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How Leaders Can Cultivate Grit in the Workplace

By Jacquelyn Adams

In our world full of fad diets and halfway completed DIY projects, perseverance seems to be particularly wanting.

That is why when I attended ATD 2021, I was particularly looking forward to the keynote speech from Angela Duckworth, the queen of grit. In case you haven’t yet seen it, her TED talk titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” has been viewed over 24 million times, and is well worth the watch. Today’s article is not merely a summary of her talk but our turn to explore a leader’s role in cultivating grit in the workplace.

Before we start, let’s cover a few of the basics that Angela provides in her talk. First, she defines grit as “sustained passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” She was even kind enough to break it down into math-like equations:

(Talent) x (Effort) = Skill

(Skill) x (Effort) = Achievement

While it is excellent to start with some raw talent, so much comes down to the effort that you put in. Whether in our personal lives or workplaces, any amount of talent multiplied by zero effort still results in no achievement. So as leaders, what do we do to cultivate grit and thereby cultivate achievement in our workplaces?


Normalize and affirm grit

The first step in creating a grit-friendly culture is to normalize it. One place to start is changing people’s mindsets — specifically whether they have a fixed or growth mindset. During her talk, Angela referenced studies demonstrating that we are constantly learning, and our brains continuously adapt until the day we die. Once we accept these facts, that we are not stagnant but are capable of becoming more today than we were yesterday, we have laid the cornerstone of grit. After leaders have laid this groundwork, they can expand it by affirming. They can share their own stories in work newsletters, at functions, or perhaps as a relevant tangent in a meeting. Although, one of the most significant components is to celebrate the “grittiness” of others. Pay attention to who is putting in the extra work and ensure they are reaping the appropriate accolades.

Cultivate passion

Since Angela defines grit as the place where passion and perseverance meet, let’s take a moment to explore passion in the workplace. During her talk, she noted the significance of reminding employees of the purpose behind their work. Knowing our purpose and realizing that we are part of something bigger makes our work tangible. We see its value, and it prompts us to care.

I found this point very relatable as I had witnessed it first-hand in my days of training technicians to repair surgical lights. The first thing I would do with a class was explain the great need and value of their work. They would be responsible for keeping these lights working so that surgeries could continue. Perhaps that same light might help the operation on their mother, father, sibling, cousin, spouse, or child one day. As those trainees imagined someone they loved in that moment of need, I saw them become more alert. This work that we were about to embark upon mattered. Because even if their loved one never needed a surgical procedure, this example reminded them that the person in that surgical room was someone else’s loved one. It was clear that this wasn’t just another boring class. I cannot say for sure if I cultivated passion in those moments, but at the very least, they remembered their purpose and those who relied on them.

Maximize the effort


Finally, leaders need to make sure that people are being allowed to work effectively. During her talk, Angela mentioned the work of Anders Ericsson. When his studies were published, he was frustrated that they only picked up half of his message. People now know that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field; however, the part that was left out was that it needs to be an effective 10,000 hours. His studies found that the most effective investment was distraction-free, time alone working on that skill. Of course, not all tasks are solitary tasks, but even basketball player Kevin Durant says he does 70% of his practicing alone. Getting the necessary critiques, and then putting in that hard, focused work is necessary to make the most of those 10,000 hours. We need to make sure that upskilling time isn’t just fluff, but we are providing employees with the information and focused time they need to make it a good investment.

As we face the struggles that have come with 2020/2021, Angela suggests that we might need grit more than ever. In this time, when the lists of uncertainties grow and the needed talent is scarce, it is the time for leaders to step up to both foster and model passion and perseverance. Things certainly don’t seem to be getting easier, so fellow leaders, are we ready to buckle down and show that our grit is here for the long haul?

Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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