The Psychology of Small Business

Mental Toughness at Work

Dr. Brent Macdonald

Small Business and Being “Wonky”

I often wonder if people who are drawn to working in small business environments might be just a little bit wonky. As a private practice psychologist, I too am an entrepreneur and small business owner. My experience has been that you have to have some very unique personality characteristics to make the most of being in a small business. My family were small business owners, so to some extent, I was born into it, but I wonder if there is also some sort of internal, almost genetic, draw for those of us who find the world of small business to be invigorating. Often terrifying but invigorating!

Success in small business often has little to do with product or marketing; it has to do with the psychology of the individual. In my clinical work, I have focused on the concept of mental toughness, those characteristics that help us not only be resilient in tough times but also describe how we approach challenges and risks in the first place.

Mental Toughness: Not What You Thought!

Research in mental toughness has found that those drawn to entrepreneurship tend to have a great deal of Confidence and Challenge, two of the “Four C’s” of mental toughness (the other two being Commitment and Control). Broadly speaking, Confidence speaks to our belief in our own abilities and our ability to influence others, while Challenge relates to our adaptability and our perspective on challenges as being opportunities as opposed to being threats. Commitment relates to our focus and reliability, while Control is essentially our self-esteem – do we feel that we matter and that we have agency, or does the world just “happen” to us?

Mental toughness has emerged largely from the word of sport psychology, which is a branch of psychology that examines the factors related to elite-level athletes. This model has increasingly been adapted to the corporate world and has been emerging in education as well. It is an empirically validated approach that has only recently been making connections in North America. As such, while some of the phrasing associated with mental toughness (buzzwords such as “grit” and “positive growth mindset”) may be familiar, mental toughness is a model that succinctly incorporates solid research related to performance enhancement in a way that allows for growth and change.

Even Gretzky Needed a Coach

Mental toughness can, in many ways, be “coached” in a way very familiar to anyone who has ever played an organized sport or who has taken part in any kind of fine arts or other performance. Even elite-level performers have coaches to further enhance their capacities; mental toughness provides an excellent model for coaching as it builds on a baseline (established by using a psychometric measure known as the MTQ-Plus), which identifies an individual’s relative scores on the Four C’s and allows the individual and their coach to find a way to capitalize on strengths while also building on (or as necessary) avoiding areas of challenge.

All Four C’s of mental toughness have significant application to the entrepreneur/small business owner. Small business is not for the faint of heart; it requires a tough (though not rigid) attitude and worldview. To be clear, mental toughness is not about being “hard” – rather, it is really about being flexible and capable of seeing the opportunities in threats, leading to a much more adaptable way of being.

Mental Toughness at Work

Incorporating mental toughness into your work (and personal) life has many obvious benefits and a few downsides. Mental toughness can also be learned – it is not an inborn trait; rather, it is something that we can nurture and grow both in ourselves and in our teams. For instance, if you find that you are risk averse following a business idea that did not come to fruition, you can learn to take a risk again by really breaking down the “failure” (note: I put “failures” in quotation marks because in the world of mental toughness, while failures certainly exist, they are more likely to be perceived as being learning opportunities than actual terminal catastrophes!). In identifying some of the factors that led to the challenges you experienced, you can learn how to take a more systematic and structured approach to risk, as opposed to simply avoiding risk (which helps no one in the world of small business).

By incorporating mental toughness into your work environment, you are not only providing an excellent model of leadership. You are also empowering those with whom you work to become more confident in their abilities, more willing to take a calculated risk, more accepting of their responsibility both for their successes and their “failures,” and more capable of adapting to change.

Mental Toughness: What’s in it for ME?

Considerable research has shown that those who exhibit higher levels of mental toughness also report higher degrees of life satisfaction, experience less absenteeism, are more productive and engaged at work, have higher incomes, experience fewer symptoms of anxiety & depression, have fewer social challenges, experience higher levels of job satisfaction, and fewer physical complaints. They even sleep better! As an entrepreneur whose brain is constantly generating new ideas while also perseverating on issues such as making payroll, finding new clients, meeting expenses, staffing, and so on, the idea of better sleep is not a minor consideration.

Mental wellness has been an emerging area of focus as entrepreneurs and small business owners start to reflect on the value a mentally well workforce brings to the work environment. Mental toughness is certainly one of the most valuable, most powerful models of enhancing mental wellness that is emerging as a potential major area of support for small business owners who wish to improve not only their own performance but that of their teams as well. It is a model well-adapted to the unique minds of small business owners who actively seek out risk and are constantly looking to improve their performance.

Book Description:  Mental toughness is NOT what you think it is! It’s not about just “sucking it up” or being “hard.” In Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Mental Toughness for Everyone, you will learn about what mental toughness really is and how it can benefit everyone. The book is designed for use in personal and professional development, for work with teams and students, for developing and experienced leaders, and in relationships. Dr. Macdonald incorporates contemporary psychological research, history, pop media and personal stories into a highly readable text that also provides you with a number of strategies that you can start using today to enhance your own mental toughness!


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc., or any of its affiliates. The author’s views and opinions are based upon information they consider reliable, but neither Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc. nor any of its affiliates, warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.

Dr. Brent Macdonald
Lead Psychologist, Macdonald Psychology Group

Dr. Brent Macdonald is a registered psychologist in Alberta, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories, and is a certified teacher with over 25 years of experience working with individuals with a variety of complex psychological profiles and finding ways to enhance the performance and wellness of his clients. He is a sessional instructor in the Departments of Psychology, Continuing Education, and Community, Health & Education at Mount Royal University. He is also an adjunct assistant professor with the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Brent is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (, which in addition to providing counselling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to businesses, educators and parents. Brent has recently published his new book Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Mental Toughness for Everyone with Kendall-Hunt Publishing, available at, Amazon, or through his website at