Written By
Max Brown


How do you interview a candidate for grit?

Grit can help accurately predict which employees have the drive to succeed in complex or intellectually challenging environments. So it’s desirable to hire employees with this trait. But you can’t simply ask someone if they have it. So how can an interviewer effectively evaluate someone for grit?

Defining Grit

First, it’s important to get a general overview of what we mean by Grit. It’s a combination of perseverance and emotional stability used to achieve long term goals even when short term circumstances are rough. This person is resilient in high pressure environments and also level headed and focused – even when a million things are happening at once.

Interview process tips

One of the best ways we’ve found to discover grit in candidates is through analyzing anecdotal experience or observing the way they work through case studies.  Make sure that they accept pressure and work through it as opposed to trying to remove or avoid it.

You can start this portion of the interview by asking about the most stressful environment they’ve worked in, the most pressure they’ve been under for a deadline, but then switch gears and ask about a time they felt like they were put under pressure unfairly.  The key here is to see if they take the bait and talk mainly about the situation and why it was unfair, or whether they talk more about how they dealt with it.  The employees you want are the ones that will say something like “sure, I’ve been put under pressure unfairly,  but sometimes that happens.  So I got it done and afterwards I sat down with my boss to make sure it didn’t happen again.”  That’s a good answer, whereas a bad answer focuses on why the situation was unfair and doesn’t have a clear answer for how they moved past it, got the job done, and then communicated effectively to prevent future issues.

Perfect is the enemy of complete

Make sure your candidate is not a perfectionist – a perfectionist gets more and more frustrated and agitated as it becomes clear that what they’re working on can’t be perfected. Taken to extremes, this obstructs progress and projects can come to a grinding halt. As with a lot of things in a startup or an established business, grit means someone capable of pushing through a project with an end goal in mind and often that means making tradeoffs.  Perfectionists hate tradeoffs but driving projects in the real world startup environment requires them.

Interview with a perfectionist

A good way to spot a perfectionist is to get an interviewee talking about a time he had to make a tradeoff.  How you phrase this question depends a lot of the role you are trying to fill. For example, if you are interviewing a recruiter you can ask if they’ve ever been in a situation where they had too many open positions at one time to do both detailed sourcing and detailed screening calls (a good recruiter will say yes), then ask how they dealt with that, what tradeoff they made and why.

A successful hiring manager’s secret

There is an important difference between failing and giving up.  Ironically, the best candidates will have done both, and be able to tell you the difference. Generally speaking, the best employees for early stage companies or leadership positions in established firms will have an exceptional combination of grit, passion, and skill.  Anyone who has exhibited that throughout their career will have, at some point, taken on way too much and had moment where they either failed at something completely or considered giving up and turned it around.

This focus on goal achievement is what companies want, because this trait helps people and teams succeed. Grit is one of several key character traits of high achieving candidates, but it’s often overlooked. The process of finding the best candidate can seem like a game of darts. In the outermost ring, you find candidates who look great on paper and have the necessary skills and experience to succeed. As you move closer to the center, you see demonstrated industry knowledge, passion, and an ability to effectively communicate with others. Finally, when you find people who are truly driven to succeed, and understand that large goals take time to achieve, you reach the bullseye. That’s an ideal candidate.