My many-times great-grandmother was a free woman in Virginia who fell in love with and married an enslaved man. Unwilling to be married to a slave for long, she worked long, hard hours in a radish field to support herself and their children and eventually saved enough money to purchase her husband’s freedom. Freedom for former slaves, however, meant insecurity, joblessness, suspicion from slaves and slave owners, and starvation. When he found this new life too scary and difficult and went back to work for his former owner, my many-times great-grandmother took their kids and traveled to Massachusetts where freedom felt a lot freer than it did in Virginia. When faced with the same complex reality, what was the difference between my two great-great-great grandparents? Grit.
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth describes grit as the ability to stick with something over time until you’ve accomplished your goal, met your challenge, or mastered your skill. As I read Duckworth’s book, I kept thinking about my grandparents. What made my many-times great-grandmother push so hard through racism, risk of enslavement for her children, and violence from slave catchers to pursue true freedom and what made her husband unable to do the same? I also thought about the managers I coach through leadership challenges and help to develop new leadership skills. What causes one to decide to quit for an “easier job,” while another battles hurricanes and snowstorms (crazy weather in the Carolinas last year!) and through it all keeps asking for more support to improve her leadership skills? It’s all about grit, and organizations can take steps to build it in their people.
First, hire for perseverance and drive. Ask questions and seek examples of challenges faced and how the person overcame them. In her article, “Four Interview Questions to Help You Hire People with Grit,” Raquel Baldelomar suggests asking about these situations:
How have you turned a dream into a reality?
How have you dealt with failure and bounced back from it?
How have you improved a process at work and what was the outcome?
How have you maintained a high-level of engagement on a long-term project?
Answers to these questions can reveal a prospect’s initiative, willingness to take risks, resilience, and tenacity—all characteristics you want in your organization, regardless of the industry.
Another step is to make sure your organization supports grit. Do you encourage risks and support folks who’ve struggled or failed to keep trying? Perseverance cannot survive if people aren’t allowed to push through, try again, and keep improving.
A manager in our leadership development program was frustrated with a direct report, “Lisa,” who seemed to give up too easily. We discussed Lisa’s past performance, and the manager mentioned an extensive project over a long period where Lisa made mistakes and struggled. She kept trying and was making progress, but, though it remained on time and on budget, Lisa was finally taken off the project and given only short-term, simpler tasks after that. So, despite the fact that she was persevering (struggling in a challenging situation but pushing through as best she could), Lisa was punished for it! It’s no wonder she now gives up easily.
Instead of pulling Lisa off the project, the manager should have given her as much support as possible, acknowledged her hard work and drive, and, as long as she made progress, let her keep struggling. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of the difficult project would have encouraged Lisa to pursue future challenges and push through when tasks become difficult.
A final step to increase the grit in your organization is to challenge your people! Untapped veins of grit may exist in the worker who shows up every day and does just what’s asked and nothing more. You have no idea how far your company can soar on the wings of the employee who has her head down working quietly every day. A challenge or a stretch goal may surprise you all. It will also help reveal who you can rely on to stick with it when times get tough.
Some people seem born with grit, like my many-times great-grandmother, but it was really forged into her through the fires of trial and tribulation. You don’t need to manufacture trials to increase the grit in your organization—but you can challenge folks to reveal their grit by creating a culture that hires for, supports, and rewards perseverance.