The old saying that we should work smarter not harder undoubtedly captures an important truth: inefficient work is time wasted. However, a growing body of psychological literature suggests that the ability to work hard in a focused, consistent manner is more important than intelligence in determining who will succeed in the long-term. There’s an important lesson here: working smart is important but we must not forget the value of hard work when we hire and when we try to develop our own skills and the skills of our employees.
How to take advantage of grit
How do we apply this lesson? Well the first thing to do is make sure we know what we’re talking about. We’re talking about grit. That is, not grit in the sense of little pebbles but grit in the sense of steadfastness or perseverance. Someone with grit remains interested in, and capable of putting effort into achieving, a goal over the long term. There’s all sorts of evidence suggesting that grit is a major contributor to success across a wide range of fields (for example, Ivy League students, Spelling Bee champions and military cadets are all more likely to succeed if they have grit) and in some cases grit seems to be a better indicator of success than other factors that we might more traditionally rely on, like IQ or school performance.
With that in mind, taking advantage of grit is then about two things: identifying people’s existing capacity for grit and helping people to develop a greater level of grit.
To some extent, identifying grit is an exercise in common sense. For example, given that grit is the ability to stay focused over the long-term, a resume that shows not just a tendency to change jobs but also careers is a bad sign. Of course, you didn’t need a blog post to tell you that so how about some tips that are a little less obvious.
Tip #1: Age
Older people are more likely to display grit. There are various reasons that this could be the case. Perhaps people learn grit with time. Alternatively, younger people may have more to lose by displaying grit as they haven’t yet figured out what they most want to do with their life and so benefit from trying out a bit of everything. In any case, regardless of the reason, age is a predictor of grit.
Tip #2: Talent (but not the way you think) and education
Grit and talent don’t seem to be closely related. In fact, if anything talented people display less grit than those who are less talented (perhaps because talented people have, on average, faced less challenges that required developing grit than less talented people). So talent is not a good predictor of grit. On the other hand, education is a good predictor of grit, perhaps because those with grit are more likely to finish school and university.
Tip #3: Test candidates
Instead of trying to guess whether a candidate has grit, you could test them using one of various scales designed for this purpose. Of course, there’s a danger that a candidate will just give the answers they think you want rather than the answers that truly describe them so testing should be used with caution!
Instead of (or perhaps as well as) hiring people with grit, you might want to develop your own grit or that of your existing employees. While I would love to give simple instructions for how to do so, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the psychological research on this issue is just not that settled yet. However, there are a few promising possibilities that might well have a positive impact on a person’s grit.
Tip #1: A growth mindset
There’s some evidence that people with a growth mindset display more grit than people with a fixed mindset. What do these two terms mean? Someone with a fixed mindset is simply someone who thinks that their talents are fixed and cannot be changed. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset thinks that their abilities can be developed through practice. Want to become grittier? Try to develop a growth mindset.
Tip #2: Valued goals
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there also seems to be some reason to think that people will display more grit if they care about the goal they are working toward. This brings us back into a familiar domain: employee engagement. An engaged employee is an employee who is enthusiastic about their work. Grit gives us one more reason to care about employee engagement (we like to think that this is an area where we can help).
More than anything else…
Tactics and techniques to improve grit aside, perhaps the most important thing about all this is simply the reminder that intelligence isn’t all that matters in hiring and training your employees. The best employee is not necessarily the smartest one. The best employee is the one that has a combination of skills: intelligence, grit and the right approach to fit in with your team culture. The best employee works smarter and harder.
What character traits do you think make for the best employee? How can we train these traits?
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Unless otherwise mentioned, the research discussed in this blog post is drawn from the work of the Duckworth Lab.