Credit: Patrick Regout

Why persistence doesn't always pay

Tenacity and grit are often seen as crucial for success in business but these qualities can be positively dangerous.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2016

We are always being told that winners don't give up. Tenacity, perseverance, doggedness, grit...Whatever you call it, the idea that success requires above all the capacity to stick at it is pretty well established. But is it true? In some cases tenacity, perseverance, doggedness and even grit can be positively dangerous.

Let's take a look at psychologist Prof Angela Duckworth's formal concept of 'Grit'. The founder of the eponymous Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, she developed not only the idea of grit but also the questionnaire to measure it. When applied to cadets at West Point military academy, her simple measure of grit turned out to be a better predictor of who would complete the course than the army's sophisticated tests. (It also has a lot to do with those who complete a college education.)

So far, so good. But in the real world there is a dark side to grit - I have seen it in action, and it isn't pretty. I spent years as a turnaround specialist and if I had to identify the biggest cause of business failure, I think it might be grit. Dogged persistence in doing the same things, even when it is clear to any sane observer that they aren't working any more.

Look at some of the defining traits -gritty people do not, for example, agree that 'new ideas and projects distract me'. Sounds a lot like Kodak. It heroically managed not to be 'distracted' by the 'new idea' of digital photography. In the same way, Nokia succeeded for years in not being distracted by smartphones.

Another troubling characteristic of 'gritsters' is that their interests do not change from year to year. But the world does change, sometimes quite a lot.

Professor Duckworth's examples come from situations where it is very clear what you need to do, and what the success criteria are. But once you leave school, you don't meet many of those situations. Managing a business in a volatile world is a different sort of challenge. Adaptability and the ability to find the right path are more important. Without that, grit represents the hard road to failure.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Visit

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