Season 2: Episode 13 – Mental Toughness in Crisis
Jason West: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. My name’s Jason West and joining me again this week is Lucy Finney, who heads up the leadership development area at Underscore. Lucy, welcome. Thanks again for coming on. As like last week’s episode we’re putting the transformation podcast on pause for a few weeks to focus on crisis management now.
COVID-19 raises stark questions about technology, supply chains, staffing, leadership, sustainability, skills and resilience. And these questions won’t go away when the virus abates, and many need to be addressed right now.
Last week we talked about some of the practical steps you can take to best manage your response to a crisis and navigate a path through to recovery. This week we’re going to get a bit more personal and talk about the psychological and emotional impact a crisis has on us as individuals, and also on members of our teams. Specifically, we’re going to delve into the really fascinating area or Mental Toughness and how we can apply learning from this field of academic study to better manage a crisis. So, what exactly is mental toughness and where did it come from?
Lucy Finney: So, mental toughness is used today to determine how individuals will perform when exposed to stress, pressure, and challenge. It’s actually frequently used to refer to any set of positive attributes that help a person to cope with difficult situations. I really like that definition because that’s the way I describe mental toughness.
It is something that has been growing over time as a field of study and a field of thought. But it actually emerged from the sports arena, back in the 90s for outdoor pursuits, and also the way we used to develop people and leaders; there was thought there on what it is to be mentally tough. And from that it was actually taken across into the business area by series of researchers which bought it to the guy that actually coined the first phrase ‘mental toughness’. That was a guy called Jim Loehr (pronounced Loor); he is an American athletics coach and he became the first person to define mental toughness, as ‘the ability to consistently performed towards the upper range of your capabilities, regardless of circumstances.’ So it‘s about consistently performing at that upper range and that’s where it came from, from sports. As I say he was a sports coach who came into the outdoor pursuits world, and then it came across into the business world picked up by Peter Clough who is from Hull University. He did research on leaders in the UK Customs and Excise field and identified a number of factors, which are called the Four C‘s in mental toughness, around how people actually perform in the business field and perform in terms of their leadership.
Jason West: So, if you are one of those people sent on a leadership session off site and you went to one of those Outbound centres, your sacrifice it turns out was worth it. Something positive has come out from that experience.
Lucy Finney: Yes, something positive has come out of it; it was very popular as a field of activity back in in the 1990s. And then what happened was a lot a of places sad “oh no, that’s not the thing to be used to try and develop people. We need to have other things.” And that is true, we do need to have things that are a bit more equality oriented, outdoor pursuits is not for everybody, sending everyone out there in the tougher elements.
My curiosity in it is because I do have that background of the sports and the outdoor pursuits. But for quite a while I drifted away from using that in my leadership training, but actually, more recently working with Thales UK, for example, as their leadership development consultant, we used it a lot in our leadership training. And I’d actually say that it does really help to develop people’s mental toughness. It is still appropriate, and I found a lot of leaders out there still call for it, still enjoy it, still like it. Because we have a thing in leadership development today, called ‘challenge by choice.’ You don’t actually always have to do all the activities.
Whereas back in the 90s it was a bit like that, they’d just march you across the hills, whereas ow you can actually say “no” if you don’t want to do that. It is OK to say “no.”
Jason West: Excellent. As with anything that starts in academia and then becomes commercially available, there is always a model that underpins it, so I guess there’s a model that underpins mental toughness. What does that look like?
Lucy Finney: Yes, there is. There is a very nice model, quite easy to remember, because it bases itself around what’s called ‘the Four C’s’ of mental toughness, which is Confidence, Control, Commitment and Challenge. And what each of these mean is things like, for Confidence it’s yourself self-awareness, your self–belief, your personal confidence, and your confidence in how you interact with other people.
In terms of Control it’s how much we reveal our emotions in a stressful situation. In a difficult, challenging situation and how much we think we can shape the world and what is happening around us.
Whereas Commitment is more about being outward focused, and it’s how we respond to goals and targets. Do we be stick at them and persevere? And, again, it comes from sports field, so it’s about top athletes, and you’re never going to be a top athlete if you don’t stick at things.
Jason West: So that’s where the whole ‘grit’ thing comes in, I guess.
Lucy Finney: Yes, that’s what the whole ‘grit’ thing comes in, absolutely. And then Challenge is the fourth one, and that’s about how you see the world, and the important aspect of mental toughness is your perception of the world around you. Do you see the world in a positive way? Do you see the world with opportunities rather than threats? So, it’s a huge mindset element. And as they did their research on this, in the sports field and then the outdoor field, when they linked up the physical performance with the mental performance, and then went on to study about how we can work on our mindsets to improve our physical performance.
Long ago it used to be; just get more physically fit. Then mental was added to it, and now we know that in the business world people have finally got the message that “it’s not just about you being physically fit for your job, you need mental fitness as well.”
And that’s right up to the Royal family, talking about this, mental fitness and leading the way with that. So, it’s very current, very much a current field of study in psychology.
Jason West: Yes, and when did that whole psychological part of competition come into sports? How long ago was that now?
Lucy Finney: Well, it’s a very good question. I can say – though I’ll have to give away a few things here about my age [LAUGHS] – but I went to University back in the 80s, that’s the 1980s, by the way [LAUGHS]. I went to Loughborough University, and there I did a degree in PE, Sports and Recreation Management, and as part of that we studied sports psychology. So it really started to come through originally from the NHS back in 50s and 60s, and then moved into sport in 70s and was really was picking up momentum in the 80s.
When I look back now, it was some of the early things we were studying there, but there was a growing field in the psychology of sport, when the two [mental and physical] started to really become connected.
Jason West: And in terms of actually applying this, I understand that there’s a psychometric tool that’s been developed to measure mental toughness. Before we get into that, and we will get to it, I think it is probably worth just describing what a psychometric tool is and how do you go about it, and what’s the benefit of using one?
Lucy Finney: yeah so, a psychometric tool is, to keep it very simple, it’s a questionnaire that’s created by psychologists. And what happens is, they design a number of dimensions to measure part of your personality. These are often underpinned by something called the Big 5 or the Five Factor Model; it’s easy to remember the Five Factor Model because you remember by the acronym OCEAN, so its Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion as opposed to introversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Those five dimensions of psychology go right back to Jungian times, and they are used and pulled through the psychometrics.
From that, depending on the organisation that has developed it, you get a whole range. There are a number of famous psychometrics out there at the moment, one of the best known is the one developed by the Oxford Psychology Press which is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or there’s something called FIRO, which is a Frequent Interpersonal Relations Orientation model. There are 16 personality factors, and there are new organisations out there that use this, and divides the Big 5 into eight aspects of personality, and so on.
And what they do is, they design a questionnaire, usually there’s about 140 questions plus in these things. They are quick answer things, with ‘either or’ questions and you are encouraged to answer them as you are at your most relaxed. You go through the questionnaire, and then there’s a fancy thing, the algorithm at the back that pulls it all out into a series of statements, and links them up. Because sometimes you’re asked in these questionnaires, you might be asked a question one way, and then later on, maybe 20 questions later, you’re asked it another way. They try to take bias out of it, so the best psychometric tools take out bias, or use other phrasing if you don‘t understand the question, and these are all good weights and balances. So, in the end you get a fairly good picture of your personality in terms of maybe how you search out information, how you process information, how you make decisions, how you live your life.
For example, are you someone who likes to keep things open and go with the flow? Or do you like to make decisions quickly? There’s so many insights and each model gives you a different read out.
Jason West: In more normal times, how would those psychometrics have been applied in a business setting?
Lucy Finney: I’ve got qualifications in eight different psychometrics and over the years I’ve seen them evolve and change, and I’ve used them in different ways. Mostly they’re used in leadership development programmes, and they used to help people understand themselves, and understand what drives their performance. Because your personality preferences drive your behaviour and your performance, and if it was in the mental toughness model I described earlier it’s around that confidence element. So, know yourself, be self–aware and then how do you understand others and then you adapt your approach to try and help others improve their performance.
Jason West: So, if I take a psychometric test in mental toughness, it’s going to tell me where I score versus a ‘norm group’ of the general population against control, commitment, confidence, and challenge, probably broken down in a more granular way. That tells me who I am and how I react to situations, but you’re saying that you can apply that to teams as well?
Lucy Finney: I’ve taken previously used tools, where you would just get a psychometric reading and read the report on yourself, and often people didn’t do anything with it. But I’ve used some of those tools for years to then say “well okay, what’s going to happen if person X over here behaves this way, or person Y over here behaves in a different way.” And we get people to discuss things and how their psychometric output, their personality preference, makes them behave in a different way.
It’s a bit like saying “So, what was the impact of that on someone else?” Now, some of the more sophisticated modern psychometrics will actually provide team profiles. So, they will actually show how everybody operates in what’s called your ‘normal everyday preference’ or when they might maybe change their behaviour when at work or how they operate under stress, and you see that happening for whole teams. So, you take a psychometric that you can put onto a whole profile picture and begin to understand the dynamics in a team.
Jasone West: Yes, and spot the gaps as well, because if you’ve got everybody thinking in a particular way, that could be problematic.
Lucy Finney: Yes, because when it comes to problem solving there is a way in which different elements of personality have strengths in the different parts of a problem solving process. So, what are you doing normally when you come to solve a problem, you need to break it down a bit, and then you need to work on the problem, and then you need to bring your ideas back together again. And that’s the fundamental simple thing of problem solving, it‘s called ‘divergent thinking’ and ‘convergent thinking’ and some people think divergent, some people think convergent. And when you look at the results of the psychometric, why when you come to problem solve as a team, people are pulling in different directions. Because they think differently.
Jason West: Yes, which is fine, it’s just how you organise that, and as long as the team members are aware of it, and they play to each other’s strengths rather than getting frustrated. So, we’re getting into some of the ‘how do you actually apply it to managing a crisis’ so before we carry on, we because we were going down a particular path there. But just stepping back for a second, if we look at this from that kind of 60,000 foot view, how can you apply mental toughness to managing a crisis?
Lucy Finney: If we’re going back to the particular psychometric, and I’m not sure if I actually said the title of the one that I referred to, which is called Mental Toughness Quotient, or MTQ48. So that’s what I’m talking about here, there’s also one where you can find out more deeper detail, called MTQ plus.
Jason West: What does the 48 signify?
Lucy Finney: So, the 48 refers to within the MTQ questionnaire, there 48 items which you answer. They take about 10 minutes to complete, so it’s not a long questionnaire to do, it’s mostly completed in an online format, and at the end, you get this expert report that comes out, that describes based against those 48 items, it gives you an measure of your mental toughness, and wraps it up into the four C‘s. It’s pretty detailed, and it’s been highly researched and validated and used, which is what these psychometrics do, they do a vast amount of research against large groups, to make sure that they are not any elements into that are too extreme or cause bias to come out. So, it’s very detailed.
Jason West: Yes, so ideally, if you were heading into a crisis you would have already done your MTQ48, and you’ve got a good understanding your level of mental toughness and where your strengths and weaknesses are, but also for your team.
But perhaps, you haven’t done that, so how do you best practically apply this mental toughness model to manage in crisis?
Lucy Finney: So, something that’s very important to note and something I like about this model, is it doesn’t stop at the psychometric. It actually does take into consideration wider factors in your life, so your education, your experience, how you grew up. All those factors are all built in, and so when we’re talking about a person approaching crisis, we talk about the whole person. It’s not just one element, it’s not just their mind, it’s also their hearts and how they approach a situation, it’s their mindset in the situation. You might not know any of these things, in terms of the structure I’m talking here, but everybody from the moment they were born has developed, or started to develop their mental toughness.
Resilience is a part of mental toughness, acquired quite early on. Children are quite resilient, well known for bouncing back, but as they get older they start to think a bit more, they take a dive a little bit sometimes or take a bit longer. But they do get stronger and stronger. And young peoples’ characters are developing all the way through to 20/21 years old, and some of the main parts of their character are developed very early on, 0-4 years old, I think they say.
But one important thing to know about the type of psychometric I’m talking about here, is that it talks about our personality traits being ‘plastic’, and they are traits. So, they do develop as we go through life, and life affects you differently. One of the dimensions in there is extraversion/introversion and sometimes you get people saying “well I was really loud and talkative when I was young and I’m quieter.” I’ve even seen people LinkedIn and the like that say “I thought before lockdown I was quite an extrovert, but I’m discovering through all these webinars I’m actually quite an introverted person.” And that’s a trait, you’re not ‘either or.’ Circumstances in life affect you differently.
So, going back to your question, people’s mental toughness evolves throughout life. It is affected by life experiences, hence in the model I’m talking about, there is a measurement looking at some of your beliefs, and looking at the control element, how much do you think you can influence the world around you? Things like that, so it’s not just an inner thing, it’s an outer aspect too. We all have a degree of mental toughness in a crisis. I think the one that add to this, from my military background, and you often hear the phrase “emergency services people, when they see trouble, they go towards it and not away from it.” And one of the things happening there is purely and totally their training kicking in. They’ve gone through so much training to deal with emergencies, it becomes faster and they are able to tackle these crises; where other people might take 15 minutes to process a situation, they have done it in a minute. And that’s just practice, practice, practice.
What I’d say is you can get better in terms of your mental toughness, by coming outside your comfort zone and practice, practice, practice.
Jason West: There’s an element of knowing yourself and being able to work on that head of a crisis. What about as you’re in the midst of a crisis, what are the lessons that you can learn from actually delving into that mental toughness piece, and then how do you apply it?
Lucy Finney: Yeah, so when you get into the midst of real crisis and you’ve rushed into that situation, you’ve acted, then you may have a moment to look up and think “Oh my goodness there is so much more here going on than I realised.” That fear can kick in, and when we’re talking about developing mental toughness, it is about the deeper elements of this are developing things like anxiety control, helping with attentional control, helping with focus. It’s that, what sports people call it, ‘being in the zone.’
If you think of things like the kicker in rugby, who’s got that classic kick to win the World Cup, it’s all down to that one person, they’re applying all the visualization, anxiety control, attentional control. They’re applying all of that to make sure that they kick that ball between the posts. So, it’s about learning through practice, and understanding these techniques, how to really control. And control is also partly, in a stressful situation, about controlling your reactions.
Jason West: So, clearly there are lots of different ways that you can apply mental toughness to a crisis. We just touched on quite a few there, but what are the top three takeaways that you’d want people to know about mental toughness and applying it to a crisis?
Lucy Finney: I think first thing would be to start to understand the subject of mental toughness, what it’s about, and what its dimensions are. Then, in terms of developing your own mental toughness, and the first C in this, your confidence, is if you haven’t ever taken a psychometric, and there are things like the MTQ48 and other psychometrics, but it’s taking something like that with a professional who will give you feedback, and help you start to understand yourself. That’s the first thing.
And then it’s a process of being coached through the challenges that you might face as you’re going through these situations.
And I think the third thing that I would say is in everything you do, is having that mindset that you’re going into it to learn, and it’s like a learning cycle: you need to think about what you’re going to do. Often in crisis we will act, and then we’ll think, but the point is here we need to reflect, and we need to look back, and we need to learn and we just think “what did I do well? But also what didn’t I do well? And what could I do differently?”
I think of it in terms of the mental toughness, in terms of my confidence, my control, did I lose all my emotions in the middle of that, you know cry all over the place? Or is it the commitment, that I just lost will to carry on? Or did I not really have the right mindset towards that challenge?
Jason West: It’s really interesting because what you’re describing is having that coaching as you go through a crisis. You know, tennis players have coaches, there are golf coaches and driver coaches in motorsport, and ideally it would be great if you were heading through a crisis for the first time, and you’ve not done any of this stuff, actually having that kind of structured support around you from people that have managed crises for a living. To give you that coaching and guidance as you step through it. That would obviously be helpful. So, interesting concept, maybe people should look into that.
If our listeners would like to know more about mental toughness, where can they go? What can they do? How do they go about learning more about that?
Lucy Finney: So, we do run webinars, we continuously run one called Introduction to Mental Toughness, that will always be available to book on our website. That’s a free one to learn more about it and see the model.
If you then decide you like it, there’s various options for signing up for several others; there’s a virtual learning we run on mindset and emotional control, another one on decision making under stress, another one on performance and fear and fatigue, and then I have another one especially relevant at the moment: a brave new world of mental toughness survival skills, which dives much more into the dimensions of positive thinking, visualization, anxiety control in that.
So, we’re running those at the moment, and also you can visit the website if you wish to take a psychometric; there’s a whole page full of what they all are, and which you can take, and what they’ll do for.
Jason West: Yes, we will put those links to the website into the show notes, so have a look there or go to underscore–group.com/virtual– training, and you’ll find a whole load of more information around those virtual training courses there.
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Thanks again for listening this week; we will have a bit of a ponder about whether we’re going to do another one for next week. If there’s a particular area you’d like to know more about when it comes to crisis management please get in touch either via LinkedIn to connect with me, Jason West, or Lucy Finney, or contact us through our website.
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