools and techniques so they can deal with other assertive people.

So, it’s being true to yourself but adding a skillset and meeting your own development needs. “If we have a mixed group, how does everybody get a voice?”, I think is a good way of looking at it in an organization. And within that, it’s nice to give the sensitive people a toolkit where they can behave in a mentally tough way in some circumstances. Because what happens at interviews or presentations, sometimes their sensitivity can overwhelm and they don’t come across as competent as they clearly are.

The curse of psychology

Rachel Salaman: You’ve touched on this a bit, that for some of these people it’s more a question of them knowing the tools and techniques that enable them to behave as a mentally tough person rather than actually become mentally tough.

What’s your view of that? Does it matter if they’re just using the techniques rather than actually being mentally tough?

Peter Clough: I think my personal perspective is fairly philosophical. Does anything ever change with training, does your fundamental self-change, or do you deal with things differently? I’m of the dealing with things differently.

Because sensitive people have a lot to offer and what you don’t want to do, it’s the curse of all psychology really. If you’re not careful, all you can do is give somebody an answer and the answer will be, “You need to be more like me,” and that’s not a good plan.

So, sensitive people have a lot to offer, because it’s not about abilities. So, for example, if we’re looking at creativity, perhaps – and we were doing lots of work on this – sensitive people have a different thinking style, a more intuitive, creative thinking style, and what you don’t want to do is lose the strengths.

So, it’s like all training and development, it’s maximizing your strengths and working on your development needs but not fundamentally changing yourself. Because if that’s the case, the corporate cloning will become out of control. If everybody is exactly the same, that’s not a way forward for an organization. There is always a problem that there is quite a lot of cloning that goes on in organizations anyhow.

In some organizations, many people are quite similar at a certain level, and we want great diversity, a greater cross-section. But there are going to be pressure points, like presentations, like interviews, like dealing with difficult people where learning techniques can be helpful.

But the most powerful technique – and I suddenly sound like a psychologist again – is understanding yourself. If you know what you are, it sort of works. So you don’t have to apologize for it, you don’t have to think you’re perfect, but you are what you are. And then, when you understand yourself, it’s easier to understand other people.

Rachel Salaman: Your co-author, Doug, has described mental toughness as the “penicillin of the people development business.” Catchy phrase. What did he mean by that?

Peter Clough: He means two things, really. The penicillin bit is that it’s widely applicable. So we go back, so I work across the world, we publish widely and the mentally tough people, there is a clear mental toughness advantage. Mentally tough people tend to do better in more situations. They’re healthier, they sleep better, they have less mental health issues, they are happier, they progress through organizations, they get better degrees – a whole range.

So, it can be seen as generic panacea in that respect, but as I’ve been mentioning before, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The other is that it is like penicillin, the happy accident. The original work was in sports in the late ’90s, and what we’ve done is move it out of the sports tradition into a wider domain. So, the happy accident was, it was discovered as a generic concept rather than a sports specific concept.

Rachel Salaman: As you mentioned at the beginning, you see mental toughness as a product of four pillars, all beginning with C. I’ll just remind people, it was “challenge,” seeing challenge as an opportunity; “confidence,” having high levels of self-belief; “commitment,” being able to stick to tasks, and “control,” believing that you control your own destiny.

Can you talk a bit more about how you arrived at that conclusion, that definition?

Peter Clough: Yes, it came from three main sources. It’s like any academic progress: you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. There is a big literature which looks at challenge, commitment, control, and confidence.

So, the starting point is, theoretical background. So, again, we’re not in competition with hardiness, we build upon previous work, that’s how research and research development works.

Also, we have a series of interviews and we talk to people and we’re continuing to do that work now, talking to school kids, asking them what mental toughness means to them.

The third tradition we approach is psychometric, and, statistically, you develop lots of questions and you put statistical tests and you see what clusters together. So, there is a theoretical input, a people input, and a statistical input.

Merging all that together, the four Cs keep re-emerging. So, we didn’t just do it and find out what happened, we test, retest, we go back and revisit with a different sample.

So, we’re very confident that the four Cs exist and cluster together, because the art of what you’re trying to develop is the four Cs are independent from each other, or there is no point in measuring them as separate entities, but they’re also co-varied to some extent.

Rachel Salaman: So, the measuring tool that you’ve developed is called the MTQ48 Measuring Tool?

Peter Clough: That’s right, yes.

Rachel Salaman: Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it actually works in practice?

Higher mental toughness, less stress

Peter Clough: It’s a 48-item questionnaire, because in all questionnaires you want it to be long enough to be useful but short enough to be operational. So, the shorter you make the questionnaire, the quicker it can be done, but then you lose a bit of information.

So, the items are self-report items where you agree to strongly disagree. There are about six to eight, depending on the scale, items related to each scale. They then are added together and we get a score.

In addition, any psychometric test, the MTQ48 included, needs to be validated in other ways. So, because somebody is describing themselves like that, that needs to questioned, followed up, either by the individual themselves or other people. So, a series of hypotheses are generated and then people can follow through.

So, if somebody is describing themselves as a 10 on mental toughness, that’s the most mentally tough you can be, there should be examples of where they’ve demonstrated it. It’s as clear as that. So, if you describe yourself as mentally tough you should be able to give three examples of where you’ve dealt recently with difficult situations really effectively. So, there are always checks and cross-checks but any questionnaire can be distorted, but so can any interview or any questions.

The other thing we’ve done with the mental toughness questionnaire, we’ve related it to both neuropsychology, so it relates to area of the brain, and in psychophysiological measures. So, people are scoring higher on a mental toughness questionnaire are less reactive to stress. So, we try to bottom it out completely. It is one of the more accurate questionnaires out there across the board.

Rachel Salaman: So, when people actually do this test, they’re given scores, as you said, and they’re based on the four pillars we talked about: challenge, confidence, commitment, and control. Then these can be used to inform their personal development plans?

Peter Clough: They can be. You get an overall score on mental toughness as well, so it’s a one to 10 score. It’s a normal distribution. By that I mean 68 percent of people lie between four and seven, then you get the high group and the lower group.

You get a score, and then what we’ve produced as the different reports, a development report tells people, suggests ways they can develop what they want to develop. It’s possible to get a low score on confidence and a high score on commitment. If there is low score on confidence, suggestions can be given about how to develop confidence.

But it always go back to people thinking, “Do I want to develop and do I want to change it?”

So the first point is, is it accurate? Second point is, do people want to change? And then we can give specific suggestions of how to change.

We can also produce coaching reports where coaches can help somebody deal with it. We can produce assessment reports where people can use for selection. So, there are a whole range of ways of doing it, but most people find a development report really effective, that you get scores, you get a verbal, you get a description of what you are, and potential development opportunities.

Rachel Salaman: If we could talk a little bit now about how some of these pillar attributes are developed or can be developed, starting first of all with challenges about how people see challenges in terms of mental toughness. What are some ways that this can be developed?

Peter Clough: A challenge is really one of a mind-set element. It’s seeing challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat, and one of the best ways, for example, of expanding your ability to deal with challenge is put yourself in challenging situations.

One of the key things is, one of the old and wrong adages, “Whatever doesn’t kill you toughens you up,” is just simply not true and never was true. You need to be slightly outside your comfort zone.

So, the challenge of an interview for a job, for example, the way of developing your ability to deal with challenge is go for a number of interviews. So it can be very practically based. The other way is thinking about what your thoughts are. So, if you’ve got a job interview coming up, if your thought is, “I’m not going to get this,” that’s the bit you need to work on.

So there are those two elements, there is the practical doing bit and there’s a way you think about these things. So, both of those would work real well with challenges. You want people to think challenge is an opportunity. That’s where coaching comes in. If you think challenge is a threat, you need to discuss why that’s the case and what people can do to help you deal with that more effectively.

Rachel Salaman: So, when it comes to confidence then, which is another pillar of mental toughness, people can be overconfident can’t they? So, what’s the right level of confidence, do you think, for optimal mental toughness?

Peter Clough: To take your point, can people be overconfident? It sometimes leaks into arrogance, but confidence is usually a positive thing. I think the core of the question is, when people are really confident they know their strengths and weaknesses.

It’s just bubble confidence. Somebody saying they’re great at everything isn’t confidence. Somebody who believes they’re good at some things, less good at other things, that’s confidence, it’s reality. If somebody is happy about themselves but knowing they’re not perfect, that’s confidence.

Somebody saying they’re great at everything isn’t. So, that’s what it’s picking up. It’s not the idea of just being able to tell it, not believing you can do anything at any time. Some of the positive psychology stuff sometimes pushes, perhaps overly pushes the message of positive thinking, “You can do everything,” and you can’t.

I’m a good five foot seven, positive thinking isn’t going to make me a basketball player. So, there comes limitations, we’re keen on, when we talk about confidence, it’s really being realistic about your strengths and your development needs. You’re not thinking you’re perfect, you think you’re good at what you’re good at, you’re not so good at other things, and you’re happy to work on them. So, that’s at the core. So, you can’t be overconfident if confidence is being realistic about your abilities.


Confidence-building techniques

Rachel Salaman: So, if someone was coaching a team member in confidence, what might they do?

Peter Clough: It depends on what their starting point is. Somebody could be a 10 on confidence and then you would query… for example, if you were coaching somebody who was really, really confident is, how that inspires or actually turns off other members of staff. Because always being supremely confident, sometimes you might not pick up the less confident people and understand their point of view.

So, that’s one approach at one end, because whichever end you are, in any aspect of psychology there is no perfect answer. Everybody has stuff they can do, stuff they’re less good at.

If somebody is really low on confidence, it’s exploring why that’s the case. The world is full of confidence-building techniques, but confidence-building techniques actually when they’re being measured and we can monitor their progress is the key here. So, confidence building can be thinking positives about yourself, getting examples of where things go wrong, controlling your inner voices, controlling your negative thoughts.

There are lots and lots of tried and tested psychology skills training which work effectively with confidence, but underlying at a coaching is finding out if the score is right and then finding out why. Just fixing stuff, it tends to twang back. So, can I teach somebody how to do a positive presentation, you can, but without understanding the psychological make up behind it, it’s not sustainable in the long run.

Rachel Salaman: If we move on now to commitment, another of the Cs. This is an obvious one for mental toughness, sometimes called “stickability.” How much can this one be learned?

Peter Clough: That’s a really good question because it also relates to conscientiousness, and if you take stickability, commitment and conscientiousness, it’s the best predictor of degree of success, for example.

Our schools are working really hard to develop this, and how do you develop commitment is some basic techniques are about goal setting, but again hopefully what comes across clearly, it’s never quite that straightforward because the people who would benefit from goal setting are the people who don’t do goal setting.

The committed people already do it, and what you want is the less committed people to do it but they’re turned off by goals. Just presenting them with what you need is SMART goals, which is fine, it’s effective, it’s how you sell that into the person and how you get them to understand the benefits of it. Because somebody who is really committed can’t understand why somebody wouldn’t do goals.

Where somebody who is low on commitment, goals scare them or at best turn them off, they operate on a different system. So, by gentle persuasion, and you introduce goal setting not as a technique, because when I do time management courses, which I’ve done in the past, people know how to do it, they just don’t do it.

It’s not a technique problem usually, they just don’t set goals. Again, it’s more fundamental than giving them a technique, it’s finding out why they’re not using them, and certainly in commitment it’s getting the lower committed people to take on board the functionality of goals.

A way to do that, for example, is it’s not always about work, it’s about different aspects of life, and it’s just showing. The way I do it is showing that goal setting improves performance.

Rachel Salaman: When you say showing, provide examples?

Peter Clough: You can do exercises. For example, there is big goal setting literature where people can set too low, too high (it’s the Goldilocks phenomena), or just right goals. Showing somebody this, even if it’s lobbing a bit of paper into a basketball hoop, setting their goals too high is just depressing. Setting them too low doesn’t actually bring you any satisfaction.

Setting them just right is really effective but you have to show there is an impact. So, somebody low on commitment, they probably have never used goals and it’s all new to them, and I think sometimes people sell the technique as a panacea, but the key with low commitment people is showing them that getting them to buy into the technique.

So, just simple examples of why a too high goal would be damaging, and a too low goal would be damaging is quite effective, because people don’t think about it. If they’ve never used it, they have no recognition.

Rachel Salaman: The final pillar is control, including emotional control. What are the implications of high and low scores in this area for L&D professionals and coaches?

Mentally tough people are more emotionally intelligent

Peter Clough: The emotional one is the most complex. I’ll come back to that in a minute, it’s the more interesting and the most complex. Control itself splits into two, and this is where the psychometrics and the statistics come in.

One of the scales is “life control,” and the other sub-scale is “emotional control.” Life control is about controlling your destiny. It’s down to you. The ways we deal with that is it’s usually whenever you’re dealing with a problem, the generic response is, “It’s them,” wherever I’m working.

We need to define who they are and then control the controllables ourselves. So, that’s how you do the life control but our destiny, we’re not predestined, our destiny is in our hands. So, that’s what you’re working on in those.

Emotional control is the hardest one to really get to grips with because there probably is less of a right answer. It’s in mental toughness and it probably should be in mental toughness because being able to control your emotions is an important aspect of being able to deal effectively with people, certainly as a manager, a leader, as a coach.

The classic literature also says being readable and being emotionally open is also important. So, how do we square that particular circle? When we look at mental toughness and emotional intelligence, a huge positive correlation.

Mentally tough people generally are more emotionally intelligent. They’re not emotional, it’s the difference between emotionally but they understand emotion. So, it’s not about not understanding emotion being mentally tough, it’s not showing your emotion.

I’ve done lots of work in my time on leadership, and it’s about being open so people understand you, but I think from speaking to most leaders, it’s good to show positive emotions, rarely good to show negative emotions.

I know there are different elements in counselling where negative emotions come out, but certainly as a manager dealing with problems, you need to deal with problems without letting our negative emotions overwhelm you.

When it’s positive, positive emotions can never do any harm. Negative emotions can be really damaging. So, perhaps it comes down to being able to control your negative emotions is one of the key aspects of mental toughness and management and coaching, because you have to be non-judgmental as a coach, it’s not your job to show your disgust about a certain discussion you’re having.

I think we all control our emotions, and somebody who is open, they’re easier to manipulate, and being emotional can sometimes turn off the other person. It’s not about sharing emotional bonding, it’s neither good nor bad, it works with some people, it’s less good with other people. So, having a variable style is probably the optimum, which is why emotional control is difficult to describe.

There is no right or wrong, but being able to be emotional and also being able to be not emotional is probably the classic preferred route.

Rachel Salaman: A bit earlier you talked about developing mental toughness as part of a team. What’s the difference between developing mental toughness in individuals or in teams or groups?

Peter Clough: When you’re developing in an individual, it is more straightforward because you’re dealing with their scores, you’re giving them specific skills.

What you’re trying to do in a team is basically the team then operates as an individual. So, you want to keep all the separate bits to be able to function together, and the basic psychological processes are: we like people like ourselves. So, when developing an individual, we need to like ourselves and that’s fine, but what we need to do when we’re developing a team, we need to like people not like ourselves.

So, that’s the key difference. So, it’s learning to think positively about yourself in a team situation. It’s learning to deal positively, think positively about people who are the completely polar opposite.

Rachel Salaman: Is it a good idea, then, if you’re an L&D professional, to arrange some kind of team session around this?

Peter Clough: Yes, clearly I would think it’s a good idea but it has to be done sensitively because the mentally tough people would think that’s a great idea. The sensitive people would be less secure about it. So it’s not just a matter of ploughing straight in, it’s measuring, see what’s going on and then thinking of a strategy which works for your particular team.

So, it’s like giving feedback. Think about giving feedback, the sandwich approach works really well for sensitive people, positive, negative, positive. For mental toughness people it tends to annoy them a little bit, they just want to know what the problem or the good bit is.

So, when you’re thinking about a team, throwing everybody together to discuss their innermost thoughts wouldn’t be particularly scary to a tough person, but would be really scary to a sensitive person.

I think what I’m saying, there is a pre-bit before people charge in to letting it all hang out. The starting point is you don’t want to make things worse, and sensitive people by their nature can be vulnerable to social pressures or negative feedback. So, you need a plan.

Rachel Salaman: What do people need to know if they want to use the MTQ48 tool?

Peter Clough: There are two different elements. If people look at the book, there is plenty of stuff on the web. I deal with the academic stuff, so I’m completely independent from a commercial arm or any other element. Doug and I work together but we have different roles. So, through AQR, which is Doug’s company, people can be trained, they can get access to the questionnaire. I’m always happy to answer questions on mental toughness, but my role is the academic element. So, if people want to move forward on it, I can talk about mental toughness and I’m happy to talk until the end of time about mental toughness.

Rachel Salaman: Peter Clough, thanks very much for joining us today.

Peter Clough: Thank you.

About the author

Rachel Salaman

Rachel Salaman

Freelance Podcast Producer
Rachel has been producing Book Insights and Expert Interviews, the latter of which she also hosts, for the past 14 years. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of a media production company, advising on all forms of online audio and video content, and offering full production and post-production services, as well as training and consultation.

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