Are Your Candidates Gritty?

The Rio Olympics are history. Every four years, I find myself once again marveling at the Olympic athletes and their dedication to excellence. What drives these individuals to work tirelessly toward a goal that can be years away? Are they simply born to it? Is it a nurturing environment that provides the necessary support for them: dedicated parents; high-performing teammates; world-renowned coaches? Maybe it’s the prestige and renown?

I suspect it varies. but some combination of all these elements come together in different combinations for each athlete. If you followed any of the coverage, you heard many, many individual stories of triumph and overcoming the odds. And, it’s obvious that these athletes have talent, but that’s not enough.

In her new book, Grit, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth makes the case for “the power of passion and perseverance” — otherwise, known as grit.  Duckworth has studied the relationship between talent, skill, and achievement for years.  As part of her work, she has developed a “Grit Scale” and has spent years validating it with varied populations: West Point cadets, football teams (The Seattle Seahawks), Olympic athletes, spelling bee winners, among others. As she deepened her understanding, she developed a simple framework that sought to explain the relationship between talent, effort, and achievement.  Take a look:

Talent x effort = skill

Skill x effort = achievement

So what’s this mean for those Olympic athletes, and all of us? First, talent by itself is never enough. In a sense, we’ve all got “talent” — in that we have a starting point. But to develop that talent, you must put forth effort — and the right kind of effort can make a huge difference. That effort is not a one-shot deal — it needs to be continuous. High performers are never done practicing … I guess that’s the good news and the bad news. And as one builds skill, more effort is required to grow it, which in turn, leads to achievement. And achievement, in whatever sphere, is the payoff.

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So is grittiness a competency you look for in your candidates? If not, it should be. In today’s world, workers, especially knowledge workers, must be able to change rapidly and adapt, block out interference, focus, and persevere. In our curriculum, we include a number of competencies that could fit under the broad category of “grit.”

You probably already use behavioral interview questions — a critical practice we highlight in our Talent Advisor program. Here are a few examples of how you might turn Duckworth’s Grit Scale into behavioral interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time where you had a setback on a project and how you were able to recover and get back on track.
  • When you’re working on a long project (many months), how do you stay focused until you achieve successful conclusion?
  • Give me an example of a time where your teammates were losing focus and motivation on a project and you were able to motivate and re-energize them. How did you do it?
  • Think about a time when you had a difficult assignment that required you to develop new skills or use your skills in a new way. Specifically, how did you prepare for this assignment? What were the results?  What did you learn about yourself?

I’m sure many of the Olympians are back home and already laying out their plans for Tokyo 2020 and getting gritty. If you’ve got examples of how you evaluate candidate “grit,” please pass them along.

Bruce Walton is director, instructional design at ERE Media. His current focus is on developing training interventions for talent acquisition professional. Working with ERE leadership and a wide cross-section of talent acquisition leaders, he developed and delivered ERE’s first online curriculum for talent advisors.

Prior joining ERE, he was an independent consultant and developed and delivered case study-based courses for HR professionals around the world.

Earlier, he spent over 15 years in HR consulting, first with Watson Wyatt (now Willis Towers Watson) and then with TPI (now ISG).

He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as well as a Master of Education (Ed.M.) and Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), both from Boston University.

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