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 / Spring 2014 / Issue 74(originally published by Booz & Company)


Angela Duckworth’s Gritty View of Success

The second thing that I think is very important, from an economic point of view, is that people don’t do things they perceive to be costly. When people are either keeping at something or walking away from it, it’s usually a result of having done a cost-benefit analysis. For people to put in the effort to work on some distant goal, day in and day out, they have to perceive that the benefits are at least worth the cost. Managers can influence that by increasing the value of the reward or decreasing the perceived cost. Part of the cost element is communication, and getting across the idea that there’s no easy job waiting for employees somewhere else. All jobs, if you do them well, require huge amounts of effort.

For people to put in the effort to work on some distant goal, day in and day out, they have to perceive that the benefits are worth the cost.

Finally, and I think maybe most relevant for managers, are expectations. People need to believe that success is possible. But they also need to be realistic. A lot of people start working hard and expect immediate results. Yet the idea of improving in just a short time period is naive. If you look at world-class performers in any domain—ballet or math or chess—those people have not logged five really good hours or 10 really good hours. They’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours, spread over years and years of work. People need to know going in that the payoff from their effort may not be obvious for a long time.

S+B: How does corporate culture play into this?
I do think there are companies that bring out the best in people. Through their explicit practices and their implicit culture, these companies encourage doing things for a long time, being loyal, going deep into problems, and working at the edge—where an employee’s challenges exceed their current skill levels. Some of the best managers are the ones who create environments where it’s easier for people to be gritty.

You can create a culture in which employees genuinely believe that the future could be different from the past, and that the problems that were here yesterday and today could in fact be solved. Mentorship is an important part of this process. Encourage people to have a trusted other—a friend, colleague, manager, somebody who can maintain some psychological distance from them when they’re having that bad day, when things do go wrong (as they will), and who can be their emotional ballast. In a way, then, you should encourage people not only to expect themselves to be gritty, but to recruit someone to be gritty for them in times of crisis, when they have doubts or they’re discouraged.

S+B: How does the pursuit of grittiness affect hiring practices?
You cannot guarantee grittiness by hiring someone who has high GRE scores or SAT scores. That’s not to say you shouldn’t worry at all about these metrics. I don’t ignore the grades of students who apply to work with me. But I also don’t simply assume that if they have a perfect academic record that they’re also going to be gritty people.

It suggests that we need something else in the selection process that gets at this element of perseverance and sustained commitment. An approach that I find promising is looking at people’s resumes for evidence that they’ve been gritty prior to coming to your organization. Has a candidate worked at the same place for a sustained amount of time, and have they been promoted to greater levels of responsibility? The more that people have flopped around, the less gritty they are likely to be.

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