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Resilience and Mental Toughness: Is There a Difference and Does it Matter?

"We're wrong if we assume that 'resilience' and 'mental toughness' are one and the same."

Resilience and Mental Toughness different and, although the two are closely related, the differences are significant

Unfortunately, the terms are often used interchangeably which might mean that the desired outcome is targeted but not achieved. Moreover, resilience is often used in the Hoover sense of the word – it describes all vacuum cleaners but isn’t all vacuum cleaners.

The Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines Resilience as 'the ability to recover quickly from difficulties' – either largely or completely. It does not necessarily imply that the person has a positive feeling about the negative situation. It simply means: something has gone awry, but I am going to grit my teeth, pick myself up and I still believe that I can do some or all of what I originally intended – despite this setback – and I am going to do my best to achieve some or all of my goals.

We would commonly describe someone who does this as resilient. Although it will help that an individual is optimistic or positive, this is not a necessary condition for resilience. Consequently, an individual who is resilient but without optimism and confidence can find the going tough and may be more likely to wilt if the requirement is too frequent or too sustained.

Confusingly, the Oxford English Dictionary offers Toughness as an alternative description of Resilience.

In its purest form resilience could be considered a passive or perhaps neutral quality. 'I am resilient but I have to be resilient.' Not 'because I want to be.'

In the late 20th Century, Suzanne Kobasa, an American psychologist looking at resilient managers, found that some responded differently to stress pressure and challenge than others although all sought to be resilient. She found that some adopted a positive approach to adversity and challenge, sometimes even seeking this out. This predisposition towards exposure to challenge and risk often meant that these individuals dealt better psychologically with setback (and repeated setback). Just to add to the confusion she called this Hardiness to differentiate it from resilience.

With Confidence added into the mix what emerged was Mental Toughness. This is defined as 'a personality trait which determines in large part how individuals deal with stress, pressure and challenge irrespective of circumstances.' A mentally tough individual sees challenge and adversity as an opportunity and not a threat and has the confidence and positive approach to take what comes in their stride.

All mentally tough individuals are resilient, but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough

The difference lies in the positive component. Both resilience and mental toughness are developed through experiential learning, either through targeted development, coaching or simply living through life’s experiences.

The outcome is subtly different but important in a world where everyone experiences change, challenge and setback more frequently and more quickly than ever before. Adopting a positive mindset is important – this is about being 'comfortable in your own skin' and accepting life’s ups and downs as part of the journey. It’s part of the process of personal development.

We might usefully think of the difference in terms of the phrase 'survive and prosper.' Resilience helps you to survive (but not always) and Mental Toughness helps you to prosper (but, again, not always).

It matters because the outcome is more positive, leading to:

  • Better performance
  • Better and sustained wellbeing
  • Development of positive behaviours

Singly or in combination these produce better outcomes for organisations and individuals.

Fig. 1: Mapping the 4Cs model to mental toughness and resilience


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