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Success in a recession: Toughen up your mind


Positive attitudeIn the second in her series examining HR’s role in managing the human factor during a recession, Blaire Palmer discusses the importance of a positive mindset and explains that HR professionals have a large part to play in creating an organisational culture which has a ‘can do’ attitude.

It is hard to avoid the doom and gloom of the newspaper headlines or the cries of woe from many in the business community right now. More than ever the media seem to relish in the disaster that is the ‘current economic climate’. It is stock-market crash TV – you don’t want to watch but you can’t help it. Whether it is the continually updated job loss figures, the crisis hitting far-flung corners of the globe or the latest high-street stores closing in your region the negativity is infectious, even if your own livelihood is perfectly secure.

“If you want to maintain levels of success in your business, your people had better toughen up, mentally speaking.”

However, if you want to maintain levels of success in your business, your people had better toughen up, mentally speaking. Those who succeed are able to remain positive despite setbacks. That’s not to say they live in a dream world, ignoring the signs that a bad situation is worsening. But they focus on getting the right mindset and taking the right actions for success, not failure.

So what qualities make someone mentally tough? And how can you bolster the mental toughness of your staff?

Taking responsibility

One of the qualities successful people have is an ‘internal locus of control’. This means they believe the results they get in life are completely due to their own actions. They do not believe in luck. They do not shrug off their achievements by saying ‘Oh, it was nothing’. They do not say ‘I was just in the right place at the right time’. They say ‘I was responsible when it went wrong and when it went right.’

In addition, they expect to succeed. This ‘expectancy effect’ is so powerful that it may not matter whether they have more talent or a better idea than the next person. The very fact that they believe they will achieve a goal means they (more often than not) do achieve the goal. As Henry Ford said “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right”.

Particularly at this time, leaders need to be resilient. They need to be able to take ownership of their results without beating themselves up for failure. Make sure your organisation still recognises those with positive attitudes and a can-do mentality. Companies can develop cultures which recognise critics more enthusiastically than optimists. Observe behaviour in meetings, feedback interviews and problem solving sessions to ensure this is not developing in your business.

True grit

What do you look for when you recruit? Is it evidence of ‘smarts’ such as advanced education and top-of-the-class performance? Or it is extra-curricular activities like climbing Kilimanjaro or volunteering in the developing world?

Research by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that ‘grit’ (defined as passion, commitment and determination) is a better indicator of success than intelligence or talent. All 1,223 cadets due to enter the 2008 class at West Point completed a ‘grit’ questionnaire at the start of their training. It was found that a high score in that test was a better indicator of who would survive the academy’s first gruelling weeks than high school class rank, SAT scores, athletic experience or faculty appraisal scores.

Top grades will show you how well a person perform in the exam room but not necessarily the board room. Give credit for evidence of ‘grit’ and ensure your recruitment and succession planning system doesn’t ignore such evidence in favour of good-on-paper qualifications.

Think big

At times like this it is easy to let fear take over. When people become fearful they lower their sights. Targets become more ‘realistic’, ideas become more ‘manageable’. We may even lower our expectations of people.

Of course, this is no time to be lowering standards of performance. If anything we need to raise standards to compete in challenging times.

“Successful people see opportunities where other people see threats.”

Successful people see opportunities where other people see threats. This isn’t to say they experience no fear. But they don’t let fear make their decisions for them. Being mentally tough enables them to take risks, bounce back from setbacks and set and achieve stretching goals. According to olympic swimmer, author and businessman Adrian Moorhouse, exceptional performance requires an ability to deal with pressure and control potentially debilitating fear.

Ensure those responsible for setting targets and motivating staff are not overcome by fear. Challenge teams to raise their game, set standards higher and return to form after a knockback. Help leaders change their language around ‘failure’ in preference for questions like ‘What did we learn?’ and ‘What would we do differently next time?’.

It is possible to develop mental toughness with the right encouragements and role modelling. And it helps if you occasionally switch channels when the news headlines come on the screen.

Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, ‘The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too’, is published in May 2009 by A&C Black. For more information, visit her website at or her blog at

Previous articles in the series:
Success in a recession: Don’t forget your manners

One Response

  1. Mental Toughness – Good Stuff
    Spot on about taking responsibility, and I do mean taking, as the fear thing often stops folks from offering it out. I recently blogged a short piece, Five Steps to Sanity, which might help with the mental resilience and wellbeing? Great article in a great series. Keep it up!

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