How to spot team players in job interviews

While it might not always be the first thing to come to people’s minds, ‘teamwork’ is rapidly becoming one of the most important competitive advantages for every organization – especially in a remote/hybrid work environment.

At a time when resilience is measured by people’s ability to embrace uncertainty, tolerate failure, and keep calm under pressure, it’s no longer enough to just hire for credentials, technical abilities, domain expertise. Companies need generous-spirited “happy warriors” who are ready to roll up their sleeves and make life better for their team each day, not introduce drama or disagreeable attitudes. In short they need people who aren’t just in it for themselves.

But how does one actually hire for this rather less than obvious skill? How can HR professionals really know they’re hiring those that demonstrate or inspire a spirit of collaboration?

The truth of the matter is that it isn’t easy. The process can be complex and nuanced, as HRDs/recruiters have to assess soft skills and attitudes that don’t always fit a checklist.

But there are a few, key, questions that I believe they should ask – questions that should create insights on candidates’ true all-important level of collaboration:

1) Ask for “failure stories,” not success stories

It’s easy to ask candidates to share stories of about when things went well and their teams achieved huge successes. But what about failures? Ask your candidates to share details about the times in their career when they took the initiative but it didn’t go well. This might include:

  • What did they learn from the hard times?
  • How did they navigate disappointment?
  • How did they take accountability for their role?
  • What happened next?
  • What could they and their team have done better?

If people are quick to share a sense of vulnerability, and even good humor about the lessons learned, then this is a good sign. If they share stories about supporting their team, helping colleagues recover from the failure, or taking responsibility for their own mistakes or misguided decisions, that’s also a positive.

If, on the other hand, people are defensive and rigid when asked to share a “failure story,” or when a candidate can’t recall any failures, or when a candidate casts blame on their former colleagues or company instead of finding fault with themselves, these are all ominous signs that your candidate might not be a good team player.

2) Ask process-oriented questions

Sometimes collaboration is about the process more than the result. Hiring candidates is not just about occasions when they successfully solved problems, but understanding how people thought, and asking them to show their work.

Ask questions that draw out your candidate’s thinking and perspectives on the process of managing projects and working in a team. These might include:

  • What was one of your proudest moments leading a team or spearheading an initiative?
  • What characteristics, skills, and attitudes do you most want to see in your colleagues?
  • How do you prefer to deliver feedback to colleagues?
  • What situations typically frustrate you at work?
  • How do you handle difficult conversations with colleagues?

All of these questions can illustrate a candidate’s mindset around the process of managing projects and the subtle nuances of working in a team. They can also deliver good insights around how the candidate feels about working with colleagues. The best team players tend to share a powerful sense of support, empathy, and a collaborative attitude in how they answer these types of questions.

Look for positive, generous commentary from the candidate – they should be eager to share praise; they should have an open, generous spirit; they should be full of memorable stories about talented, hard-working people that have helped them to achieve more than they could alone.

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If, however, the candidate sounds self-centered and is ‘all about me,’ then this could be a sign they are too focused on themselves and are not able to be effective collaborators.

If the candidate is sharing negative, pessimistic stories of blame and drama, then the candidate is unlikely to be a good team player.

3) Be expansive about the future

Some of the most successful companies have a clear sense of mission and social impact. Lots of the best team players are idealistic. They want to create positive change in the world, as well as make a living. So, in your interview process, don’t be afraid to think ‘big’ with your candidates, and encourage them to share lofty goals for their future and for those of the company.

Questions might include:

  • What do you want to accomplish at this company?
  • What inspires you about the idea of working here?
  • What are some big changes that you would like to make in the world, aside from work?

In other words, tap into your candidates’ sense of idealism, by asking them to share their passions in life.

If you do this, your candidates might well share that they are inspired by your company’s products and mission, or that they want to lead a bigger team that can make a bigger impact on your industry. Some people might share examples from their life outside of work – such as volunteering with a nonprofit organization or participating in community activities.

Remember that good team players are going to talk much more about their team, their community, and their company than they talk about themselves. They tend to sound humble, yet ambitious for themselves and for others. They are also eager to help other people accomplish more. This doesn’t mean team players lack drive or don’t deserve to be in leadership positions. Instead, team players tend to be hard-working service-oriented people who are always thinking about the big picture – trying to give more than they take. If all these qualities get revealed, what are you waiting for? Hire them!

Khaled Hussein is CEO and co-founder, of Betterleap. He formerly launched Tilt - a social network for money, backed by innovators from Y Combinator to Andreesen Horowitz to Alexis Ohanian. After selling Tilt to Airbnb, Khaled went on to found Stipple, a venture studio for incubating and investing in early stage startups. 

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