Teaching Persistence Without Overdoing the Pain

A headline about Nvidia CEO, Jensen Huang, wishing pain and suffering upon Stanford students caught my attention recently. I took the bait and clicked to find out what he might be getting at. Apparently, it’s his thing. He wishes pain and suffering to his audiences and employees – with the hope that it will help them develop grit. “The ability to endure pain and suffering is called grit,” he said in another address. “It is now recognized as one of the most important characteristics of successful people.” Huang remarked that since he doesn’t know how to teach grit, he wishes ample pain and suffering upon others so that they might become grittier. It’s an attention grabbing and provocative message, and for me, it begs two questions. First, what benefits does “grit” bring to the workplace? Second, how can leaders proactively cultivate grit in their areas of influence?

Benefits of Grit in the Workplace       

I can see why grittiness or resilience in the workplace is on Huang’s radar. There is evidence that grittier employees demonstrate increased engagement, higher skill levels, and better job performance across varied professions (Duckworth et al., 2019). Grit has also been associated with lower rates of burnout in healthcare workers and better physical and mental health. For organizations, this translates to healthier people and better results. 

The Secret Sauce…Pain and Suffering?

The connection between experiencing hardship and becoming a success is deeply embedded within our culture. Rags-to-riches narratives often highlight hardship as an indispensable ingredient, and for many, it seems like common sense. The sentiment is reflected in familiar sayings such as:

  • “No pain, no gain.”
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  • “The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.

Leaders would be well served to remember, however, that just because hardship can breed resilience doesn’t mean that it does so reliably, quickly, or without significant costs. We tend to remember the stories of those who endured and triumphed because they are truly exceptional. But painful conditions don’t always lead to triumph. A more likely outcome of prolonged stress, particularly at work, is burnout. A Deloitte survey found 77% of respondents indicated they have experienced burnout at their current job and that it negatively impacts the quality of their work and relationships. It’s critical that leaders learn to strike a balance between ensuring that employees are challenged and engaged without experiencing the damaging side effects of chronic stress.

Cultivating Grit

We’re all bound to naturally experience some level of hardship in our lives without our bosses wishing or dishing us more. Leaders can use the following tips to help their employees shine under pressure while mitigating the risk of burnout. 

Tip #1 – Define grit in your own role.

Up to this point we’ve been talking about grit vaguely. We may each have a sense of what it means based on our own experiences and interpretations of the word. In everyday speech it’s convenient to speak in fuzzy terms and assume listeners get the gist. When it comes to proactively managing behavior, however, a much more specific approach is needed. In academic circles, grit refers to the disposition to pursue long-term goals with both passion and perseverance (Duckworth et al., 2019). So, what does that look like on the job? A good place to start is pinpointing what that looks like in your own role. Ask yourself, “What is it that I do or say that shows I’m passionate and persistent about achieving long-term goals?” These could be things you already do or things that you could start to do more often. In one interview, Huang pinpoints a few of his own actions as a leader that enable him to stay the course under pressure including:

  • Taking time each morning to prioritize the day’s tasks
  • Checking into his values
  • Acknowledging the good within the company, its processes, and fundamentals
  • Soliciting ideas, opinions, and feedback from direct reports
  • Providing resources, support, and removing barriers for those doing the work

Tip #2 – Lead by example.

Once you have a solid handle on the specific leader behaviors that roll up into the label “grit,” make it a point to demonstrate these to your team. Employees take cues from leadership so it’s important to “walk the talk.” This doesn’t mean reciting a list of your own gritty behaviors or tooting your own horn. Instead, intentionally take opportunities to weave examples into everyday conversations with your team. For example, reference values (company or personal) often and make it clear how those values impact your decision making. Instead of only privately acknowledging the good within the company, speak to specific examples often. 

Tip #3 – Identify and prompt employee behaviors you want.

After defining and demonstrating grit in your own role as a leader, define and encourage gritty behaviors within your team. Again, resist the ever-tempting pull to speak vaguely about the actions you want more or less of. Terms like “be a better critical thinker” or “care more about our customer service” don’t clearly signal what success looks like. Get into the weeds and pinpoint what you’d expect to see or hear if that person did begin to improve. Becoming a better critical thinker might look (in part) like an employee reflecting upon the conclusion of a major project to identify areas of improvement and applying those insights to future projects. Caring more about customer service might be demonstrated by responding quickly to customer concerns and exploring all options to satisfy their needs and maintain a strong working relationship. 

Once you have a list of a few specific behaviors that you’d like to see more of, prompt them. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long conversation, or something that you hold onto until an annual review. The key factors here are specificity and timing. Make sure that it’s clear to the performer what behavior(s) you are looking for and the context/conditions under which the behavior should be performed. Also try to deliver the prompt right before the employee has an opportunity to try out the new behavior. A conversation from the day before will be much fresher (and thus more likely to influence behavior) than the memory of a 1:1 months ago. 

Tip #4 – Arrange ongoing support for the behaviors you want. 

As soon as you notice a positive shift in behavior, it’s important to recognize and reinforce those improvements. In its simplest form, this could be your own praise and recognition. Remember to speak to the behavior change in specific terms, just as you did when you prompted the behavior initially. This recognition will make it more likely that they’ll repeat the desired behavior or give it another try if the first attempt didn’t fully hit the mark. 

Recall that grit is characterized in part by the pursuit of long-term goals. As employees continue to incrementally improve, it may be a while before they experience the natural benefits of the behaviors that they’re working on (e.g. receiving a promotion, goal attainment, customer impact.) As a leader, you can bridge this gap by helping them recognize early indicators of success before the larger prize over the horizon. For example, sales coaches know that the ultimate accomplishment of closing a deal or earning a commission may not be enough to motivate the right behaviors day-to-day. Instead, they coach sales reps to focus on shorter-term leading indicators such as positive initial responses, requests for proposals or quotes, or detailed questions about the product/service. Helping an employee to recognize and interpret early indicators of success in their own work boosts resilience. It also decreases their reliance on rewards delivered by leaders or the organization.

The Bottom Line

There are tangible benefits to having a gritty workforce. While it may not be obvious how to teach grit, leaders can do more than hope that employees encounter hardship and find their way. Becoming gritty is less about experiencing hardship, and more about the effective behaviors people pick up and support that they receive along the way. Challenging while also supporting employees may be a delicate balance to strike, but it’s well worth putting in the intentional effort. While the specifics of your approach should be customized to the individual, leaders can begin by positioning themselves as coaches who model, define, encourage, and support critical behaviors that will enable people and the organization to succeed

Southwick, D. A., Tsay, C., Duckworth, A. L. (2019). Grit at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 39, 100126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2020.100126

Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.