Developing Mental Toughness to Improve Mental Health

The brain at work - mental health and mental toughness

Mental Toughness – Does it Make a Difference to Mental Health?

There’s a lot of focus on mental health at the present time. Rightly so, given the devastating impact poor mental health can have on people. But how do you, as a business, show leadership in this area? How do you stop reacting to problems and get ahead of the issue, so that your people remain healthy and mentally resilient? And if you do take steps to actively improve the mental health of your workforce, is there a bottom-line benefit?

In our view, one strategy could be to start developing mental toughness across the organisation. This will help people – from the boardroom to the shop floor – develop their resilience, their ability to face challenges head-on and to thrive under pressure. Mentally tough people – not tough or macho so please don’t get mental toughness confused with the common perceptions of being tough because it’s not that at all – just function better! In general they:

  • feel more in control of their lives.
  • are accountable and responsible for their actions rather than seeking to blame others or life itself.
  • believe that what they do makes a difference and as such don’t feel helpless or out of control.

Studies also show an explicit link between higher levels of mental toughness and higher levels of performance, so there’s a definite business benefit to be had here as well. And for leaders, high levels of mental toughness can really set you apart and improve your effectiveness. This is particularly true as it’s often lonely at the top…

Going back to mental health itself, there are lots of statistics that support the business case for investing in an organisation’s employees. The Mental Health Foundation’s website provides a good snapshot:

Get in touch to find out more about how our mental toughness and other workshops can help your organisation thrive: / 0330 133 133 8

LinkedIn icon

Mental Toughness, Leadership and the Long Distance Runner

In the first of a series of articles relating to Mental Toughness, Jason Skelton of Yeast gives an overview of the principles of Mental Toughness and how they help to distinguish between those who achieve success and those who fall short, those who out-perform their perceived potential and those who fail to fulfil it.  Future articles will go into more detail on the individual components of Mental Toughness and how they contribute to superior performance.

Mental Toughness is often referenced when describing successful sportspeople but it is also often confused with resilience or vaguer terms such as determination, willpower or character. At least there is recognition that the mental side of things is a major differentiator in elite level sport and increasingly, it is acknowledged that mentally strong people tend to be over-represented at the top levels of business.

One of the key differences with Mental Toughness compared with willpower or character is that it is measurable and can be increased, to drive increased performance. There are 4 key components to overall Mental Toughness, known as the 4 Cs of Mental Toughness:



Control (incorporating emotional control and life control)

Confidence (incorporating confidence in abilities and interpersonal confidence)

So how do these relate to endurance running and in turn, leadership? Well, let’s start by describing these terms to illustrate the similarities, and then I’ll give a personal example of how Mental Toughness helped me in my toughest challenge to date…

Long distance running: hour after hour of potentially unrelenting pain, an often solitary experience, with opportunities to give up every step of the way

Leadership: day after day of unrelenting responsibility, often in very challenging circumstances and often accompanied by a sense of loneliness or isolation, particularly at the very top.

To succeed at both, it’s clear that you will need resilience, which we can think of as an ability to cope with all the bumps in the road, the setbacks that you will invariably face, the pain or stress of the journey.  But this is a rather passive and reactive state – things happen to you, rather than you making them happen – and it is rare to find either a runner or a leader that hasn’t gone looking for their particular challenge.  So, we can start to infer that mentally tough people actively seek out challenges to test themselves in difficult situations.

Furthermore, they are happy to take on such challenges – in fact, they get a real buzz out of them – as they have an unshakeable belief in their ability to overcome whatever obstacles are
put in their way – they have confidence in their ability to perform and to succeed.  Having this confidence also allows them to have the necessary commitment to see things through – they commit to making it to the finish (of the race, the project etc) without getting discouraged and giving up, almost irrespective of the pain or sacrifices required.

When the going gets tough, mentally tough people remind themselves that they set the agenda, that they have actively put themselves in this situation and that they’re not passive “victims of circumstance.”  They exhibit high levels of life control and take responsibility for their situation and their actions.

All of the above can be applied equally to business leaders and to endurance athletes and we work with CEOs, MDs and board level directors to improve their effectiveness and the performance of their people and businesses, through the application of the Mental Toughness techniques.

What about Mental Toughness and how it helped me recently? Well, I’ve just finished my first ultra-marathon, running 100km non-stop at the iconic Race to the Stones, completing it in a  respectable 14 hours and 15 minutes.  Given that the furthest race I’d previously entered was a half marathon (21.1km), and I only entered with 8 days notice, it was only my high levels of mental toughness – particularly challenge, commitment, confidence in my abilities and life control – that enabled me to deliver a good performance.  My darkest time came around 80km when my legs had basically gone and I had to dig deep to summon the energy and strength to keep going and actually accelerate towards the finish.  I am convinced that my understanding of Mental Toughness and my work in developing it over recent years made the difference between me and better, stronger runners who underperformed or pulled out.

Mental Toughness does really make a difference to performance and if you’d like to find out how it can help you and your business, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Yeast: Peter Wortley / Jason Skelton

0330 133 133 8  / @YeastCoaching

Boost Productivity, Increase Engagement and Transform Your Profitability – Why You Need to Create a Culture of Commitment in Your Organisation!


Imagine this scenario:

One of your team has made a mistake that has jeopardised your team’s chances of winning an important piece of business that the team has been pursuing for quite some time.  How do you, as the boss, react?

  1. You impart some full and frank – and very public – feedback to that team member, highlighting that mistakes like this are unacceptable and that, in this team, failure is not an option.  You make it that person’s responsibility to fix the mistake and do what it takes to win the business or face consequences.
  2. You laugh it off, your attitude being that mistakes happen after all, we’re all human aren’t we? You are keen to ensure that people know failure is not stigmatised in your team, so you chalk it down to experience and move on to winning a new piece of business.

We’ve all worked in teams with bosses like react like the boss in option 1 – some of you reading this might actually be bosses like this and are quite happy to be seen in this light.  High performance, no room for failure, only winners need apply!  I’ve worked for managers like this and I can truly say, it’s not a great place to work and being motivated only by the fear of negative consequences is not sustainable in the long term.

Increasingly however, these attitudes are no longer being tolerated either by the organisations in which these types of bosses reside or by team members or potential team members.  Reward structures are being recalibrated to be more qualitative – how were these results achieved? – as well as quantitative – what results were achieved?  And employees are increasingly disinclined to put up with autocratic/bullying behaviour in the workplace, choosing to gravitate to teams and/or organisations that support them as individuals as well as employees.

So if option 1 really isn’t an option anymore (if indeed it ever was), should you as a leader within your organisation adopt option 2 in such a scenario?  Let’s take a look.

The problems with choosing the response summarised in option 2 are many and can be as damaging to your organisation in the long term as the borderline sociopathic behaviour outlined in option 1.

Consider this: the employee in question, the one that has made the mistake that has jeopardised winning the business, may not suffer the public humiliation of being dressed down in front of his/her peers, but may have no way of knowing how to avoid making a similar mistake in the future under this scenario.  Moreover, there may be no incentive to improve performance given that the message given is that mistakes are OK and we’ll just forget it and move on.  If you believe, as I do, that no-one turns up to work looking to fail or do a poor job and make mistakes, then the absence of the ability to learn from this experience will be intensely frustrating.

And consider the negative impact of the well-intentioned “no blame” attitude adopted by the team leader on the other members of the team.  If they’ve worked hard or are in other ways invested in the team successfully winning this piece of business, then they will be frustrated and de-motivated by this lost opportunity.  If they are the types of people who want to be successful and perform at a high level, then they will not tolerate working in a team that doesn’t match their performance expectations.  And your organisation wants to attract, retain and develop high performing team players doesn’t it…?

By now – in fact probably when you read the two choices initially – you will have realised that neither option is a good choice and that there is a middle ground that plots a course between these two extremes.  If neither response to the hypothetical scenario is optimal, what is the right way to react in these circumstances?  Well, with the caveat that in the real world, it will depend on the specific situation, the context and the team member(s) involved, to name but three factors, consider the following approach and see whether you’d agree that it addresses the performance issue, seeks to make a benefit of the mistake made, and positions the team for success in the future:

The Perfect Response?

You, as the manager of the team, have already instilled a culture within the team that acknowledges that mistakes happen given the complexity of the work that is being done, so that mistakes are self-reported in order that identical/similar mistakes can be avoided.   In this instance then, the employee flags up the mistake and explains to the team leader and his/her peers WHAT went wrong, WHY it went wrong, HOW it can be remedied and WHAT can be learned so as to avoid a similar mistake in the future.

All team members contribute to the discussion to arrive at a solution that they’ve all helped devise and thus all taken on board and buy into.  Everyone then knows that ,whilst mistakes happen, a repeat mistake would not be acceptable to the team, given that everyone is expected to have learnt from the experience and that the team embraces high performance standards.

The manager should also look to coach the individual as part of this process to ensure that commitment levels remain high, that the employee has closure on the mistake and is focusing on the future rather than dwelling on a past event that can’t be changed, and that any learning gaps are identified and addressed.  A good leader will also critically examine his/her role in the process that led to the mistake:

  • Perhaps too much responsibility or decision-making was delegated?
  • Maybe communication was imperfect and the mistake was due to a misunderstanding?
  • Or was the mistake only a mistake in hindsight?

This latter explanation is a really interesting point that brings the concept of “outcome bias” into play – i.e. we focus on the outcome and decide that a decision was wrong based on a negative outcome (or conversely that a decision was correct based on a positive outcome) rather than examining a decision in the context of when it was made and what information was available to support the decision at the time.  In our example, did the team member make the correct decision based on the known information and it was only subsequent events or information discovery that appeared to make the decision seem incorrect?  If that is indeed the case, then no mistake has been made and it is your job as a leader to ensure that all team members are aware of this.

Unfortunately I, and I suspect many of you, have worked for managers who function entirely on the principle of outcome bias, which is a hugely stressful and demoralising environment in which to work.  If you know that much of what you do will be judged with the benefit of hindsight and any mistakes or errors – which we now know were not errors or mistakes at all at the time – will be held up for all to see and be used as a stick with which to beat you, I’m guessing that you will very quickly lose commitment and engagement with your work and with the organisation.  At this point, work becomes purely transactional – an employee turns up, does the minimum that is expected and nothing more, and gets paid their wage or salary in return.  All the while, he/she is casting around for a better employer, for a more enlightened and progressive organisation that encourages engagement, actively fosters a culture of commitment and seeks to develop its employees.

If the above sounds familiar – hopefully as a result of your experience at a prior organisation rather than what you are seeing in your present role – then how do you go about ensuring that your company stands apart from its competitors and develops a culture of commitment?

The answer is both straightforward and difficult. Straightforward in that the correct approach is easy to identify but also challenging as changing organisational culture is notoriously difficult.  Going from a culture that vilifies mistakes and thus tacitly encourages employees to cover up errors (with the result that the same mistakes are repeated as no-one has the opportunity to learn from them) to one that accepts that mistakes are an inevitable consequence of complex systems such as the world of work, and uses them to develop organisational and individual knowledge, thus boosting engagement and commitment, is extremely challenging.

It also takes time to deeply embed this approach – anything superficial won’t last and any benefits gained will dissipate over time as the previous culture re-asserts itself.  If you’re thinking that adopting the coaching approach to leadership outlined in the third option previously outlined will take up too much time, just consider how time consuming and unproductive it is to repeat the same mistake or how much of a drain on productivity a high level of employee turnover is.  Then compare how much of a benefit it would be to your company to have engaged and committed employees who go above and beyond to contribute to organisational success.  Moreover, how big an advantage would it be to be recognised as a progressive and forward-thinking employer that is committed to high performance (thus attracting high performers) whilst also nurturing employees to realise their full potential?

If, as a leader within your organisation, the benefits of a commitment culture are becoming obvious to you, then you need to start to think about instilling a coaching culture within your organisation TODAY.   As ever, you need to lead by example and set the agenda, to demonstrate that the culture of your organisation is going to change and that this change starts at the top but will ultimately affect everyone.  Recognise that this will be difficult and unsettling for some people and be prepared for, and welcome, feedback from everyone.  It may be that your journey to transform your organisational culture is a long one – many factors such as size, history, type of industry, employee demographics etc will influence the time it takes to embed the change – but keep the end goal of a culture of commitment and the resultant benefits – improved productivity, improved engagement, improved profitability – firmly in mind.

As your business seeks to thrive in an ever more complex and competitive marketplace, make your organisational culture a compelling competitive advantage that will drive your success in 2017 and beyond.


About Yeast

At Yeast, we specialise in Leadership & Management development and organisational culture transformation, in helping organisations achieve their business objectives through our bespoke coaching and training interventions.  From one-off assignments to ongoing engagements, we work with clients to make leaders, teams and organisations more effective, more productive and more resilient.

If you’d like to find out more call us on 0330 133 133 8 and speak to one of our Senior Partners about how we can help your business thrive.  Or email us at and we’ll be in touch.

Twitter: @YeastCoaching