Paul G. Stoltz Ph.D.

Put Your Mindset to Work

AQ, GRIT, and Employability

Five fatal flaws in hiring for resilience and tenacity

Posted Jan 01, 2019

I remember as a kid, the sure fire secret for discerning whether or not your friend had a hidden hankering for butter was to hold a dandelion under their chin.  A yellow reflective glow revealed the irrefutable truth.  “It’s like real science!” Jamie Roberts, our class brainiac exclaimed during our second grade recess, when, sure enough, it worked on only two out of three of the utterly mesmerized boys assembled for the experiment.   Funny, but one of those “butter lovers” actually turned out to be lactose intolerant. 

Too often, employers rely on an equivalent level of “science” when it comes to figuring out which job candidates and employees are best equipped to handle and take on the tough stuff.   And, much like the constant barrage of TMI (too much information) stories my friend, the sex therapist endures, employers are all to eager to bend my ear about what they do behind their closed doors. 

The fact is, the vast, and I do mean vast, majority of employers that believe and/or claim they are hiring, promoting, retaining, and/or rewarding people for resilience and grit, well… aren’t.  Even worse, they are living with the dangerous and potentially disastrous assumption that they are.  And what’s worst? They may be getting the antithesis of what they seek—and at an almost incalculable cost to moral, the customer, and the enterprise. 

Let’s be clear.  Sometimes what seems intuitively obvious doesn’t work.  And sometimes really smart people get suckered into ineffective shortcuts.  Few have escaped such seductions.  I’d love to save you some pain, as well as some potentially costly mistakes, by sharing with you how five of the most common, seemingly obvious strategies can lead you astray.

The Question

Some version of this scenario has played out hundreds of times.  It happens most frequently during one of the breaks in some AQ and/or GRIT related program I may be teaching.  “Hey, Dr. Paul.  I got one for ya!  Wanna know how I hire high AQ [or gritty] people?  In the interview, see, I wait for the right moment, and I ask this question:  What is the single biggest adversity you’ve ever faced, and how did you handle it? Brilliant, huh?”  There are dozens of variations on that question, but the same problems arise. 

There are at least five fatal flaws, or reasons why, what on the surface seems to smart, can utterly backfire. 

Fatal Flaw #1—The First Date Syndrome

As we all know, job interviews are like first dates.  A person’s never going to show up looking better, smelling better, and acting better than in that moment.  They are there to impress you and win the offer.  That’s what they are coached and motivated to do. 

PEAK Learning, Inc.
Source: PEAK Learning, Inc.

Fatal Flaw #2—Revisionist Memory

Another reason the Adversity Question strategy fails is because—as neuropsychologists have irrefutably proven and I’m not sure where I first discovered this but—human memory is notoriously flawed.  What are the chances that you, I, or anyone would either A) accurately recall (and share) the worst adversity, and B) accurately recall (and share) our true response—let alone both?   Chances are, just like when you hear families recall childhood memories, if you asked the five people closest to the actual events described, you would get five, often radically, disparate renditions. 

There’s another two-prong blinding force or insidious syndrome at play.  AQ colors hardship.  GRIT colors struggle/effort. 

Fatal Flaw # 3—The High/Low AQ Lens

Consider but one side of these two coins.  It turns out that the higher a person’s AQ actually is, the more difficult, if not impossible it becomes to answer the Adversity Question.  Why?  Because people with exceptionally high AQs—the one’s employers most want to hire—don’t even understand the word, let alone recall “adversity.” 

Case in point.  I once brought a client to visit my 100-year old grandmother, “Mum,” in Buffalo, NY, to confirm in person, the incredible high AQ story I had told about her, during a session that day in nearby Niagara, Canada.  “Mum,” the client probed, “Since Paul was talking about you today, I hope you don’t mind me asking, what have been the biggest adversities in your life?” 

“Well, I have to say, I can’t really think of any!  I’ve had such a fortunate, and I have to tell you, wonderful life!” Mum responded, with her typical exuberance.  The client looked at me smugly, as if to confirm my (and Mum’s) status as a complete fraud. 

“I’m sorry, but you asked the wrong question.” I explained.  “Mum,” I asked, leaning in, gently touching her on the knee, “tell us, what have been some of the most interesting and important challenges you’ve faced over the past century?” 

After she explained her family’s house burning to the ground in the Buffalo winter—with no insurance—her dropping out of school to take care of her siblings when she lost her dad as primary breadwinner, her putting said siblings through college, her bouts with “terminal” cancer, bankruptcy, loss of husband and income, taking over the family business at 65 years of age, the Great Depression, raising my mother with a potentially fatal congenital heart condition, she cheerily summarized, “So, really not much at all, just a few bumps in the road!” 

The inverse is true of people with lower AQs.  They are far more likely to perceive even a fairly blessed life as being rife with adversity, as well as viewing typically modest setbacks to be Everest-scale obstacles. 

PEAK Learning, Inc.
Source: PEAK Learning, Inc.

Fatal Flaw #4—The GRIT Lens

A similar, reality-warping argument can be made across the board, for GRIT.  

“Being a tech company that deals with the constant complexity of implementing digital solutions, we believe grit is our secret weapon.  Everything takes serious tenacity and quality effort, over time,” one famous employer explained.  “That’s why we look for the struggle.” 

When asked, exactly how they do that—get at “the struggle”—the employer elucidated their master stroke.  “We look at life and work, since we believe both reveal more truth than either one alone. We ask, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how difficult has your life been, so far?’ and then we ask them to tell us about the most difficult, frustrating, long-term task or effort they have taken on in their work, so far.”

Despite the thoughtful effort and intuitive sense behind these questions, you can probably predict or see the fatal flaw. 

PEAK Learning, Inc.
Source: PEAK Learning, Inc.

We know this from measuring their GRIT using the GRIT Gauge® online assessment.   You can probably spot the gasp-worthy irony and potentially crippling backfire this syndrome presents. 

Fatal Flaw #5—The Resilient Reference Check

If you’ve ever served as a job reference for a mediocre performer, you instantly grok the inherent quandary.  On one hand, you feel responsible for being honest and thorough in your responses. But on the other hand, you face the moral and legal constraints of limiting what you say, and nuancing how you say it.  The truth is, for more employers, the days of getting the unvarnished truth from any prospects references are largely gone. 

That’s bad enough.  Add to that the reality-distorting dimensions of AQ, resilience, and grit.  Not only must references carefully consider each response, they, much like the candidate in question, will most likely have flawed and incomplete perspective on that candidates resilience, as well as their capacity for struggle, sacrifice, effort, persistence, agility, and completion.  Why?  Because both AQ and GRIT are largely private and internal. 

PEAK Learning, Inc.
Source: PEAK Learning, Inc.

Misdiagnosis is consequential.  While serving butter to someone who is lactose intolerant can induce some serious discomfort, hiring (promoting, retaining, rewarding) the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, can have a far more crippling effect.   

The Responsibility—Educational Institutions

As they have these conversations, people have awakened the dark underbelly of raw/severe/tenacity. When educators ponder what it means ethically to equip students for success within and beyond their academic life, the qualitative dimensions of GRIT (also measured by the GRIT Gauge) appear to be paramount.

Separately, but not unrelated, this scrutiny directed at institutions of higher education around not just job placement percentages, but including duration, trajectory, and value contribution of employment has truly intensified. In other words, as institutions of higher learning are held more and more accountable for the kind of human being they send forth into the world, our sophistication and need toward GRIT (and AQ) ever evolves.

When it comes to AQ, resilience, and GRIT, remember, those who talk the longest and loudest, are often the lowest.