The Art of Perseverance: Why “True Grit” Is Key to Successful Workforce

When you hear words like “grit,” “determination” and “self-control,” what emotion does that conjure up in you? I’d be willing to guess that emotion wouldn’t be “positivity.”

And yet, the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania is where MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner Angela Lee Duckworth leads the research into how just those attributes of “grit” translate into greater success than talent or IQ.

What is grit?

That’s easiest to define. It’s perseverance in the face of difficulty, boredom, adversity or sheer lack of will.

In other words, “I will do it because it needs to be done even if I don’t want to, it’s hard, or something else is more interesting.”

How do you measure grit?

According to this article about Angela and her work:

Angela and her team had to create a scale to measure grit, because it didn’t exist. The questionnaire asks students to rate themselves on a five-point scale ranging from ‘very much like me’ to ‘not like me at all’ in answer to such statements as ‘I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,’ ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me,’ ‘I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest,’ ‘I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete,’ and ‘I finish whatever I begin.’

‘We validated it,’ Angela says. ‘We showed it predicted objective measures like graduating West Point’s first summer [cadet basic training] and winning the National Spelling Bee. And then in all the studies we measured IQ and consistently found that IQ really is something else.’”

The critical point here is that grit is something else entirely. We’re used to looking at intelligence, past success metrics, or even personality (how many DISC or Myers-Briggs profiles have you administered?).

But we don’t often assess for grit. And that’s a mistake.

Why does grit matter in the workplace?

The article goes on to point out: “In our talent-obsessed culture, talent has been studied and is well understood. Perseverance? Not so much.”

This is where the work spearheaded by Teresa Amabile in The Progress Principle intersects with Angela’s work.

Amabile looked at the factors that most motivate workers to keep working hard, and the number one motivator was “making progress in meaningful work.” Employees of all ages and in all industries report they are willing to “stick to it” on long, difficult projects – they are willing to demonstrate “grit” – if they know they’re making even a little bit of progress.

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Doesn’t that counteract Angela’s message? The article cited above tells this story:

At the University of Chicago, before a group of professors, [Angela] was asked why she studies perseverance. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Because life is hard. Because there are just obstacles every day to everything that we want to do. If it were easy, it would be done already, and I think that goes for any work that’s worthwhile.’”

Just another version of “just do it”

That can be interpreted as “just do it.” Push through the obstacles. But if we want to encourage those around us to continue to press forward, we need to give them the vision of why.

We need to illustrate what makes it “worthwhile.” We need to make sure people understand, “We are all working hard. You are working hard. And look back. See how far we’ve come. No, we’re not there yet, but we’re a lot closer than we were before.

Recognize people for progress. Praise people for perseverance. Express gratitude for grit.

Do you have a “gritty” workforce? Is grit a characteristic of yours?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is senior vice president of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, where he leads the company’s consulting and analytics divisions. His writing is regularly featured across major HR publications, including HR Magazine, Human Resource Executive, HR Zone, and Workspan.