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High Grit, High Performing, and Low in Self-Esteem?

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Why do so many high grit (as defined by Dr. Angela Duckworth), high performing, Mission Critical Team (MCT) members score so low in self-esteem (personal pessimism)?

This is a question I’ve been investigating since I sent many of you a survey in October 2016.  By the way, thanks very much to the 46 people who responded.

A note on Mission Critical Teams (MCTs) and the sample population.  Most everyone surveyed has been on some version of an MCT.  For purposes of this paper, I’ll define MCTs (credit to Preston Cline, Director, Wharton Leadership Ventures Program) as teams that deal with complex and chaotic problems, in highly adaptive environments that have both temporal and spatial constraints.  Said another way, MCTs deal with problems that:

  • don’t follow consistent patterns,
  • the problems adapt real time, and
  • the team is up against both deadlines and physics.
  • the environment also happens to be saturated with data and communications

It’s beyond the scope of this paper to detail the entire body of research around MCTs. Please let it suffice that most (not all) team members on MCTs share a pool of similar experiences and individual performance traits: tactical, physiological, behavioral, and psychological.

I sent you the survey last October because I had recently read Learned Optimism and Flourish.  My interest was simply additional background information on positive psychology since I’d followed and read so much of Dr. Angela Duckworth and Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on Grit and Mindset, respectively.  While reading Learned Optimism, I took the test in the book that measures levels of optimism or pessimism across the three explanatory styles of positive psychology:

  • personal (events that happen are all on you, or not),
  • permanence (events that happen will last forever), and
  • pervasiveness (events in one category will happen across all categories of life).

My results showed that I was fairly optimistic with respect to permanence and pervasiveness.  There is another score called the “hope” score on which I also scored very “hopeful.”  Then, unexpectedly, I scored terribly pessimistically on the personal scores.  When I say pessimistically, I mean in the low self-esteem category.  I’m certainly not in a position to question the validity of the theory or the measures.  At the same time, I retook Dr. Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale  My grit score is very high.  I’m wondering why I could be so high in grit and so low in self-esteem, which is what the low personal optimism scores show.  I wondered about my background in MCTs and how other really high grit, high contribution teammates would score? 

Here’s what the data from the Team Room shows.  For the 46 respondents who took the survey:

• Over 25% of respondents are Extremely Gritty

• Over 61% are Very Gritty or better (this includes the 25% who are Extremely Gritty)

• Only two (2) people in the group score average or just below average in grit

This is a high-grit group. This didn’t surprise me at all.

Here’s what did surprise me. Rather, here’s what led me to do this mini-exercise in the first place:

• 89% of the group is of either moderate or very low self-esteem

• Over half the group is “very pessimistic” concerning good events happening AND of “very low self-esteem” in relation to bad events

• Only three (3) people are even moderately or very optimistic

• Not one single person scored at high self-esteem.

Are we really a bunch of high-grit Eeyores?   Maybe, but not likely to the extremes we see here.  And if we really are then I’m curious if our time and intensity in MCTs have an outsized impact on our individual optimism and pessimism scores?

Again, these are all measures that are validated over decades of positive psychology research.  How can folks who presumably measure relatively high in talent, skill, and very high in effort also be so drastically pessimistic with such low self-esteem?

  • Are current measures not fully capturing something going on in our MCTs and how that affects an individual when not in an MCT?
  • Are we (MCT people) really incompetent to cope with the basic challenges of life? Do we all really feel unworthy of happiness? Do we not believe in the efficacy of mind, in our ability to think? (definitions of low self-esteem)

I suppose it is possible that this population of people (the MCT, high grit type) are all inherently pessimistic!  However, some of us score in the depression-range. I find this hard to believe. 

Was pessimism beaten into us prior to ever joining our team environments?  I’m not willing to outright accept the aforementioned data without more substantial measures and deeper investigation adapted specifically to teams.

Rather, my tentative hypothesis is that:

  1. Conditioning from certain team environments “taught” us low self-esteem and high pessimism (scored as a function of these individual measures)?
  2. If our environments “teach” or condition low self-esteem and high pessimism,
    • What are the possible positive and negative effects to the team and individually?
    • What causes these effects?
    • What are the possible effects to the individual once outside of the team environment and outside of the team’s support structure?
    • Team grit, optimism, and pessimism is different from individually measured grit in how it is defined, developed, and applied. And its effects on individuals also carry unique characteristics.

So what?

I haven’t found much data or literature that defines or measures a distinction between individual and team grit, optimism, and pessimism. In Learned Optimism, I was able to find only one page and one-half on teams. Same thing in the book Flourish.  I’m also curious if we can effectively measure high optimism teams (also presumably with high grit) to see if the collective would score “better” than the individuals themselves score? This seems to be likely in a very small sample set. How much “grittier” is an individual when operating in a team versus operating alone.

There is a chance that being on a mission critical team with very objective boundaries and the associated risks conditions us to noticeable individual pessimism (or radically realistic).

Again, the secondary question then is, “Is this a fundamental attribute of being on an MCT?”

Maybe we condition to see the world pessimistically, because bad events can kill you (or mean catastrophic failure) and you’re never sure if good events will last. In fact, you have evidence that good events won’t last. If this is a fundamental element of MCTs, and we spend a lifetime in this type of profession, what does this teach us about the effects?

References and further reading:

How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

Nathaniel Branden on Self-Esteem

Mission Critical Team Research, Preston Cline

Grit, Dr. Angela Duckworth

Lawrence Gonzales, Deep Survival principles

Power of negative thinking: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2016/12/the-power-of-negative-thinking/

Reflections on the Stockdale Legacy, Dr. Martin Cook

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