These two phrases are often used interchangeably, especially in the press but also by people development professionals.
However, we tend to be careful about how we describe Mental Toughness for a couple of important reasons.
Firstly, the opposite of Mental Toughness is Mental Sensitivity. The opposite of Mental Strength is Mental Weakness. These are not the same thing.
It is generally the case that the Mentally Tough enjoy (if that’s the right word) an advantage – they tend to achieve more, enjoy better well-being, are more positive and even earn more – and the Mentally Sensitive find the road through life and work more challenging – they can feel every bump on the road with the consequences that brings with it.
Nevertheless, is also the case that there are Mentally Sensitive people who do are successful and do achieve great things and, equally, there are Mentally Tough individuals who fail and experience frustration.
The key is self-awareness. Whether you are Mentally Tough or Mentally Sensitive, being self-aware about who you are and why you think about things in a particular way is the key to being able to do something about your bundle of qualities.
The other reason is equally important. There are potential strengths and weaknesses right across the Mental Toughness spectrum. It might seem fairly obvious that the Mentally Sensitive are open to disadvantages and have weaknesses in terms of what they might seek to achieve, studies are also indicating that they also possess qualities we would describe as strengths.
They are often more aware of potential overload and burnout which can be valuable in team settings. They can be more co-operative – they tend to have lower levels of goal orientation which means they can be effective followers – it’s less likely that there is misalignment of their goals with yours if you are a leader. And they are often creative – because they see and think about the world from a different perspective and bring that to their work. Think of artists and musicians!
Similarly, the Mentally Tough can have potential weaknesses. A high level of Control can mean they think “I can do it, why can’t you?” which is sometimes not very helpful. With the Commitment element, can overcommit and burn out without recognising the warning signs of fatigue.
When it comes to Challenge, they can do this excessively, eventually taking too many risks and sometimes enticed by the next “new” thing before they sort out the thing they are working on. And with the Confidence element, they can be over confident about their Abilities. Where they are Interpersonally Confident, they can drown out the contributions of others – in extreme case emerging as “verbal bullies”.
Tough as it is for the Mentally Sensitive. Much of our work is with senior leaders who have reached apposition of influence – often by dint of their Mental Toughness – who then find they are not as effective as they would like to be particularly in engaging with others.
So, self-awareness, reflection and focused development are important for all.
The world isn’t black and white, there are a multitude of shades and differences when we look at people. The Mental Toughness concept – a key personality trait – and the Mental Toughness Questionnaires make an important contribution to understanding and developing people whether it ourselves or it is others.