Mental toughness is a personality trait which has always been known to be important for people and in organizational development but, until recently, has not been well defined or operationalized. It describes “how we think” when things happen to us or around us. Thus, mental toughness has a major influence on how we act and how we feel during times of change, which learning and development (L&D) has seen no shortage of in recent years.

Mental toughness helps us understand why we feel and act the way we do. This builds self-awareness, which is critical for learning leaders and the businesses they supports.

Mental Toughness, Defined

Mental Toughness consists of four components (i.e., “the four Cs”) and of eight related, but independent, factors. These are summarized in Table 1 below.

Mental Toughness Element The Eight Factors
CONTROL Life Control – “I really believe I can control enough of my life to succeed.”
Emotional Control – “I can manage my emotions and make rational decisions.”
COMMITMENT Goal Orientation – “I can visualize what I need to do to achieve and set goals.”
Achievement Orientation – “I’ll do what it takes to achieve my (and others’) goals.”
CHALLENGE Risk Orientation –“ I welcome new and different experiences; I stretch myself.”
Learning Orientation: “I learn from all that I see and do — including from setbacks.”
CONFIDENCE In Abilities – “I believe in my ability to do it — or can acquire the ability.”
Interpersonal Confidence – “I can engage with and influence others.”


Each of us has different degrees of mental toughness on each of these factors. People with high levels across these factors are described as “mentally tough,” and people with low levels are experiencing “mental sensitivity.” This, of course, means that our individual development needs are determined, to some extent by our mental toughness profile.

It is also important to understand that mental toughness is not necessarily strength and mental sensitivity is not necessarily weakness. Although mental toughness can be advantageous in some settings, it is self-awareness that helps individuals optimize their mental approach to events.

It is perfectly possible to have significant levels of mental sensitivity and achieve career success and to have degrees of mental toughness and struggle to perform, depending on your level of self-awareness.

How Does Mental Toughness Manifest in L&D?

Ideally learners should have a sense of self-worth, an inner belief that “they can do it.” It’s also important that learners understand the purpose and value of all learning initiatives. In doing so, they are more likely to be successful.

Consider how each element of mental toughness impacts L&D in the following graphic.

The very nature of learning is to take the learner out of their comfort zone and explore new ideas and develop new skills, which can be challenging and, therefore, requires mental toughness. No two learners will have the same pattern of mental toughness or sensitivity across the factors depicted above and, therefore, no two learners will respond to training in the same way.

If we ignore learners’ mental strengths and weaknesses, we are likely to adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach, which has many limitations in the context of corporate training. However, if we can instead understand and harness learners’ differences and, importantly, build their level of self-awareness, we stand a very good chance of optimizing the learning experience — for everyone.

For some, this is the “holy grail” of learning — treating each learner individually. The same applies to the L&D professional: A sense of self-worth, purpose and readiness to make an effort are important factors for success, as is the capacity to deal with setbacks and adversity, which is reflected in the Control and Commitment factors of the mental toughness framework.

Positivity is another important trait for developing mental toughness, which is what the Challenge and Confidence factors describe. L&D practitioners must be ready and willing to face new and unexpected challenges with a positive outlook, and be wiling to learn from them.

The mental toughness framework is also valuable in understanding why and how the L&D professional engages with learners of all types. For instance, learning leaders who have mastered a subject and found it straightforward enough to do so might not always appreciate the challenges the learner is facing. The mental toughness concept provides a framework through which this can be understood and managed.

Ultimately, the concept and framework of mental toughness addresses something that we have always known to be important: Our attitudes can be as important as our knowledge, skills and intelligence. Building mental toughness, therefore, can position you — and your learners — for success.