Why You Should Stop Hiring With "Grit" Interviews

Success is about more than being "gritty."

When you look at the great tech leaders of history—Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey—what is the one quality that unites them?

Grit, supposedly.

Grit is a concept invented by Angela Lee Duckworth in her bestselling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. The basic idea, as Duckworth describes, is that “grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal—is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.”

Since grit rolled onto the pop psychology scene, startups have quickly adopted it into their hiring criteria. “Grit" interviews, designed to gauge how well a candidate may fare in the face of adversity, have become staples for many companies.

The problem is that grit—at least as Duckworth defines it—is a pretty poor hiring signal. Work ethic and perseverance are good traits, but standard grit interviews are fundamentally ineffective.

Why grit interviews are so low signal

Duckworth's original focus with grit was around education. She was trying to answer why certain students, regardless of IQ, succeeded in school while others failed. Since her initial report, proponents have touted grit as the secret to success in nearly every domain, from education to athletics to business.

However, researchers have suggested that maybe success stems from more than some cartoonish, Rocky-esque idea of resiliency. More specifically, critics of grit have pointed out:

  • Duckworth's data is grossly misleading. While studying West Point cadets, she claimed that those exhibiting grit were 99% more likely to complete a specific training exercise. In reality, 94% of all cadets passed.
  • The influence of grit on academic success has been found to be modest. Duckworth even admitted to NPR that it is in the “small-to-medium” range of impact.
  • As Jal Mehta, education professor at Harvard, says, “The most prominent critique is that an emphasis on grit is a way of 'blaming the victim'—rather than take up larger questions of social, economic, and racial justice, if only the most disadvantaged kids were a little "grittier" they could make it in life.”

So grit as a concept has some problems. But fundamentally, evaluating candidates for their ability to overcome tough problems is defensible, right? Sure, but not if you're using a standard grit interview.

Most grit interviews are useless because they don't connect a person's “grit” to their actual performance. Mental toughness is important, but only if there is evidence that it yields results. There are plenty of passionate and relentless, but myopic and unproductive people in the world.

How to interview for perseverance and performance

To understand how a candidate's perseverance corresponds to performance, you need to walk through a person's career with them and build context around how they've performed in each role. This type of interview can take time, but it will ultimately explain how a candidate's ability to overcome obstacles has—or hasn't—driven results.

For example, extremely confident candidates may present themselves as relentless, but after examining their actual contributions and responsibilities in previous jobs, you may realize what they consider a “massive obstacle” barely qualifies as a speed bump in your company. Similarly, less confident candidates may undersell themselves, but after looking through their work history, you may see they've persevered to deliver results that changed the course of their business.

There's a simple framework for running this type of interview effectively:

Take candidate resumes, and for every role they've held (or held in the past decade, if they're highly experienced), ask:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were the lowest points during that job?
  • How did you overcome those low points?
  • Why did you leave that job?
  • What sequence of events lead you to your next job?

Individuals whose perseverance has translated into actual performance will have a track record of overcoming obstacles, exceeding goals, and leaving roles because they're moving forward.

Context is everything

Grit is an attractive concept because it is rooted in qualities we know to be valuable: passion and perseverance. It dresses them up as a simple, yet quantifiable metric you can lean on to justify hiring decisions. That same simplicity, though, is what makes grit so ineffective.

The key to running an effective job history-focused interview is to give your candidates room to share as much context about their professional experience as possible. If there were challenges they couldn't overcome in a role, give them the latitude to explain why. Was the company struggling when they joined? Or was it truly the candidate's inability to deliver that ultimately caused the problem?

Good hiring requires that you holistically evaluate candidates to understand if they're the best fit for your roles, and while gathering extensive context may be time-consuming, it will help you build a better team.

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