These days, I hear the word “grit” used often in reference to employment and recruiting. It’s a characteristic we all look for when hiring. We see people with grit as fighters, determined, and resilient — all of which are fantastic qualities that drive performance.
What we don’t recognize is that grit has a dark underbelly that, left unchecked, can have severe consequences. Only by examining and understanding the psychological architecture of grit can we effectively hire for grittiness.
The Dark Side of Grit
There are several working definitions, but I understand grit as a quality of relentless perseverance. I was told I have it. When I was hiring, subconsciously, it was the primary trait I looked for. I wanted people with an edge — people who had that magic combination of focus, ambition, and work ethic, people who wouldn’t be deterred by bumps in the road.
In my opinion, a person’s grit is directly tied to the events in that person’s life. It comes from some core psychological injuries. In my case, it was shame and insecurity. I came to America as an immigrant. I was poor, I was abused as a child, and my parents had difficulty connecting with me and giving me the core, integrated praise I needed to healthily develop. I was a textbook case: I wanted to rid myself of all that shame through achievement. Seeking success, money, and power was my way of curing all that shame I felt from being poor.
So, what did I do? I spent 24 years building a business, recently selling it and retiring at the age of 45. The business was not a success off the bat. It took years of extreme highs and lows and total commitment to build it to what it is today. I stuck with it because of an intense motivation fueled by anger and pain — but that same anger and pain were almost my undoing. No success could ever address what was going on in my psyche. I began to look to other places to self-soothe, and I almost blew up my entire world with my $1,500 a week cocaine habit.
I was lucky, though. I sought counseling. I have spent the last 15 years of my life working on my life, spending two days a week in psychoanalysis with the same psychiatrist. I have put more than 1,200 hours into understanding why I am the way I am. Under my great accomplishments was a deep depression I was trying my best to avoid. At the same time, it was holding me back. My fragile self-esteem both craved success and couldn’t handle it. My destructive behaviors would worsen following any kind of positive development, and the business would suffer.
With the correct mental health intervention, I was able to address the depression that lay beneath my drive. Addressing the depression didn’t hurt or diminish my drive. In fact, it helped. I was still gritty and resilient, but I was also now tolerant of success. I could handle the idea that I deserved my accomplishments. Instead of my business being caught in a boom/bust cycle, it was on a steady positive trajectory.
Hiring for Grit — the Right Way
I have hired hundreds of people in the course of my decades in business, including some truly great employees. Because of my own battle with depression, I was intensely aware of their psyches. I learned to distinguish someone who had grit but no ability to regulate their self-esteem from someone who could.
I learned that grit, especially in the short run, can help the performance of the company. A tenacious salesperson who is driven and fixated on closing their next deal is a huge boon. However, if that drive comes from something like a lack of praise growing up, then this person is insecure. They do not have true self-love and confidence. They fight every day — to the advantage of the company — to achieve, to find that love they didn’t receive. They substitute the praise they get from their peers for the real love they never got.
The initial results are good for the company, but people like this may attempt to achieve at any cost. They may forsake teamwork. They may cross ethical boundaries. They may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. Suffice it to say that, in the long run, these kinds of behaviors will really get a business in trouble.
My advice is simple: Hire people with grit but who know where they are in their personal development. Look for candidates with grit who have a good understanding of where their fight comes from. Candidates who possess a certain level of self-awareness will harness that energy in a more sustainable and healthy way. The perfect hire has the resilience and work ethic employers are looking for, but with a quiet confidence. With grit, it’s all about finding the right balance.
Parham Parastaran is an Iranian-American entrepreneur and author with a passion for discussing mental health issues in the business community. His memoir, Perfect Pain, is available now.