HR Management & Compliance

Q&A: Harnessing Mental Toughness in Your Employees

Mental toughness can be described as a psychological edge for overcoming challenging situations—and not all candidates possess this quality. Learning how to identify and leverage mental toughness can provide you with a real advantage.

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In this interview, I ask Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D., Principal Scientist and Head of Academic Research and Partnerships at Caliper more about this interesting topic.

HR Daily Advisor: What is mental toughness? Is it something that is only present in athletes?

Schoenfelder: Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables one to cope effectively with challenging situations. In sports, this psychological edge has been defined more specifically as a construct that allows an athlete to cope better than opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sports places on the competitor. That is, mentally tough athletes tend to be more consistent and better than opponents in remaining determined, confident, and in control under pressure. In our research we have discovered 6 personality traits that come together to define mental toughness: emotional control, stress tolerance, resiliency, persistence, attention to detail, and self-efficacy.

While the concept of mental toughness is most often thought of in a sports context, this is a construct that is possessed by, and provides a psychological edge to, many professionals outside of the sports realm. The assessment we use to measure the six traits of mental toughness in pro and college athletes is exactly the same assessment and traits we measure in professionals across a large number of industries, jobs, and organization types. The personality dynamics we measure in athletes also help professionals in such roles as sales and leadership to cope more effectively (and perform at higher levels) with the challenges and stress inherent in the business world.

HR Daily Advisor: Should employers focus on hiring athletes, and if so, for what roles?

Schoenfelder: Many employers and hiring managers are enamored with the idea of hiring former college and pro athletes. The prevailing assumption is that those who have competed at high levels must possess traits such as self-discipline, team focus, mental toughness, achievement motivation, etc. The problem with this approach is that having played sports is not necessarily a guarantee that a particular candidate has any of these attributes. Conversely, there are many candidates who may not have had the physical talent to compete at high levels, but do exhibit personality dynamics consistent with successful athletes. Looking to hire athletes without specific focus on the actual psychological attributes that make athletes attractive candidates in the first place will result in a lot of ‘false positives,’ as well as many missed opportunities.

Certainly, there are types of jobs in which this construct relates more directly to the core requirements of the role. Obvious examples are in the area of public safety (police, fire,etc.). However, success in many sales roles will very much depend on the individual’s ability to be resilient in the face of rejection and failure, manage emotions, tolerate stress, remain persistent in the face of challenges, deal with ambiguity, and exhibit self-discipline.

HR Daily Advisor: I think there is a perception that athletes in college might not be as studious as other students. Do you have any input on that?

Schoenfelder: While a stereotype is often held that student-athletes tend to be less studious than non-athletes, the reality is that there is a lot of variability in the academic performance of student-athletes. Of course, mental toughness is often going to play a role in the academic, as well as athletic success, of student athletes. That is, those athletes who are more persistent, self-disciplined, and take ownership of their own success are not only likely to thrive on the field, but are also more likely to be equal to the challenges of academics.

Additionally, academic focus and performance of athletes varies considerably across programs. For example, Temple University is recognized for the substantial support they provide their student-athletes, especially in the areas of academic support, leadership, and early career professional development. Student outcomes are clear as, during this past academic year,  76% of athletes across all sports posted GPAs of 3.0 or better (43% posting 3.5 or better), with 18 out of the 19 teams posting aggregate GPAs of 3.0 or better (12 of 19 posting 3.5 or better). Unfortunately, this level of support is not provided at all schools

HR Daily Advisor: Can you explain how employers can find mental toughness as a trait among their candidates in general?

Schoenfelder: the personality traits that make up mental toughness can be assessed for in a number of ways during the employee selection process. Structured assessment tools that measure the related traits (emotional control, stress tolerance, persistence, resilience, self-efficacy, attention to detail) is likely to be the most efficient approach. Alternatively, using structured interview guides that asks the candidates to detail examples from their experience that illustrate the related is a highly effective approach to assessing mental toughness as well. The structured interview approach allows the interviewer to identify critical incidences that are indicative of the target traits.

HR Daily Advisor: Is harnessing mental toughness a challenge? If so, where do employers begin?

Schoenfelder: There are a few areas on which employers can focus to harnessing, managing, and even enhancing employees’ mental toughness. The first is assessing individual employees on mental toughness-related traits. Assessing individuals for these traits during the selection process will help maximize the likelihood of success by matching individuals’ traits with the demands of the job and work context.  Assessing existing employees on these same traits helps identify gaps and allows for much more targeted development in areas that support mentally tough behavior.

A second area of focus can be creating an organizational climate in which mentally tough behaviors are more likely to occur. For example, establish a work environment and leadership approach that fosters a learning environment in which team members interpret meaning from mistakes, setbacks, adversity, etc. Leaders should be mindful of how employees perceive their social and work environment, focusing on events and communication that may signal negative outcomes (and thus avoiding behavior), as well as those events and communication that signal positive outcomes (and thus approach behaviors).

A third area in which employers can manage mental toughness is at the individual employee coaching level. Those that foster mental toughness help employees identify those events in the work environment that trigger stress and emotionality. Helping employees become more consciously aware of triggering events also helps them develop better  appraisal and coping strategies during those times of stress.