Does mental toughness have any place at work?

First published in The Huffington Post 13 October 2015:

With the recent news of AB InBev’s takeover deal being accepted by the SABMiller board, there will be many in both businesses who will be anxious about their futures. Expressions such as ‘Toughen-up’ or ‘deal with it’ hardly seem helpful. And yet, surviving what will be an intense period of uncertainty surely requires some sort of mental resilience?

Having trawled the literature, it seems to me that mental toughness owes its genesis to inner confidence. Much of it comes from the hard-won lessons of experience. In just the same way as an experienced car driver doesn’t need to think about the basics when driving because they are sufficiently experienced and practiced, elite sports people have an inner confidence about what they can do that is sometimes mistaken for arrogance. But it’s that confidence from experience that is possibly the greatest source of mental toughness and not some predisposition towards toughness arising from an innate capability. So what can we do to generate mental toughness?

It’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on the possibilities a change such as a takeover could bring. It might be the best opportunity in years to demonstrate a facet of your capability. It could be the ideal moment to leave and do something you’ve always wanted to do. Or, it’s the time to think hard about how to secure your future within the new structure.


You need to believe you can cope, not because of some naive “you can do anything” mentality but because you have been through difficult times and challenging moments before and coped. It helps to make the challenge smaller. Breaking it into manageable parts converts it from an incoherent homogeneity of issues into a series of discrete issues, each of which can be either managed or mitigated. Draw on your ability to cope with tough situations in the past. For example ‘Compared to ‘x’ this is nothing like as hard’. Contextualising the challenge in this way, combined with breaking it down into small pieces, will help you develop the belief you will thrive.

Overcome obstacles

When faced with challenges, too often our starting point is ‘can I or can’t I?’ The mindset this creates is giving failure the same value as success. If you change the emphasis to ‘I’m going to’ the question is much simpler – ‘how?’ As with ‘belief’, this doesn’t mean a naive, inappropriate determination. It may however require what some might define as an unreasonable amount of effort to find a way through. But if you don’t expend this effort, you will have all the excuses as to why you failed and you still won’t have the outcome you wanted. Have the right mental approach and do as much work as required to find a way through. Mentally resilient people remain committed to achieving the outcome until they have exhausted every possibility.

You can control more than you think

There are some things you cannot control, like the weather. But you can look at the forecast, look at historical weather patterns and use that information to make a best guess as to what will happen and therefore how to ensure you are properly prepared. In the same way, the AB InBev acquisition of SABMiller is not the first takeover in history, nor will it be the last. Learning the lessons from the history of takeovers will allow you to predict the future to some extent. You may not have control over the big decisions, but you can plan and mitigate the risks as you see them.


Mentally tough people seem to keep the goal they wish to achieve at the forefront of their minds. It’s the most important thing in their life and every decision is oriented around the impact it will have on achieving the goal. If you’ve decided to thrive by demonstrating your ability to be the best team that’s ever managed an aspect of a merger, then never lose focus on what that means and how each and every action contributes to that outcome. Just as if you’ve decided to participate in a demanding sporting challenge, your mind will be pre-occupied with how and when to fit your training into your working week. Whatever your goal, keep it in focus.

Take responsibility

Your performance belongs to you. You can take the best advice from everyone around you but ultimately what you do is your decision – so own that decision and take pride in your choices. No-one can make you do anything you don’t want to do. Equally, no-one can do what you need to do for you. Do not abdicate responsibility for your performance to anyone else.

It’s not easy

Mergers and acquisitions are challenging times for everyone involved. Challenging does not have to mean negative. They may mean a very different future than you might have been anticipating, but better that you own this future through having the mental toughness to cope than become a victim.

© Dominic Irvine 13th October 2015 All rights asserted

If you would like to read more about setting goals read our article here.  You can read more of Dom’s thoughts on Mental Toughness too.

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