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Wanted: Employees With Grit

Grit might not roll off the tongue when identifying admirable employee traits, but perhaps it should.
Cowboy hat, against an old barn background.
Some people seem to have all the luck. They land the enviable job. They fly over life’s hurdles while others get stuck, and overcome obstacles to achieve remarkable things. Although their peers have equal intelligence and similar opportunities, they might not fare as well in life. Why? Brains aren’t everything. The answer to this type of success might lie in possession of another trait: grit.
An evolving area of behavioral psychology, grit can be loosely defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. It’s our ability to remain unshaken in pursuit of objectives and our stamina in the face of adversity. People with grit not only ride out the rough times but also emerge stronger and performing better. Setbacks don’t set them back. Their sheer determination means they consistently achieve the toughest of targets.
Research shows grit can be a better predictor of long-term success than IQ and conscientiousness. Talented people stop where gritty people continue. Men with higher grit levels are even more likely to stay married. Another study links it with children’s success in a Scripps National Spelling Bee. Another paper published in the journal of Military Psychology states that grit and hardiness predict persistence and achievement in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Essentially, people with grit reach higher levels of education, stick at their jobs longer, are more committed to their employers and work harder.
Research from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, conducted this year shows that grit has a significant effect on work performance. Across a wide variety of roles including sales, marketing, client services, finance and human resources, people who were grittier had higher self-rated performance.
Workers with high levels of self-belief and confidence in their ability to succeed were more likely to display higher levels of grit, as were workers who had good support from their managers, team and company. The best environment, therefore, to strengthen grit in others is one that promotes confidence and self-belief and actively develops a culture of social support.
Recognizing and celebrating grit is key because rewarding a moment of grittiness in one employee can foster it in others. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America, or CTCA, a peer-to-peer program creates a socially supportive working environment to recognize those moments when someone achieves the remarkable against the odds. Colleagues are nominated, appreciated publicly and rewarded.
When the cancer care organization opened a hospital in Georgia in 2012, 92 percent of the leadership team was new to the organization, and the hospital was experiencing accelerated growth. Learning leaders launched an extensive leadership development program for managers, and perseverance was the major theme to assist managers in opening the new cancer hospital.
“Passion for delivering the highest standard of care consistently, in the face of adversity, is an attribute we encourage every employee to demonstrate,” said Princess Cullum, CTCA’s senior manager, leadership and culture. “Grit is embedded in everything we do because we’re fighting for patients who are literally fighting for their lives.”
Cullum said grit makes up for a lot of what someone might lack in qualifications and current skills. “We can always train and develop people, but the desire to succeed, the perseverance, is the most important thing for us.”
Identifying Grit
American Express Global Business Travel is one of many companies piloting tools to test for grit during the interview and assessment stage.
Danielle McMahan, vice president of global talent development, said the organization looks for candidates who can talk about past challenges and how they changed outcomes by persevering. “Whether someone has demonstrated grit in either their personal or professional life is a key indicator of whether they are likely to thrive in our rapidly changing business environment,” she said. “In interviews, we look for examples where individuals have overcome adversity, and persevered in the face of obstacles to achieve long-term goals.”
In a 2015 study by Paul Stolz among recruiters, the chances of being hired increased when people described their experiences as goals achieved by overcoming obstacles.
The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania has a useful tool called a Grit Scale, a self-report instrument with surprising reliability. Participants are asked a series of questions about their interests, how often these change, and how they persevere in the pursuit of them. The scale seeks to measure consistency of interest and perseverance of effort. Participants rate themselves from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” for statements such as:
  • “I focus on my existing projects without getting distracted by new ideas.”
  • “I am actively working to achieve a personal goal I set more than a month ago.”
  • “I push myself to meet goals, even when it would be easier to reduce my targets.”
  • “I have accomplished something that took me several years to complete.”
“In discussions about people’s advancement, we look specifically at their track record,” said Maureen Whatley, vice president of global talent management and talent acquisition at health care diagnostic company Alere Inc. “We look well beyond the last six months. We look at their career. We look at the last two to three years. Have they been a consistently great performer? Grit is definitely something we look for when considering who to advance further in the company.”
Alere is in the midst of a major transformation of its talent approach since it stopped annual appraisals and abolished performance rankings. Rather than hold up a list of behaviors and rate people against them, leaders hold talent discussions, or talent summits, where managers and leaders get together to talk about their people. “It’s a conversation,” Whatley said. “Who are our strongest performers? Who has high potential? Who are the people we can stretch further, give more responsibility to or even promote?”
In these discussions, two of the core attributes Alere leaders look for are determination and learning agility — the perseverance to achieve long-term goals and the ability to quickly and effectively find solutions to new challenges. “This is a powerful combination which expresses grit for us, and goes beyond IQ or brains,” Whatley said.
“We look at successes and say ‘there’s no way this person could have achieved this without high levels of grit.’ That helps us to identify who can excel in the environment of massive change in which we operate,” she said. “There are so many challenges to overcome and so much adversity to rise above, grit is one of the key attributes our people need to have to reach their ambitious goals.”
Change Is the New Norm
Last year, American Express Global Business Travel became a privately held joint venture, with ownership equally shared between American Express Co. and an investor group led by Certares. Building a culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and collaboration was, and continues to be, vital for the company’s high-growth aspirations.
“We are attempting to do extraordinary things,” McMahan said. “We need people who are willing to take risks and, if they fall, can bounce back quickly. Change is an iterative process, and we know it will take grit to navigate the continuous change and come out with even greater success in the future.”
High levels of ambiguity are often associated with a high-growth business environment. McMahan said those with exceptional abilities to handle and manage change, and to deal with the associated shades of grey, are employees who will successfully navigate their way to positive solutions. Further, they are often decisive and have the courage to speak up.
“We say to candidates, ‘Here’s the job we’re hiring for today. But we might look very different a year from now, so you have the opportunity to shape how your role develops.’ You can tell immediately who is excited by this and who isn’t,” she said. “Those who are are more likely to be successful here and are the people we seek to hire.”
The extent to which grit can be learned — vs. identified and hired as an existing trait — is a source of lively academic debate. It is clear that people who demonstrate grit are:
  • More likely to give optimistic explanations for events.
  • Able to focus on what they can do rather than what’s outside their control.
  • Able to draw on whomever and whatever they need for support.
These are qualities learning leaders can develop in themselves, and that managers can help to foster in their direct reports and in the organizational culture at large. There are two ways to create a culture of grit in organizations: by working to shift people’s mindsets and by developing others’ ability to handle stress.
To change minds:
  • Look at the big picture. Grit is about playing the long game — remaining consistently committed as well as pushing past challenges. But with any long-term goal or project, interest will wane occasionally. Leaders can help to keep people engaged and committed by reminding them of the journey and end result.
  • Encourage others to increase their sense of control. Constantly focusing on things outside one’s control can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed. Instead, help employees to focus on what they can influence.
  • Empower managers to be open to change. Grit isn’t about following a single course of action no matter what. Being flexible and seeing obstacles to goals as a challenge, not a threat, is key to creating a culture of grit.
  • Share confusion and frustration at all levels. These emotions aren’t signs someone should give up; they are markers that a breakthrough is on its way. Leaders and managers who share their frustrations and keep going despite them, will inspire others to do the same.
Essentially, use stress to develop personally and professionally. To do so, create an environment where failing fast is acceptable. A business where occasionally failing is encouraged will mean everyone puts in more effort to overcome challenges and performance will improve. In the same vein, urge leaders and managers to aim for excellence, not perfection. This will keep momentum going and everyone moving forward.
Then, be sure to engage with others. Encourage individuals to be more interested in other people to avoid isolation that can dampen energy.
So, is having brains everything? Probably not, so don’t think, “Why is this person so much luckier in their career than me?” It might come down to one fundamental quality: grit.

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