In need of finding a public convenience, the driver rolled slowly along the road scanning the surrounding buildings. As he passed the entrance to a shopping village, he swung the car hard to the right, failing to see the fast moving racing cyclist who was mid overtake. Despite the rider’s best efforts to take the turn the car had forced upon him, he failed and crashed into the side of the car and was thrown to the ground.
The intense pain experienced prevented any form of response to the questions posed by the worried bystanders. A few minutes later, he hobbled to the side of the ride to take stock of his injuries and then to examine his bike to see if it was rideable. His intention, if at all possible, was to keep going, but the bike was wrecked. Meanwhile, the driver was in a state of shock and close to tears. Recognising this, the driver sat in his car and poured himself a cup of tea from his flask. The incident had terrified him and he chose to avoid driving through towns for the rest of his journey. After a day on crutches, the cyclist, having sustained significant bruising and a chipped pelvis, was back out on the road training. The driver continued to avoid towns.
Was the behaviour of the rider an example of mental toughness? Resilience? The ability to cope? Or normal behaviour? Was the behaviour of the driver an illustration of mental sensitivity? An inability to cope? Or normal behaviour?
Mental toughness, resilience, coping are all examples of the ‘jingle jangle fallacy’. This delightful concept, in which authors Daniel Gucciardi and Sandy Gordon combined insights from two writers at the turn of the last century, describes commonly used words that may mean different things to different people (jingle) and the use of different terms to mean the same thing (jangle). Mental toughness and resilience are the latest buzzwords that are sweeping corporate life. Requests are coming in thick and fast to help managers be more resilient – but what exactly do they mean by resilient? Are all people using the term in the same way, to mean the same thing?
Don’t get your hopes up by turning to the academic literature. Excellent though much of it is, there is still much work to be done to understand the concepts. For example, consider mental toughness: how much of it is situation specific? To what extent is it transferrable? Does it differ for high achievers compared to the rest of us mere mortals? How do you measure it? Are some people predisposed to be mentally tougher than others? Can you be mentally tough and mentally sensitive or are they at opposite ends of the spectrum? Does it change as you grow older? Until researchers figure all this out, it’s useful to have a rough frame of reference.
Coping seems to be about adjusting the way you respond to deal with those really demanding stressful circumstances. The level of stress experienced by one individual may differ to another. Situations that have little or no stress can be managed, whereas situations that are stressful require you to cope. Thus, for one person a situation may require management, whereas for another it may require them to cope.
Resilience is about coping over an extended period of time. Thus, if you were organising a ‘one-off’ event you might have to cope, whereas if you were having to work through a merger or takeover that lasted many months, then it would require resilience.
Mental toughness is relative. We can’t all be mentally tough. Toughness is towards one end of a continuum. Someone who is mentally tough can cope better than others when faced with the same level of stress. Someone who is mentally tough is less likely to deploy avoidance as a coping technique. Instead they are more likely to find ways of coping that deal with the issue head on, for example, finding ways of coping with sleep deprivation, as well as avoiding it in the first place.
So what of our cyclist and driver? The cyclist was coping with the stress and could be described as mentally tough in that he was interested in working out how to keep going despite the physical and mental stress he was experiencing. The driver was coping too. He took time out to gather his thoughts. He poured himself some tea and for the rest of the day deployed an avoidance coping strategy, by staying away from towns where the same thing might happen again. The clue to the resilience of the cyclist was his decision to go riding so soon after the incident.
What is unclear from the literature is how much of the mental toughness and resilience demonstrated by the cyclist is transferrable to the workplace. Just because he is a resilient cyclist does not necessarily mean he will be a resilient manager. Which elements and how much depend on so many variables, such as the ability to recognise similar circumstances in the workplace and insight into how the lessons from cycling can be applied to work. It is by no means a given.
Coping, resilience and mental toughness are interlinked concepts. It is a complex amalgam of experience, circumstance, learnt behaviour and nature. Organisations thinking about developing the resilience of their people need to be clear on what it is precisely that they want people to develop. Is it the ability to cope over extended periods of time? Does that ability to cope require mental toughness? Should people be developed to deal with a specific situation or is the aim to equip them with a life skill?
In the absence of clarity from the literature, you will need to define what you mean by the terms you use and be consistent. In so doing, you will avoid the jingle jangle nonsense that dominates resilience.
By Dominic Irvine, founder of Epiphanies LLP