The Grit Factor


So how gritty are you?  And maybe more importantly, how gritty are your employees? I stumbled across a TED talk on the topic of “grit” the other day. A. L. Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania along with her colleagues had studied the topic extensively, tracked the success of students with “grit” versus those without, and had come to the conclusion that grit was a quality few should ignore. According to Duckworth, of all the qualities kids show as they grow up, grit was the most important in foretelling success. I ask myself if this same concept can apply to companies, and if so, how can you tell? What makes one company stand out from the others? Aren’t all companies willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer? Maybe not. To learn more about Duckworth’s research, tune in to Duckworth’s TED talk below.

Assessing Grit

Although most of us have a general understanding of what the word grit means, Duckworth and her associates get at the key qualities through a 12-point assessment. Representative questions include: “Setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I am a hard worker” to “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” The respondent can choose one of five answers, ranging from “very much like me” to “Not like me at all.” At the end of the test, each response is assigned a numeric value and the sum is fed into a formula that spits out a “grittiness” score. Duckworth found that there was a correlation between grit and success in achieving certain goals such as winning a spelling bee or completing a challenging training course at West Point.

Duckworth’s work supports findings in other research. Other researchers have found that work performance is positively related to a host of other qualities such as conscientiousness, resilience, perseverance and focus. All of these additional qualities arguably form a part of what we know as grit. Whether an employee has these qualities or not can largely tell you if that individual will be successful in her respective role within your company, whether it is engineering, marketing or HR.

Grit at Work

How do I know if we are tapping into that thing called grit at CivilGEO? If the operative criteria here depend on our willingness to push past obstacles, stick to a job until it’s wrapped up and log multiple hours in overtime, I think we may be on to something. Let’s consider a few examples. Our ultimate goal has always been to satisfy the customer. We are willing to do that even if it means working into the night or going slightly beyond what makes sense economically. Here are a few examples:

  1. A client approaches us with a difficult modeling problem, one that involves engineering for an unsteady flow situation. Effective resolution of this unique problem requires us to modify and write additional code, something we hadn’t planned for. Even though it means extra hours for our employees, we implement the software modification within a few days.
  2. Our technical support is what I would call “gritty.” Clients call us all the time with problems relating to specific projects. We don’t just show you how our software works and leave it at that. We will help you build your model with our software, often to the point where it is practically submission ready.
  3. Sometimes people will call us for help. The funny thing is these folks often don’t even own a copy of our software. They have questions relating to flood studies, stormwater, drainage or some related topic. These folks come to us because we have a history of being responsive to everyone, even non-clients!

I Am Demanding

My employees are focused and determined because I taught them to be that way. I foster a gritty approach among employees because I am the very poster-child of resilience and hard work. Yes, I will often tell my staff about certain incidents where painfully hard work paid off and no, I don’t hold back. And of course, actions will always speak louder than words. I am the consummate workaholic, but I am quick to ask of my staff: “Do you need help from me?” I also make a point of highlighting how particular employees brilliantly handled this or that situation and went the extra mile in doing so. Mistakes also provide an educational moment. Gritty employees and even Engineering Directors learn from their mistakes, welcome them even, and move on with even more zeal and energy. So I am demanding, but I am supportive as well. And I give my staff what they need to get the job done.

How to Hire for Grit?

An employee with grit is obviously what you want on staff. But, it is not always easy to identify this elusive quality in a job candidate. I do tend to weigh a person’s history quite a bit. An employee with a record of job hopping does not suggest the instincts I am looking for. Similarly, the extent to which a person stuck out a stressful position in the past is also revealing. Overall, I look for an individual that is a blend of personability, confidence and strength under difficult circumstances. An engineering software company can be a challenging operation and employees need to have the qualities to deal with it.