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When Buffalo Bills cornerback Vonate Davis ended his NFL career in the middle of a game last month, the action ran up against many of our deeply held beliefs about the virtue of persistence. He said it wasn’t how he expected to retire – just deciding not to come out to play the second half of the game – but the backlash was instantaneous.

Before responding instinctively, maybe we need to give his decision deeper thought. André Spicer, a professor of organizational behaviour at Cass Business School in London, said such an incident raises the question: How long should I stick with something?

He notes in the Harvard Business Review that psychologists studying “grit” have found that the capacity to stick with a task, particularly when facing difficulties, is a crucial element of success. As well, persevering in the face of adversity can lead to learning and, if our luck changes, major advances.

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But there is also contrary research. In particular, one recent analysis of studies of 66,000 people found a weak link between grit and performance. “In fact, there’s a large body of work showing that perseverance may have a harmful downside. Not giving up can mean people persist even when they have nothing to gain,” Mr. Spicer writes.

Remaining fixated on long-cherished goals can also mean people ignore better alternatives. A career example comes from baseball, where minor-league players often receive low pay and have little job security. But they stick it out, hoping for a glorious major-league future. However, the odds are against them: Only about 11 per cent of players will make that transition, Mr. Spicer says, while the other 89 per cent strike out.

Being unwilling to let go can also lead to perpetual dissatisfaction, even when you get what you thought you wanted. He notes a study of graduating students looking for a job found those fixated on achieving the best possible job did end up getting 20 per cent more in terms of salary. But they were also generally more dissatisfied with what they got and found the process of securing the post – sticking with it until they got the maximum – was more painful.

He says an unwillingness to quit can also become dangerous, when people’s persistence leads them to continue with losing courses of action. A study of would-be inventors found more than half would continue with their efforts even after receiving reliable advice that their invention was fatally flawed, sinking more money into the project. “The lesson: People who tend to be tenacious are also those who get trapped into losing courses of action,” Mr. Spicer writes.

They can also face stress, depression, headaches, digestion issues and sleep difficulties. “So when you ask yourself whether to stick with a task or goal, or to let it go, weigh the potential to continue learning and developing incrementally against the costs, dangers, and myopia which can come with stubborn perseverance,” he concludes.

Be wary of the fine line between stubbornness and stupidity

Grit can involve stubbornness. And, as with deciding when to quit, there can be a fine line between stubbornness and stupidity, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, a Canadian-trained psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development at INSEAD, notes.

At times, only by being stubborn can we bring a great idea to life. General Charles de Gaulle was hailed for his refusal to admit defeat after France was overrun by Nazi Germany and led the resistance.

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“Because stubborn people know what they want, they tend to be more decisive. They have greater focus and they get things done. Qualities like vision, action orientation, grit, resilience and persistence are derivatives of stubbornness. We can even argue that perseverance is stubbornness with a purpose,” he writes on the INSEAD business school’s website.

But there can be an ugly side to stubbornness when people dig in their heels, even though it’s obvious they’re wrong. Although stubborn people project strength and power, he says it is only a façade, the stubbornness perhaps a sign of insecurity and a way to hold on to a very fragile mental equilibrium. Stubbornness involves a rigidity of behaviour, often linked to a fear of change.

He says that when stubborn people perceive a threat to their dignity or pride, they may turn to power games. They also have a tendency to view people as “good” or "bad,” depending on how those folks react to their ideas.

“People can only change if they are prepared to explore why they do what they do and discover different ways to deal with life. Stubborn people will profit from becoming more aware of the underlying issues behind their compulsion to be right,” he says. Without reflection, he warns, your stubbornness is pure stupidity.

If you’re dealing with a stubborn person, try to uncover the story behind the stubbornness. What experiences led to such behaviour? Remember it’s a survival instinct for the other person, so tread lightly. He suggests practising “a form of emotional judo. Whatever resistances stubborn people put up – and however irritating they may be – helpers should try to remain empathic. Arguing with stubborn people will not pay off.”

Three vital career questions

Here are three questions you should ask both yourself and a trusted colleague, career coach Alan Kearns suggests in his blog :

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  • What am I great at?
  • What am I weak at?
  • What is one way I can improve in both?

Quick hits

  • These days, a hug in a networking environment can be a potentially dangerous thing. To avoid an inadvisable hug – whether you’re a man or woman – the networking experts at Shepa Learning Company advise you to put out your hand; the other person will automatically shake it.
  • Facts don’t change our mind; friendship does. Blogger James Clear says the people who are most likely to change our minds are those we agree with on 98 per cent of topics. We trust them and may be willing to follow their lead toward a new perspective.
  • If life just feels like one thing after another, management consultant Michael Wade suggests your strategy should be to respond in kind. Do one thing at a time – not two or three things. Then another. And another.
  • If you are thinking of moving into management, consultant Art Petty suggests interviewing three managers about their experiences – ideally a senior, middle, and established first-time manager.
  • On Skype or Zoom, when talking, spend some time looking at the camera, not the screen. You’ll appear more earnest and honest, advises entrepreneur Seth Godin.

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