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James Brook

Strengths Partnership


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Is perseverance more important than intelligence?


Intelligence, or a person’s cognitive ability to understand and deal with complex problems in a rational and purposeful way, is undoubtedly a huge asset in the workplace, and is crucial in dealing effectively with work demands and challenges.

However, in today’s fast paced environment where the speed of change is dizzying, intellectual horsepower is insufficient for success. It is often those who are passionate about their work and more willing to persevere that outperform disengaged or partially engaged intellectuals, who give up too quickly when faced with tough challenges.

So, if an intelligent person is not willing to persevere, is this person still going to be effective and resilient when the chips are down? And can an employee with less intelligence achieve more through perseverance?

Perseverance and building skills

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 on ‘grit’ – which essentially enables people to work hard and stick to their long-term goals – highlights the value of perseverance in the high-pressure, fast-changing situations that characterise the ‘new normal’ in organisations today.

Those with high levels of grit work hardest to overcome obstacles and are more effective, while those with low levels of grit give up on the task earlier.

Interestingly, intelligence and grit are not necessarily related.

In fact, many extremely intelligent people, especially those who are brought up in overly protected environments, have learned little about dealing with hardship and facing difficult challenges, resulting in very low levels of grit.

For example, one of my school friends was exceptionally bright and was at the top of our school year, however, broke down at university where the learning environment and content became more complex and less structured, requiring a lot more self-management and perseverance.

Of course, for more complex, knowledge-based roles, the person who has both intelligence and grit typically achieves the highest levels of performance and has the perseverance to successfully achieve their longer-term goals, even in the face of extreme adversity.   

Perseverance is also crucial when learning new skills and developing agility to deal with fast-changing environments. While intelligence is important to effective learning, as it makes the process much easier, those who are not willing to take the time and effort needed to gain new skills and adapt to changes at work will not be successful in the longer run.

Of course, perseverance becomes increasingly important when skills and habits are highly complex and challenging to learn, and also when people get older and brain function and plasticity – or the extent to which neural pathways can be changed or modified – decline.

Perseverance and overcoming stress

Stress is increasingly common in the workplace, especially in the fast-paced world we currently live in. It is vital that employees are able to learn how to overcome workplace stress and bounce back from setbacks, having grown their skills and resourcefulness through the experience.

Intelligence is clearly very helpful in this respect, as the ability to understand a problem, and apply this understanding to solve it through logical and abstract thinking, is a huge advantage in preventing stressful situations in the first place. When people do experience setbacks, a person with high intelligence is also more likely to make sense of the issue, take well-planned steps to get back on track, and learn from the experience. 

However, intelligence is insufficient to cope in times of great stress and pressure, where perseverance becomes more important. People who have perseverance are able to continue working despite the difficulties they are faced with. They are less likely to panic or give up, especially when the goal is important to them and is aligned with their passions and strengths.

Perseverance and developing leadership

Finally, the development of future leaders is vital to any workplace, to attract, motivate, develop, and retain top talent, and to keep the company on course in delivering a well-planned vision and strategy.

Of course, intelligence is a crucial characteristic of any leader. However, what is more important are managers who understand and optimise their unique strengths and passions, and use these to persevere through the wide variety of challenges most organisations face, while supporting and encouraging others to do the same.

Leaders and employees require a range of qualities and skills to be effective in the workplace. Both intelligence and perseverance are increasingly important, as traditional methods of managing talent, and achieving success, give way to more innovative and agile approaches.

While intelligence is a key quality to be able to make decisions, adapt to change and overcome challenges, it is only effective if it is used with agility. Perseverance can help a leader or employee to persist past these obstacles, even if one they have a lower level of intelligence.

In fact, research suggests that many of the most successful leaders are not in the upper quartile of the population on IQ tests. They achieve success principally through ambition, hard work, a love and belief in what they are doing, and dogged perseverance to succeed.

Human Resources leaders would therefore be well advised to incorporate this vital quality into their success models and the way they attract, select, develop and manage their talent. 

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James Brook


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