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The truth about grit

By Austin Fossey 

The sudden debate over this social-emotional skill has researchers questioning its utility and existence

Grit—previously relegated to the back of sandpaper sheets or breakfast menus in the American South—has recently captured headlines as a critical social-emotional skill that relates to success in a broad spectrum of situations. One of the leading researchers of grit is Dr. Angela Duckworth, who, with others, has studied how grit relates to success in everything from elite military academies to national spelling bee competitions. The broad range of applications has caught the attention of business and education leaders. For a while, things were going very smoothly for grit, but grit has recently hit a rough patch.


What is grit?

Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Duckworth also defined it as “stamina in your direction, stamina in your interests.” This is an important distinction, because it means that grit, unlike personality traits, is something that can be learned and improved upon: you can increase your grit.

Duckworth and her colleagues have developed a 10-item grit assessment which is commonly used to measure grit, although Duckworth has used slightly longer 12-item versions in some of her research.

Why is grit so popular?

Duckworth’s research has shown that grit relates to performance in a broad range of applications, such as academic performance at Ivy League universities. Even more compelling is that in many of these same samples, grit predicted performance better than IQ.

This idea is already compelling—one does not need to be the smartest person in order to excel, just the grittiest. And if grit is a social-emotional skill, then theoretically you can train your employees or students to be grittier. NFL coach Pete Carroll certainly believes grit can be coached, and he has teamed up with Duckworth to spread the word.

Grit is also a very simple concept and it is easy for people to understand and interpret. Duckworth’s grit scale assessment is short, simple, and best of all, available for free on Duckworth’s website. Grit is also well-marketed. In concert with the snowballing momentum of favorable press, Duckworth also wrote a best-selling book about grit and presented a TED talk.

With all the hype from this research and marketing, grit developed a strong reputation as a positive, yet simple, measurable skill. Talent consultants offer services to help measure and improve employees’ grit, and, according to her website bio, Duckworth herself has consulted for many large corporations and even the White House.


Why is grit getting criticized now?

Critics began looking at grit closely when, in an effort to comply with laws requiring them to evaluate schools on non-academic measures, California educators started thinking about assessing students’ grit (and other social-emotional skills). Duckworth was involved with the board working on the California efforts, but she resigned, explaining that even she did not feel that grit was a reliable measure for evaluating students.

Other researchers began peeling back the marketing surrounding grit and found that Duckworth’s published findings did not quite match the hype. In an analysis of 88 grit studies, Dr. Marcus Credé and his colleagues found that the effect sizes and impact of grit (as it relates to success) are low comparable to what one sees in personality and behavioral measures. Additionally, many of these studies only used samples of high-performing people, and Credé argued that the results do not generalize to the broader population.

For example, in a 2007 study of military cadets and Ivy League undergraduates published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Duckworth and her colleagues found that grit, on average, explained only 4% of success in these samples.

Is grit even real?

Credé’s concern is that grit may not even be its own distinct concept. His analysis (as well as Duckworth’s own research) showed that grit correlates very highly with conscientiousness, a personality trait related to people’s organization and self-discipline. In their 2007 study, Duckworth and her colleagues argued that grit is distinct from conscientiousness in that grit relates to long-term, sustained focus on a single set of goals or interests, but this may not be enough of a distinction for most practitioners.

The distinction between conscientiousness and grit is a critical point, because if grit is a manifestation of conscientiousness, then it is not a social-emotional skill, it is a personality trait. It may change over time, but it is not something that can be easily taught. This trait is still worth measuring, especially given its predictive validity, but it is not necessarily appropriate to evaluate students or schools on innate personality characteristics, which they have no power to change.

What does this mean for The Predictive Index?

The Predictive Index does not have any assessments that measure grit or conscientiousness, so this debate does not relate to our assessments directly, but we do look at measures of conscientiousness and grit in our construct validity research.

Over the past several decades, PI has observed moderate correlations between conscientiousness scales and the PI Behavioral Assessment’s measures of high Formality and low Dominance; however, these results were not consistent across different conscientiousness scales or published versions of the PI Behavioral Assessment.

In a 2016 survey of 395 employed respondents recruited from Amazon’s MTurk service, PI observed that grit had moderate positive correlations with a variety of other scales like work engagement, organizational engagement, liveliness, emotional stability, toughness, and internality, as well as a moderate negative correlation with public self-consciousness. Grit had little correlation with any of the factors in the PI Behavioral Assessment, although it did have a moderate correlation with the resultant factor, Factor M, which is a coarse measure of connectivity and adaptability. Unfortunately, this study did not include a measure of conscientiousness.

These findings echo Credé’s research, which showed that grit correlated with a variety of personality scales, although his team found that conscientiousness was far and away the highest, leading to his claim that the two may be synonymous.


What does this mean for business leaders?

Grit scales may be helpful for discriminating between top performers, but if you are trying to predict job performance across your employee workforce, grit by itself is not going to provide much value. Duckworth and Credé both show that grit, as a predictor of success, does not perform any better than other behavioral measures. If you are looking for a behavioral predictor of success, you will get a broader, richer view by considering multiple behavioral measures at once. For instance, the PI Behavioral Assessment measures Dominance, Extraversion, Patience, and Formality in a short, simple checklist assessment.

If you want the strongest predictor of performance, consider using a measure of general cognitive ability. Decades of research have shown that general cognitive ability is the single strongest predictor of job performance across industries and job roles—typically higher than many behavioral predictors, including grit. The PI Learning Indicator is a 12-minute timed assessment that measures general cognitive ability. 

Learn how PI’s assessment tools have helped several well-known companies understand their people, and meet their goals and objectives faster.

Austin is the director of assessment research at PI. He raises chickens and plays banjo.

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