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Mental Toughness in Times of Crisis

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

April 11, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

Are you overwhelmed and stressed with all the uncertainty? Do you have the right mindset to address the challenges you and your teams are facing? Are you able to modify your own thinking into healthy emotional and behavioral responses that build resilience rather than bring yourself and others down?

Yes, our organizations are in crisis. There are high levels of uncertainty, important issues and time urgency that are creating great stress and uncertainty. The survival of our organizations is dependent on the ability of the members to persist and persevere in their work, despite the adversity they face. In other words, our employees must demonstrate resilience. As this global pandemic continues, the ability of our employees to withstand the stressors and be resilient is a growing concern for all of us.

Our role as leaders is to create the conditions for our teams to be successful. In this case, to be resilient. Resilience is the ability to make positive adjustments under challenging conditions. It is the ability to adapt, cope and rebound with strength. It is the ability to go beyond the status quo and draw on a wide range of resources to think and act more creatively to navigate the circumstances.

Studies of individual, team and organizational resilience during times of crisis give us some good insights into what we as leaders need to know and focus on. This focus requires mental toughness – the ability to modify our thinking into adaptive emotional and behavioral responses to stress. Two considerations for this time are: 1) stress negatively impacts problem-solving and a leader’s behavior and emotions impact the stress and resilience of their teams; and 2) transformational leadership behaviors enable team members to overcome their own self-interests and perform better in the midst of the crisis. More specifically:

  • Stress tends to narrow our focus and move our attention to past-learned behaviors, making it more difficult to see innovative solutions to problems. It leads to poorer processing of information and decision-making. It gets in the way of resilience. Leaders have a powerful role in decreasing the psychological stress and building the resilience of their team members. Yes, we said “decrease” the stress! The leader’s affect (mood and emotions) impacts the team’s stress. When the leader demonstrates positive affect during times of adversity, team members are more likely to be able to cope, have a greater sense of well-being, and demonstrate greater motivation to continue persevering. Positive examples of affect are attentiveness, satisfaction, calmness, determination, curiosity, interest, strength and inspiration. Negative moods and emotions include disappointment, sadness, irritability, tiredness, anger, discouragement, being upset, depressed or anxious. (Sommer et. al.)

  • Transformational leadership behaviors positively impact the emotions of our team members and their willingness to go beyond their own self-interests and perform at a higher level.

Transformational behaviors to strive for are those that:

  1. Build trust and respect as their source of influence rather than exert positional power or seniority (check your ego at the door);

  2. Demonstrate integrity by walking the talk and behaving respectfully and ethically on stage and off – keeping it real;

  3. Inspire others to rally around a shared purpose;

  4. Encourage innovation through valuing diversity of thought and background and strategically challenging the status quo; and

  5. Demonstrate an investment in people through coaching, teaching and coming along beside them particularly when times are tough.

Leadership styles and behaviors to avoid are those that:

  1. Are primarily focused on monitoring the good and the bad -- rewarding what’s expected (the status quo), punishing deviations and monitoring the negative, such as errors and mistakes (avoiding those “I am so disappointed in you” moments – you are not their mother); and

  2. Are passive-avoidant -- leaving the perception that you are never around when needed, avoid getting involved signaling you have better things to do, and spend the majority of your time reacting and putting out fires rather than proactively managing the events around you.

Maintaining our mental toughness during a marathon crisis requires much of us. It is critical to set boundaries and make choices that enhance our own health and well-being, to include protecting our minds from all the negativity around us. Focus on the positives and the possibilities around you – there are many. Leave worries about the future for another day (why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after) and focus on what you can impact today. Tap into friends that lift you up. Stay away from those who don’t. Help someone in need or let someone help you. Reach out!

Titter Time: sweaty things?

Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.

-- George Carlin

Now it’s your turn. What are ways in which you are building mental toughness in yourself? How are you turning this crisis into an exercise of building resilience? We want to hear from you.


Bass, B., Avolio, B. Jung D. & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting unit performance by assessing transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 207-218.

Sommer, A., Howell, J. & Hadley, C. (2016). Keeping positive and building strength: The role of affect and team leadership in developing resilience during an organizational crisis. Group & Organization Management, 41(2), 172-202.

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