Intelligence, typically defined as a person’s cognitive ability to analyze and deal with complex problems in a logical way, is undoubtedly a huge asset in the workplace, and is crucial in dealing effectively with work demands and challenges. 

The way intelligence is defined is still narrow and limiting

In today’s fast paced environment where the speed of change is dizzying, analytical intelligence is important, but insufficient for success. In recent decades psychologists and people professionals have increasingly recognized the importance of taking a broader approach to understanding and measuring intelligence that recognizes its multi-faceted nature. For example, Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard Business School introduced the idea of “multiple intelligences” as a way to broaden the research and practice on intelligence beyond logical, verbal, and numerical abilities. In recent decades this has given rise to a long overdue exploration of different intellectual strengths including creative, social, emotional, and practical intelligences. Studies indicate that for many roles, these are just as important as traditional types of intelligence. However, schools, higher education institutions and workplaces persist in inflating the importance of analytical intelligence. Measures typically used to assess intelligence such as IQ, verbal and numerical reasoning tests reflect this narrow approach. This significantly limits opportunities to expand our understanding and measurement of different types of intellectual strengths and talents in education and the workplace. Moreover, it is not just intelligence that is hugely important in predicting job performance.  

It is often the people who persevere that outperform intellectually gifted ‘smarts’ who lack the social-emotional skills to succeed or give up too quickly when confronted with new or difficult challenges.

So, can an employee who demonstrates exceptional perseverance achieve better results than someone who has higher logical intelligence and reasoning abilities?

Perseverance and Grit are just as important as intelligence  

Perseverance, or the capacity to persist in the face of obstacles or challenges, is receiving increasing attention from behavioural scientists and practitioners alike. Recent studies show that in many roles, it is people who work hard and stick to their long-term goals that are more likely to achieve peak performance. Those demonstrating both passion for their role and dogged perseverance, a combination that has been labelled “Grit” by psychologists, work hardest to overcome obstacles, and don’t give up under stress and pressure. They are therefore more likely to achieve their goals, even when their natural intelligence is lower.   

An interesting finding is that intelligence and Grit aren’t necessarily related. For example, many extremely intelligent people are bought up in overly protected environments and have learned little about dealing with hardship and facing difficult challenges, so they have very low levels of Grit. Contrast this to people who have fought hard to overcome adversity linked to their gender, ethnicity, or social class to succeed in a world that throws down razor-sharp tacks at every turn to slow their progress.

Perseverance is also crucial to develop learning agility required to deal with fast-changing environments. While intelligence is important to effective learning, if the person is not willing to put in the hard work and effort needed to develop new skills and adapt to constant changes, they won’t be able to sustain high levels of success. When tasks and problems are highly complex and the skills to master them are particularly difficult to learn, such as those found in leadership and technical specialist roles, perseverance becomes even more important. 

Hire for perseverance as well as intelligence 

Of course, for more complex, knowledge-intensive roles, the person who has both high levels of intelligence and perseverance is the person who will typically achieve the best performance. They are also more likely to have the Grit and learning agility to thrive in the face of extreme uncertainty and adversity. 

While intelligence is a key quality to have to be able to solve problems and make good, well-reasoned decisions, it is only effective if the person can use their intelligence in an agile way to deal with new and unexpected challenges and opportunities. Perseverance is essential to help leaders and employees tackle and overcome obstacles, deliver results under pressure, and adapt to change. Some may be surprised to learn that studies show that many of the most successful leaders and entrepreneurs are not people with the highest IQ scores or grades from school, college, or university. They achieve success principally through ambition, hard work, love, and belief in what they are doing and dogged perseverance to succeed. Human Resources professionals would therefore be well advised to incorporate this ability to persevere into their assessment strategies to ensure it is part of the way they attract, select, develop, and manage their talent.    

About the Author

James is a leadership and talent consultant, business psychologist, and executive coach. He has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders, teams, and organizations to optimize their talent, performance, and future success.

Before moving into consulting, James held corporate leadership roles in People and Talent Management in the UK and abroad with companies such as Yahoo! and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. Since moving into talent consulting and assessment design, he has supported leaders and teams globally across many sectors and geographies. Clients he has worked with include Allen & Overy, Commvault, Equinor, Graze, LVMH, Facebook, GSK, Hilton, John Lewis, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, NHS, Oracle, Sainsbury's, Swiss Re, Tesco, WSP and Yahoo! James has founded and run several ventures, including Strengthscope®, an international strengths assessment and development business, that he sold in 2018.

James has a Master’s in Organizational Psychology, an MBA, and an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching. He is a regular writer and speaker on talent assessment and development, leadership, and the future of work.