Business

By Thomas Schoenfelder, Ph.D.

One of the most discussed psychological topics in the business world over the past few years has been the construct of “grit.”

What is it? Who has it? Can we measure it accurately? And is it really an essential component of success?

Ever since Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania published her landmark study, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” in which she stated that a higher-order personality attribute called grit was a factor in achievement, irrespective of an individual’s intelligence, people have been debating the interpretation and implications of her results.

According to Duckworth, those who persevere in the face of obstacles and who can maintain consistent interest in an objective over time are more likely to succeed than those who do not show this dynamic. On the surface, that theory is, in unscientific parlance, a no-brainer. Of course a passionate, committed person should be more successful than a quitter. Duckworth was simply investigating whether that quality derives from a consistent personal attribute as part of an individual’s “hardwiring” and if it can be cultivated through learning and development.

Since then, academic researchers and business leaders have tried to pin down a commonly agreed-upon meaning for grit and, just as importantly, a way to measure it in the context of the working world. That is, we want to determine if grit is indeed a unique personality attribute and if it can be identified in job applicants and employees in a scientifically valid and consistent way.

The challenge lies in translating Duckworth’s research into a business setting, as the initial study that drew so much attention had focused on academic environments or educational contexts. It’s important to draw that distinction, especially regarding “consistency of interest” (i.e., “passion”), since the tangible goal of attaining a diploma or earning a college degree is different from the much less tangible goal of being a top-performing employee. In other words, consistency of interest in completing a curriculum of study in one’s major may not always have a direct analogue in the working world, where objectives like getting promoted and receiving a raise often do not include a detailed roadmap, nor do they involve extensive skills development within an engaging course of study.

Performance indicators vary from job to job, but if you really need to hire someone on the spot and don’t have time for the scientists to crunch all the recent data, focus on conscientiousness and persistence. So, before attempting to identify and develop the construct of grit –as currently defined in the research literature – within the workplace, a major question must be answered: does the higher-order structure of this construct (involving both persistence and consistency of interest) predict performance in the work setting, or is it merely a repackaging of other traits, such as conscientiousness, that are already well studied? To date, the jury is still out.

The research is consistent with other findings coming from recently published studies on the topic. Specifically, we are determining that work-related behaviour that we might attribute to “grit” can be explained by a single personality trait that reflects one’s patterns with respect to task persistence, and that “consistency of interest” adds little to the predictive value and usefulness of the construct. Deeper analyses and replication need to be conducted, but we suggest at this point to not overcomplicate the construct when assessing its impact in the work environment.

Performance indicators vary from job to job, but if you really need to hire someone on the spot and don’t have time for the scientists to crunch all the recent data, focus on conscientiousness and persistence. These traits, which have much longer histories and much deeper evidence of predicting work-related success, are safer bets in predicting who will be most likely to overcome challenges and make a good employee.

Thomas Schoenfelder, Ph.D. is the senior vice president of research and development at Caliper.