Are you a mentally tough tech lead?

You might want to start thinking about your mental toughness because it turns out you CAN get stronger

I look everywhere for tidbits or ideas that tech leads can use in their day to day jobs to be more impactful and confident. Psychology Today is one of my favorite sources of cool little insights. Recently, they ran a story on how to assess your “mental toughness,” specifically some work sparked by a psychology professor, Peter Clough, who focuses his research on mental toughness.


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What is mental toughness?

Professor Clough offers this (and probably a lot more):

Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity (Clough et al., 2001, p. 38).

Mental toughness matters, even for tech leads

I don’t think it’s at all a surprise that being mentally tough is a useful character trait when you’re in a leadership spot. For example, as a senior software engineer, you’re going to have moments where you need to push back on management, sometimes deal with snippy coworkers, or sometimes struggle with impostor syndrome. Shoot, even catching some slack on Stackoverflow can sometimes give you an unexpected mental toughness test.

In some of Clough’s own research, he suggests that people CAN be successful in business without being mentally tough—“sensitive” was his description. He also mentions that mentally tough people can be terrible failures in business. So, mental toughness is not a necessary nor sufficient condition to being a great tech lead.

Still, as described in the quote above, there are some advantages to being mentally tough! To name just a few, the first is that, when facing new problems or new challenges, the mentally tough are far less anxious. If you’re a tech lead, it’s great to be a little less anxious when facing the myriad new challenges and problems that first time leaders encounter, but it’s even better if the anxiety gets out of the way and makes you more effective.

The other aspect of mental toughness that pops out to me is that those who have it are relatively unaffected by adversity. I think this is super powerful because, as a tech lead or EM you’re going to face a lot adversity due to your growing skill. Kind of like learning to code for the first time, when you’re not skillful a lot of things go wrong. Having the mental toughness to know you can get through it would certainly be desirable!

How mentally tough are you right now?

The researchers focused on mental toughness have developed a few assessment tools to help you understand. I’ll paraphrase some of the questions from the shorter assessment because I think you’ll get a pretty quick understanding of where you are by just skimming it:

  1. Do you remain calm under considerable pressure?

  2. Do you worry about things before they happen?

  3. Do you have trouble finding enthusiasm for tasks?

  4. How good are you at coping with problems?

  5. Do you feel like you are a “worthwhile” person?

  6. Do you feel paralyzed when there are a lot of competing priorities?

  7. Do you worry for days after making a mistake?

  8. Do you feel like you’re in control?

If you want to actually self-assess yourself, I’ll let you visit the original article yourself here.

The good news is that you can develop your mental toughness

Hey I’ll go first. I’ll say that early in my career, I was pretty low on the mental toughness scale. And then, early in my management career, I was pretty low on it too.

But with a little skill comes confidence. And the realization that, if you work on it, you can develop you’re own mental toughness.

In other words, if you’re wondering if people are “just born with it,” they’re not. You can develop your mental toughness. Let’s talk more about that in the days and weeks to follow!

The Podcast 🎧

By the way, I refreshed the podcast on tech lead coaching and talked about mental toughness. Click here to listen!


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