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How to develop grit (and the 1 critical ingredient that makes it work)

What is grit?

If you’ve dabbled in researching the word “grit” in the past decade or so, you’ve likely stumbled across Angela Duckworth’s book of the same name. Duckworth is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics. In short: she’s very accomplished, and knows a lot about grit.

But what exactly is “grit?” Duckworth has defined it mostly along these lines: passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.

It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades. The origin story of her work with the concept actually revolves around the idea that her father used to tell her “you’re no genius” and she overcame, and became a successful academic, with principles of grit. She also has a “grit scale” on her website.

Since the initial publication of Grit, though, there’s been some pushback on her ideas. An Iowa State analysis found “no indication” that grit improves performance. That was based on an analysis of 88 independent studies involving 67,000 people, and the core idea is that “grit” is similar to “conscientiousness” and, while important, not a predictor of success and performance. In fact, if defining around academic performance, factors such as adjustment, study habits, anxiety, and class attendance are “far more related” to performance than grit. 

The 1 critical ingredient that makes grit work: passion

There is one more fork in this road on defining grit. Duckworth defines it as almost an intersection of perseverance and passion, yet a 2018 paper by Columbia University business school professors found that measurements of “grit” over-focused on perseverance and under-focused on passion.

In a meta-analysis of 127 studies and two field studies, those authors found that “grit” essentially does not exist without passion. They even noted that perseverance without passion is “mere drudgery.”

These pushbacks caused Duckworth herself to do new research, released in 2019, focused on 11,000 West Point cadets. That study concluded that cognitive ability predicts academic success while grit and physical capacity helped cadets stick around until graduation.

“This work shows us that grit is not the only determinant of success,” Duckworth noted. “Yes, it’s very important, helping people stick with things when they’re hard, but it’s not the best predictor of every aspect of success. If you want to lead a happy, healthy, helpful life, you want to cultivate many aspects of your character, like honesty, kindness, generosity, curiosity, [and grit].”

The above is the “grit” landscape: what we know about it, who’s working on it, and how to define it. But what we need to investigate now is how a team lead could foster more “grit” within their employees, or where their focus should lie in terms of developing both grit and team motivation.

Grit and the team leader: What now?

The Duckworth work and the pushbacks and the subsequent new Duckworth work underscore that there is no single magic bullet for success and performance. It’s a mix of factors, and managers have a responsibility to attempt to cultivate all of them within a given employee or team.

Courage

Let’s start with a concept like courage, which has repeatedly been defined as an element of “grit.” This makes sense, because for someone to show passion and perseverance on a project, they often need to take courageous, bold leaps and even challenge authority to get the best product outcome possible. 

How could a leader foster more courage among their team, then? Some ideas include:

  • Create an “office hours” concept where anyone can come and discuss any issues 1-on-1. This is a tweak on “My door is always open” but allows for actual scheduling of the meeting weekly or monthly, so that employees know they have a direct channel to explain challenges and issues 1-on-1. 
  • Reward and acknowledge those team members who did difficult things, like standing up to you or doubling down on one aspect of a project, even if it was out of scope. If you constantly berate or question extra effort or challenging authority, it sends the message that only “working in your specific lane” is tolerated. That will not help drive innovation. 
  • Create a “Courage Callout” board on Slack or in another comms tool where people can point out teammates for doing courageous, different manners of work with customers, clients, and other members of the team. Reward and showcase courage. 

Curiosity

Now let’s pivot to a word Duckworth used in following up her 2019 West Point research: curiosity. How could a manager foster curiosity on their team?

  • Coffee Talks: Channel what Trello does on Fridays, called “Coffee Talks.” Employees can give remote-friendly presentations about topics of interest, either work or personal -- such as a coding project, for example, or your fascination with Taylor Swift. That creates a culture where exploring new and different things is OK, and showcasing them to teammates is also OK, and that underscores curiosity.
  • Curiosity Day: Have one day every quarter where you cease all task work and just contemplate and discuss future possibilities, new verticals, ideas you’ve maybe missed, etc. Just be curious. Where could the product go? What else could we offer? Task work is often the cornerstone of a job, but getting outside of task work has tremendous value for innovation and creativity. 
  • Reward Curiosity: When someone learns to code a new back-end language, or does independent research into a new customer base, or even does a cool presentation on the history of bitcoin, acknowledge that publicly. Show that you value different ways of thinking and pursuing knowledge. 

Honesty

“Honesty” is a tougher one, as we know that global trust in the workplace hovers under 50%. We can cultivate honesty as leaders, though, by modeling it. 

Be honest about the challenges at your level.

  • What are you facing?
  • What are you getting pressured about?
  • What information does the team need from your level in order to do their job more effectively? 

We’ve talked a lot about “transparency” in business for the last 10-20 years, but many companies still operate on a “proprietary” model where knowledge is hoarded relative to your level in the hierarchical structure of the organization. When knowledge is free, and challenges are discussed honestly with that knowledge out there, you’d often be surprised about where the best new ideas and solutions can come from -- often the lowest levels, as those levels are typically closer to the end customer/user anyway. 

We are not saying you need to post every salary and full employee records, no. But be truly transparent for 1-2 months and see how it works in terms of ideation, customer experience, and more. You will be surprised. And that’s a subset of “grit” that drives towards performance success as well.

Back to grit and passion: How can leaders develop passion in their team?

You may remember one of the core Duckworth pushbacks from above was that “grit” conceptually doesn’t work without “passion,” and in fact displaying lots of grit in the absence of passion can bring someone to a perception of drudgery in their work.

So we’ve briefly discussed courage, curiosity, and honesty … but now is the big one. How can a leader develop passion among members of their team?

This topic is squarely in the F4S wheelhouse, because our core product measures how energized or passionate you are for different areas of work. That, in turn, helps teams to shift tasks around to make sure each team member is working on projects that align with their natural motivations for better results and fulfillment.

So the short answer here is: to create passion on your team, you need to have the right people in the right seats. If one person enjoys coding reports and finding new ways to approach that task, but another person despises that task and consistently delays it when it’s on their to-do list, it stands to reason that the person who loves it should be doing it. Work should, within reason, be channeled towards passion. 

If your team is largely composed of individual members working on projects of drudgery, that team clearly lacks passion -- and will begin to turnover soon. (Maybe not right this second, as we are in a globally uncertain place economically, but teams of drudgery do not tend to stay together very long, no.)

At the task level, then, you move the team members around so that they are working on passion projects (again, within reason) or working on elements that challenge them or interest them, as opposed to rote tasks they’ve already mastered. That will help drive passion.

The big picture and passion:

As a leader, you can also define passion around the bigger picture of the organization -- beyond the task work and the product suite. John Deere, in India, is a good example of this. 

The Indian market is very competitive for engineers, and Deere wants to stay ahead and keep turnover down there. One passion tactic they introduced was around onboarding: 

  • On your first day, you get a replica of the first file Deere ever patented, 175 years ago. It was a plow to go behind oxen/horses so they wouldn’t get caught up in root systems during plowing. 
  • Your manager comes and explains to you what the plow is, the history of John Deere innovation, and the fact that the products you will be working on make people food and give people shelter. 

That’s on day one. It starts at a very high level, and a very early level, that the work is important. This helps to underscore passion in the work.

Other small concepts managers can use to drive passion on their team:

  • Ask team members what they’re interested in outside of your core products and services.
  • Allow them to design projects overlaying their interests with revenue growth possibilities.
  • If they meet specific targets, allow them to take one day off per month extra and pursue a passion project.
  • Talk to them about their interests and goals and desires for career and personal life as much as you can. (This isn’t so much about being friends with them as understanding what truly drives them. You can still be their boss and discipline them when that’s necessary, and in fact it’s easier to discipline someone when you fully understand what makes them tick.)
  • Appreciate and recognize team members consistently.
  • Be transparent about what’s happening in the business, especially in times like COVID-19 where people may be scared about impending layoffs and other disruptions.

That’s where you start to see the different elements of grit overlap. We’re talking about appreciation, recognition, transparency, and passion. Remember: without passion, grit isn’t there. But there’s also a bigger picture around how employees develop in a role and in an organization, and it’s not just one or two inputs either. A passionate employee can still not resonate with the team or the business, unfortunately. There are many inputs into what drives both individual and team performance.

Gritty, passionate employees make a successful team

It’s easy to argue that “success” isn’t even well-defined, and often too defined within material terms. But if you view success as an organization in terms of growth (revenue and headcount), new products and services, team members feeling fulfilled while getting new opportunities and higher salaries, well, that’s a complex tapestry. 

It involves the concept of “grit,” yes, but it also involves all these sub-elements of grit, such as curiosity, honesty, courage, follow-through, adaptation after failure, and perhaps most importantly, passion.

You want gritty employees, yes. Heck, the Philadelphia Flyers even named their mascot after the concept!

Discover what makes you and your team tick by taking the F4S assessment for free today.

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