Hiring for Grit: Why It Matters, and How to Identify It

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What do you need to succeed in today’s age of non-stop innovation? Intelligence, technical skills and education might come to mind. But it turns out one of the biggest predictors of success isn’t listed on many resumes: grit.

Angela Duckworth is a psychologist and the author of the best-seller “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” and she has studied this concept extensively. Duckworth (who also spoke at last year’s Indeed Interactive event in Austin defines the term “grit” as the combination of perseverance and passion.

But what makes grit so important — and how can those of us in the business of hiring identify candidates who possess it to make more effective hires?

What is grit?

Duckworth’s work on the science of high achievement indicates that extraordinarily successful people possess the ability to keep trying in the face of failure or struggle, combined with a passion for their work and an eye toward their larger goals. These are the primary components of grit.

Grit is closely related to many soft skills — the personal attitudes and practices that shape how we interact with others — that are already on recruiters’ radars. For example, resilience is critical for entrepreneurs who must go through the circuit of finding investors; persistence goes hand-in-hand with creativity and innovation, as many iterations may be necessary to refine an idea; and a strong sense of purpose helps employees feel connected to their work.

Just add grit to make good ideas great

The building blocks of grit may be perseverance and passion, but grit is more than the sum of its parts. People with grit are goal-oriented, purpose-driven and willing to put in the work to realise their dreams and become the best in their fields.

Taken together, these elements make grit a key ingredient in innovation and creativity. People tend to underestimate the hard work that creativity requires, assuming it is an innate capability. It involves sustained effort and dedication. Studies show people’s first ideas are not always their best but that they steadily improve with continual effort, study and attention over multiple iterations.

Consider James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum, who tried over 5,000 prototypes before developing the models that would generate billions. Some of his early prototypes were probably adequate, but his final one revolutionised an entire industry. That is the power of grit.

This demonstrates why grit is a fantastic asset in any new hire. Imagine two candidates for a position, both with top-notch experience and training. The grittier candidate won’t shy away from thinking outside the box and considering multiple solutions. The less gritty one, however, is more likely to take their first idea and run with it, missing bigger and more exciting possibilities.

A candidate with grit also knows mastery of a skill does not happen overnight. Take the example of professional athletes, who build on their natural talents with continuous practice and often suffer sidelining injuries in the process. An employee with grit will work to improve their abilities, develop new skills and grow in their role, rather than just fall back on natural talent.

What’s more, people with grit remain resilient in the face of setbacks, an unavoidable feature of even the biggest success stories. Gritty high achievers aren’t discouraged by rejection or failure, but rather are encouraged to try even harder. This makes them a huge asset to any team. They will persevere in their goals and motivate teammates who need that extra push.

How to identify and measure grit in hiring

If grit is such a strong predictor of success, how can recruiters and hiring managers identify people who have it in the talent pool? Candidates are prepared to discuss technical skills and past work experiences, but hiring for soft skills such as grit can be trickier.

Recruiters must employ special strategies to tease out examples of grittiness in action, as well as to assess candidates’ passion and perseverance. These strategies include:

  • Ask candidates about their biggest professional failure. Based on their response to this telling question, you can determine whether the applicant is able to accept responsibility and learn from the experience or whether they’re attempting to deflect responsibility to others. Did they turn a seemingly negative event into an opportunity for growth and learning?
  • Duckworth’s Grit Scale could also help. This shows some of the questions Duckworth used in her research, which can be adapted and incorporated into job interviews. For example, recruiters can ask how a candidate maintains focus and interest when working on long-term projects. Listen for details — they will be illuminating.

Research on grit has taken off, and with good reason: it is a strong predictor of success that should be carefully considered when hiring. People with this winning combination of passion and perseverance aren’t only good at their jobs; they’re strong in the face of obstacles and dedicated to the bigger picture. Recruiters can use targeted strategies to assess grit in candidates and can use this information to identify the most promising future hires.

To bring talent to the next level, it’s time to get gritty.

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