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Psychological Hardiness

by Jeff Gau on March 10, 2011

In the early stages of the recession, we discussed the potential impact of the stress that would be put on our team as the wheels came off the economy. As the economy continued to deteriorate and the recession dragged into its second year, it had the potential to take a toll on all of us. It’s not fun cutting benefits, laying people off, adjusting compensation plans and other things that need to be accomplished to navigate through difficult times. Beyond the normal activities—like achieving sales and profit goals, growing the business, satisfying clients—it put increased pressure on our leadership team.

This would prove to be a test of the “psychological hardiness” of our company. I’m proud to say we passed the test and not only survived the recession, but became recognized as a company that thrived.

Psychological hardiness is an essential element of leadership. Many professionals have failed and careers have been sidetracked because they lacked the mental toughness to navigate through challenging times.

My First Test
My first recollection of being exposed to emotional stress was when I left the small town of Little Falls at the age of 18 to join the military. This took me way out of my comfort zone into a rigid world of unfamiliar expectations.

I think Boot Camp confirmed to me that I could adapt to a demanding, unfamiliar environment. I recognized at that time that I was pretty strong psychologically and this proved to be an advantage to me later on. I believe to a great extent, individuals are born with that attribute. But that does not mean that leaders cannot improve in this area.

The term “psychological hardiness” was first introduced to me by Gary Marsden, one of Marco’s 
co-founders and one of my personal mentors. This came about during my first exposure to a recession in 1991. It’s interesting how recessions seem to have a way of reminding us of this essential component of leadership.

Testing Yourself
Leaders can actually test their own tolerance and increase their hardiness by intentionally making bold moves that will require them to demonstrate mental toughness. I often did this as a younger executive and still push myself regularly to go beyond my comfort zone.

Several years ago, I took a significant risk when we determined it was necessary to grow Marco’s voice division. We decided to hire a team of veteran professionals prior to having the sales revenue to support the significant financial investment. This posed an element of risk that could impact shareholder value and I take that very seriously. It required that I project confidence as we executed on the 24-month plan.

In hindsight, it looked like an easy decision because it was successful. But at the time, it created stress for all involved. Some of those people left good jobs to join Marco; others left our company due to the stress associated with organizational change. It ended up being a good decision but certainly changed status quo and challenged our psychological hardiness.   

I don’t want to confuse psychological hardiness with having a lack of empathy or emotion. That would mean you are unattached and that’s not good either.  I think it’s important that leaders have an emotional connection to the organization and certainly display empathy.

Being the first to tell a group of unsuspecting employees that Marco has just bought their company and  making a long-term multi-million decision on where to relocate our new corporate headquarters are just a couple of current opportunities that are testing my psychological hardiness. What leadership experiences have tested yours?

Topics: Psychological

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