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Grit, Don't Quit

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(Author's Introduction: Last time I blogged about grit, I reviewed Angela Duckworth's FEI talk about the relationship between grit and success.  This post will discuss building a culture of grit and an orientation toward success.)

Given the role that grit appears to play in fostering success, it is no wonder that many people want to know how to incorporate it into their companies.  Perhaps the first two places to look for a culture of grit are Finland and Israel.  In Finland, the concept of "sisu" is sometimes considered a defining characteristic of the nation, much as the concept of "sabra" reflects the grit of Israelis[1].  What can flourish at a national level can also apply firm-wide, and a review of Duckworth's comments and research can lead to a number of helpful suggestions for how to bring grit into the business world.

Probably the most important part of promoting grit in the workplace is fostering the ability to deal with discomfort.  Whether managing smart cookies, dealing with failure[2], or handling constructive criticism, there are a host of unpleasant moments through which we must suffer if we are to succeed. Unfortunately, negative events tend to be more salient[3], so we must work all the harder to overcome the day-to-day challenges that we face.  But, the first step is understanding where negativity enters in the job, and how to combat it.  In her talk, Duckworth pointed out that two major sources of difficulty are a lack of immediate pleasure and a pessimistic/fixed mindset.

The lack of immediate pleasure is going to be a problem anywhere, because life just doesn't provide one round of pleasure after another (and we would hate if it did!).  If we dig into the immediacy issue a bit further, what we find is that we want to know whether we are going in the right direction.  Even if we are suffering through our work in the moment, if we feel that we are making progress[4], or if we are getting some indication that we are moving in the right direction[5], we can endure.  Managers need to take note here, because they are the coordinators.

To help employees maintain the grit to persevere through challenges, managers need to provide clear goals and provide feedback that indicates whether the work is going in the right direction and whether people are actually making progress.  Building on research by Duckworth and her colleagues[6], managers can help employees to specify a goal, delineate the benefit(s) of achieving the goal, define the obstacles that stand in the way of the goal, and provide a where, when, and specific action verb for getting around the obstacle(s).[7]

While it is tempting to blame a lot on pessimism, and to avoid pessimists at all costs, one must keep in mind that pessimists play an important role in the workplace[8], and that pessimism is not a bad thing, per se.

The problem occurs primarily when pessimism is crossed with what Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset"[9], the combination of which essentially implies that people do not think they can succeed, even if they try.  This is where people need to follow Atul Gawande's advice of "get a coach" who can provide support, feedback, and assistance with finding the wherewithal to persevere and succeed[10], and managers can surely take on that role.  One important way to enable people to feel comfortable trying is to focus on strengths -- figure out what people do well, and have them do it.  While that sounds simple enough, I have encountered a prodigious number of managers that never bothered to ascertain their employees' strengths, likes, and capabilities (some advice for the curious manager).  Just by focusing on what people do well, and giving them tasks that fit those strengths, managers can help create a path to "done."

There will always be challenges and abundant obstacles to success in every walk of life.  But, fostering grit in the workplace is eminently doable, and the research (see the asides below) is slowly building to show the many ways that we can persevere through the discomforts we face.  That said, it takes the power of multiple people working in concert to build grit at the individual, cultural, and national levels, but the potential benefits are well worth it.[11]

Orin's Asides

1) I was inclined to include the Gandhian construct of Satyagraha, as well, but it seems to go beyond grit and the context in which it is generally used is a bit too specific.
2) Stay tuned for a future post on this topic.
3) See Baumeister et al.'s famous paper and Bob Sutton's blog post on this.
4) For details on this, read Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer's book, The Progress Principle.
5) This is a major part of optimal experience, a.k.a flow.  We need clear goals and immediate feedback to help us get into "the zone," but the flipside also applies.  We tend to flounder when we have no idea what we are supposed to do, and likewise when we know what we are supposed to do but are fumbling around in the dark with no idea of how to get there.  Both situations lead to significant stress, especially in the workplace.
6) Which is largely based on the research by Peter Gollwitzer and Gabrielle Oettingen. Here are some examples (and here's a good summary).
7) Duckworth noted, and I wholeheartedly agree, that this line of thought is invoked far less frequently than it should.
8) For one thing, pessimists tend to be more realistic, and they can be the very-necessary bucket of cold water on unrealistic positivity.
9) There is a lot of great information to be found on Dweck's website: http://mindsetonline.com/
10) This is different from getting a mentor, whose primary role is personal and professional development.  That's not to say that mentors do not play the role of coach at times, but rather that coaching is not a mentor's primary role.  (Some good books on this by Kram and Nakamura et al.)
11) For even more on grit, see Duckworth's two TED Talks.

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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