Can 'grit' be developed?

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Written by Bill McAneny on 26 September 2019 in Opinion

Can grit be developed, in individuals and in teams, or is it the preserve of the gritty elite? Bill McAneny elaborates.

Reading time: 3 minutes.

The short answer is ‘yes, it can be developed’ but firstly it’s helpful to take a step back and define the term. The term ‘grit’ certainly captures the zeitgeist and it’s even accepted that it is a major component of success at an individual and team level.

But what is it, what does it actually mean to 'have grit'? If we accept the fact that you just have grit or you don’t it becomes a binary issue, and then how does that help?

I get the West Point Academy stats (Angela Duckworth, ‘Grit: why passion and resilience are the key to success,’ Penguin Random House, 2017), that such an elite establishment has 14,000 applicants every year, all athletes, which are whittled down to 4,000 of which 2,500 meet the entrance standard then, based on assessments 1,200 are finally accepted.

Yet still 20% drop out before graduation. And the dropout rate has nothing to do with intellectual ability, background, fitness or talent. It all comes down to grit. But how does it help us define ‘grit’ and so show us how we can develop grit as individuals, teams, organisations even?

Often, it’s defined as having a passion for something that is important to you, but there are many people who have real grit and desire to win, who would not fit the more vaporous and ethereal definition of ‘passionate.’

If grit truly is a major determinant of success, and all the evidence suggests it is, then they will become more successful and performance will improve. 

It just begs the question, 'Define ‘passionate!' Is ‘grit’ an indefinable quality that is the preserve of a few special individuals, a closed club to which the entry door needs a harder push than most of us can muster? Is it indeed a gift that only some possess, the righteous?

We cannot measure what we cannot define so this still leaves people in the dark as to what constitutes grit and, more importantly, how you can get some.

Surely a behavioural-based approach to grit is more helpful, as it is more observable, practical and, most important of all, actionable. Bounce-back-ability is great, you can intuitively understand what that is, but how do you experience it, how do you measure it, how do you develop it?

There seem to be several elements to grit and by defining and isolating them in buckets, and then mapping behaviours within each bucket you can begin to get a sense of a 'grit model', a construct for what grit is in real, pardon the pun, grittier terms. Some elements of these are:

  • Focus: Having a clear purpose, setting goals, planning, sticking with it, not easily side-tracked
  • Positive Attitude: Belief in ourselves, bounce-back-ability, learning from mistakes and criticism, looking to constantly improve
  • Perseverance: Determination, putting in the hard yards, ethos of ‘effort means reward,’ no entitlement, overcoming obstacles, not giving up
  • Challenge: Willing to try the untried, motivated by challenge, happy out of their comfort zone, unfazed by pressure

This means rather than having a specific ‘grit trait,’ it’s possible to look at all the elements that make up ‘grit’ and see where an individual or team can step up.

And, because it is a behaviour-based approach, it becomes about how to modify behaviour and so a development issue, rather than a punitive one; it is not binary but granular, a continuum and guess what, we’re all on it.

So, individuals, teams and whole organisations can measure and improve their grit. And, if grit truly is a major determinant of success, and all the evidence suggests it is, then they will become more successful and performance will improve.

Grit can be measured, assessed and developed if we see it as a series of practical, day-to-day behaviours that can be learned and improved on, rather than as a lofty ideal to which only the special can aspire.


About the author

Bill McAneny is CEO of Gritbuilder.



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