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HR's New Hot Topic: What is Grit and How Do You Measure It?

September 6, 2018

I can always tell when a business book has become popular, because that book’s concepts start creeping into our client discussions. Recently, HR leaders have reached out because their leadership teams are laser-focused on hiring people with “grit.”

The 2016 book by Angela Duckworth - Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is making the rounds, as are her TED talks on the topic. Grit, as she describes it, makes sense. It fits with our model of what it takes to be successful. The question, though, is how does this concept fit into your talent strategies?

Duckworth focused her Ph.D. research in psychology on the relationship between grit and high achievement. She studied West Point cadets, teachers, salespeople, and spelling bee contestants. She determined that, more so than intellect or talent, success is often due to a combination of perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It’s more than just work ethic. It’s a combination of:

  • Resilience

  • A willingness to engage in deliberate practice

  • Passion and sense of purpose

  • Self-control (essentially managing the conflict between doing what you’d really like to do and what you know you need to do)

In her experience, these traits are the hallmark of high achievers. She developed a short Grit Scale test which you can take on her website.

Forbes.com recently talked about the concept of grit in Four Interview Questions To Help You Hire People With Grit, by Raquel Baldelomar.  

Baldelomar talks more broadly about the concept of “character” and how you want people with “guts, initiative, perseverance, and doggedness on your team.” She references another online personality-based test – “How Gritty Are You?” which is described and talked about in another popular book, Grit to Great, by Thaler and Koval.

These authors provide a somewhat different list of attributes that make up grit:

  • Guts

  • Resilience

  • Initiative

  • Tenacity

What is Grit and How Can You Measure It?

I’m going to encourage my I/O psychology friends to chime in, but I’ll give you my layperson understanding. To me, grit seems to be a broad “meta-construct”, so to speak. It’s like emotional intelligence in that regard. It’s a collection of distinct personality traits that, when examined together, make up a broad impression of a person’s behavioral traits and tendencies, in life, or as applied to a job or task.

According to these authors, for instance, people with grit have a mix of valuable traits. They are hard workers with high levels of stress tolerance and perseverance. They also have a level of courage and tenacity, and naturally take initiative. Duckworth adds that they have a passion and sense of purpose, and a high level of self-discipline about achieving the goal. Wow – that’s a great mix of character traits! I think we all want to hire this person, right? But is that reasonable? How often do we see this mix of attributes?

Can You Test or Interview for Grit?

I’m pretty sure that our team of psychologists will agree that we can, certainly measure most of the personality traits listed. We can measure leadership courage, initiative, drive to succeed, stress tolerance, self- discipline, and organization and planning. What may be hard to measure is passion or sense of purpose, generally, because this applies to a specific cause. It probably is, indeed, highly predictive of success and high achievement in many instances, but it’s not a personality trait, per se. If you tasked me with mastering poker, I might be diligent and make use of my natural self-discipline to work hard at it in a structured, deliberate manner, but the passion would be lacking because I despise both card games and gambling. If you task me with mastering golf, though, or becoming an expert in the details of Game of Thrones – well, you are going to see a high level of passion and sense of purpose!

Thaler and Koval encourage you to interview for grit. They suggest questions such as:

  • How have you turned a dream into a reality? 

  • How have you dealt with failure and bounced back from it?

  • Describe a project that you had to work on for an extended period of time and how you stayed engaged. 

I like these questions. They are, for the most part, behaviorally-based, focused on past behaviors, and force the candidate to give specific examples. Of course, I’d only use them if they were examining behavioral competencies you’ve identified as important for success.

For instance, “How have you turned a dream into a reality?” might be a bit ambitious for most front-line or even manager-level positions. Many of these candidates are early in their career and lives. Is this question fair or reasonable? Is it going to be predictive of on the job success? If you were choosing a unique individual to help you with a start-up – then the question is more relevant.

When is Grit Relevant?

Have you ever watched the National Spelling Bee or seen stories about what those contestants do to prepare? THAT is passion and purpose. The same with West Point cadets. It’s not surprising that the mix of attributes we are discussing here are predictive of success in these two arenas.

But does this translate to most roles? There are many important and rewarding jobs where guts or courage are not a pre-requisites for success. We’d hope that every employee is driven and takes initiative, but in many roles, a high level of dependability and competence will more than suffice. So why measure every candidate for grit?

You might argue that the meta-construct/concept of grit is important for leaders. Perhaps, but I can think of many organizations I’ve worked with where their situation requires several leadership skills and competencies more than resilience or passion, or even tenacity for that matter. It might be argued that healthcare leaders, facing the challenges we are today, need these attributes. But, do we really need to measure Duckworth’s concepts of deliberate practice and self-control in COO candidates?

Related: Five Attributes Critical for Healthcare Leaders in the Near Future

As with most of these innovative, interesting ideas, there is value in examining them, understanding them, and how they apply to your organization. Maybe you really do need that next senior leader with grit, but I’m not sure these short “grit tests” will be predictive of success or that you can build your entire culture or hiring and development efforts around these concepts.

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren was the former Director of Healthcare Solutions at PSI. He was responsible for developing and promoting tools and services designed specifically for the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations.