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Grit: Why You Need it and How to Get it

Grit: Why You Need it and How to Get it

One of the most important characteristics that a Project Manager needs is Grit.

The word ‘Grit’ had more currency 50 years ago, when Charles Portis wrote the novel True Grit (1968). But the concept came back with a bang, in the work of Angela Lee Duckworth. Her 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, describes her research into how focused persistence is a key to outstanding achievement in children and adults.

This kind of staying power – a combination of determination and stamina – is an essential character trait for Project Managers. It will help you to stick with your project through setbacks and adversity, when others might quit.

Grit is also an appealing character trait, which will draw people to your leadership. We all want to be associated with success. And we somehow know instinctively that the people who will succeed are not necessarily the smartest, nor the most charismatic. They are the ones with clear goals, the passion to succeed, and who persevere with determination. 

Great Project Managers have Grit.

Grit: Why You Need it and How to Get it

So, in this article, we’ll examine it in detail.

Our Three Sections

Grit is pragmatic, so I’ll keep this article simple. I’ll just answer three questions:

  1. What is Grit?
  2. Why is Grit Valuable to Project Managers?
  3. How Can You Cultivate Grit – in Yourself and Others?

What is Grit?

Let’s start with the primary source: Angela Lee Duckworth.

Angela Lee Duckworth

Duckworth is Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her inspiration is William James, the early American psychologist. He wrote in 1907 that:

There are our talents and those things that unlock our talents.

William James
Essay: ‘The Energies of Men’ (1907)

In looking for the things that unlock the talents of school students, she alighted on a characteristic, which she labeled Grit. The best introduction is in her short and exceptionally widely-viewed TED Talk. Called ‘Grit: The power of passion and perseverance’, it has over 20 million views at the time of writing (summer 2020).

Duckworth’s Definition of Grit

Duckworth defines grit as:

Perseverance and passion for long term goals.

She relates it to the kind of stamina that keeps you focused on something – for years if necessary. She also relates how professional excellence typically takes ten years to achieve. This is not dissimilar to my assessment that it takes between 6 and 10 years to reach the expert level in project management.

Take a look at our free report, The Nine Steps of a Project Management Career.

So, grit is staying power, or perseverance. It is the stamina to take on a compelling cause and the passion and determination to keep going when others might not.

The Four Characteristics of Grit

You’ll find a number of articulations of the characteristic components of grit. I have developed my own list of four. And to make it memorable, it’s in the form of a mnemonic:

  • Goals
  • Resilience
  • Intention
  • Tenacity

See what I did there?

Let’s look at each, in turn.

Goals

Duckworth is very clear… Pursuit of long-term goals is a vital aspect of her conception of grit. And they need to be goals that you find worthwhile, compelling, even necessary to you. That way, you can pursue them with a real passion and zeal for success.

Resilience

On your way to achieving any big, worthwhile goal*, you will face setbacks. Grit must therefore include the resilience to accept these with equanimity, and to bounce-back with renewed commitment and vigor.

This means you’ll need a combination of:

  • Calmness under Pressure
    The ability to respond to setbacks with objectivity, rather than losing your emotional balance.
  • Optimism
    Looking out all the time for opportunities to succeed
  • Confidence
    A realistic assessment of your resources and capabilities, and how to deploy them
  • Flexibility
    The ability to adapt to change and respond in ways appropriate to the new situation. In Project Management terms: agility.

* By the way, if you’ve not come across it, James Collins and Jerry Porras put forward the idea of a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, in their book, Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

Intention

Of psychologists’ ‘Big 5’ Personality Factors, one correlates most-strongly with Grit: Conscientiousness.

The others, by the way, are Openness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Extroversion.

But conscientiousness has two main components, and one is far more important in Grit.

The first is discipline: the extent to which you maintain your commitment to something. It is therefore also about how people can depend on you. And this is hugely valuable to us, as project managers. But, to the extent that grit is a predictor of success, dependability is less critical than the second aspect of conscientiousness.

And that is our orientation towards achievement. I will call this intention. It’s not enough to have a goal: you also need a powerful intent to achieve it. This idea of a need for achievement was first documented in modern psychology by David McClelland. Our sister YouTube Channel has a video on David McClelland and Three Motivational Needs that covers this.

Tenacity

Achieving a long-term goal is hard. So, what if you fail? Clearly the courage to overcome all your fears is important.

But:

‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’

George RR Martin: A Game of Thrones

Whether you are feeling brave or not, what counts is the tenacity to hold onto your commitment and keep going; to persevere.

Why is Grit Valuable to Project Managers?

  • An ability to set a big, challenging, yet worthwhile goal
  • The resilience to keep going when things get tough
  • Being achievement-oriented enough to hold to a strong intention to meet your goal
  • The tenacity to stick with your mission no matter the cost

The Pragmatic Value of Grit

I hope it is obvious why these are valuable to you, as a Project Manager. I think of these as the ‘pragmatic value’ of Grit. That is, they have value in getting the job done.

But there are two other reasons to value Grit highly for us. And these are what I refer to as the transformational value of grit.

The Transformational Value of Grit

This is about the transformational impact that Grit can have on:

  • You
  • The people around you

Grit and Your Career

A successful career does not come overnight. Here’s a video I made, which captures my thinking on this:

As you will appreciate, a long-term, successful professional career does not happen overnight. It takes dedication: a clear goal, intention, tenacity, and resilience. In other words: Grit.

If you want to reach a point where you are a highly respected (and well-remunerated) professional, get some grit!

Take a look at our free report, The Nine Steps of a Project Management Career.

Grit and the People around You

The components of grit – and therefore, grit itself – are inspiring qualities. They have an appeal that will lead people to want to follow you.

They will inspire:

  • loyalty in team members
  • confidence in stakeholders
  • support from your bosses

How Can You Cultivate Grit – in Yourself and Others?

So, if grit is such a good thing, how can you develop it?

That’s the multi-million dollar question to which Angela Lee Duckworth does not have a full answer. So, the ideas below are my own. There’s no strong scientific evidence behind them: just the benefit of my reading, seminars I’ve attended, and real-world experience.

But I don’t think any has the capacity to do harm, if you exercise them with moderation and judgment.

Goals: Find a Passion

Getting grit needs to start with finding that goal that empowers and inspires you. It needs to be something with the capacity to sustain you through the trials you’ll face.

In personal goals setting I always advocate you make your goals exciting. Not because dull goals are necessarily wrong. But because they don’t provide the same level of motivation. And also because, if you could achieve a dull goal or one that excites you, which would you want? You only have one life.

Goals: Give it Meaning

One of the most powerful ways to make a goal compelling is to see the purpose behind it: the answer to the question: ‘why?’

If you can, find a project whose goals you completely support – ones that seem utterly worthwhile to you. The project needs to align well to your values and, at its best, serve the people or communities that matter to you.

In terms of motivation – and therefore in terms of giving you the grit to persevere, nothing beats work that has meaning.

Resilience: Manage Your Stress

I’ve done a whole article (and written a whole book on resilience to stress. But, in short, you need to build up your:

  • Physical resilience
  • Psychological resilience
  • Emotional resilience

To do this, you need good:

  1. Fuel
    The food you choose to eat – and how you arrange your meals
  2. Energy
    The exercise you take – both to build resilience to stress and to dissipate immediate stress
  3. Rest
    Recreation-time to discharge stress and good quality sleep to build up your reserves

There’s one other crucial factor in long-term resilience…

Resilience: Support Network

Relationships sustain us in times of trouble, and are a delight the rest of the time. Investing in the good quality workplace, social and emotional relationships that you will rely on is a way to outsource some of your grit. Let others help you to be gritty.

Intention: Embrace Challenge

If you want more grit, it’s hard to summon it in the face of mundane, day-to-day sameness. So look for challenges that will test and stretch you. As long as they have goals with meaning to you, they will keep you energised and maintaining your grittiness.

And the most gritty people also tend to focus on their weakness and and devote disproportionate time to addressing them. Undertake a ruthlessly honest evaluation. Determine what you most need to create or fix, and focus n that.

Intention: Be a Role Model

Another way to boost your commitment to grit is to see it as a part of your role as a Project Leader to role model gritty behavior.

It won’t just inspire others to respect you – but also to emulate you. The best of your team members and stakeholders will want some of what you’ve got. And, when they exhibit grit, your project can only benefit.

Plus… it’s easier to do something hard, like showing grit, when others around you are doing it too.

Tenacity: Organize for Focus

If you want to persevere at something, make it as easy as possible to do so. Invest time and energy in being organized. This way everything you need to do will be just a little easier. That will leave you with more energy and willpower to do the hard stuff.

Grit does not mean the tenacity to keep working with broken systems that you could easily fix. Rather, it’s about putting things right so you can move more quickly to achieve your goals.

Tenacity: The Power of Habit

And, if you want to stick with something, one word leaps to mind: habits. Create habits and tenacity, perseverance, staying power become… automatic.

That’s what a habit is, after all. The almost automatic repetition of a set of behaviors. As long as your habits relate to productive, helpful, ethical behaviors, you’re golden.

Mindset: Growth Mindset

Duckworth often refers to the importance of a Growth Mindset. This is the work of Stanford University Professor, Carol Dweck.

In short, Growth Mindset refers to the conviction that we are not fixed. Through effort, we can grow our mental capabilities. Rather than believing you are the best you can be and therefor cannot be any better, this is an attitude that effort is worthwhile.

Mindset: Gratitude

A second valuable mindset in fostering grit is gratitude. Through all the stbacks and ghard work, it will be easy to focus on just those: the setbacks and hard work. Instead, focus on each success, on each step forward, and on each happy moment. And be grateful for them

Acknowledge every triumph and joy along the way. Gratitude will lift your spirits, make you more confident and optimistic, and generally improve the impact you have on the people around you.

Last Tip: Find Your Role Model

One final tip that does not fit well into the framework of ten tips I’ve already offered. It’s as valuable in the context of grit as it is anywhere else in professional life. Find yourself a role model.

Find someone who, to you, embodies the kind of grit you’d like to have. And learn from what they do, and how they do it.

What are Your Thoughts about the Idea of Grit in Project Management?

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas, experiences, or questions. And I’ll respond to any comments you make below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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