The Best Interview Question to Hire Team Players

Some of the most common questions to assess for teamwork often favor the wrong candidates.

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Jun 19, 2023

Every company wants team players, but hiring team players is harder than it seems for two reasons. First, being a team player means something different in every company. And second, most interview questions about teams give away the correct answer, rendering them utterly ineffective.

So before I share the best interview question for hiring team players, let’s clear up those two potential difficulties.

To start with, research shows that there are five roles people can fulfill when they’re working on a team: The Achiever is the detail-oriented doer, the Trailblazer is the creative spark, the Harmonizer cultivates unity, the Director charts the course, and the Stabilizer manages the timelines and to-dos.

In other words, there is no one perfect way to be a team player. You’re a team player if you’re in a group stuck in the status quo and you channel your inner Trailblazer to shake things up. You’re a team player if your team is mired in indecision and you inhabit the Director role to take charge.

Before you can hire team players, you’ve got to precisely define what you mean by the term “team player.” Do you have too much or not enough of certain types of team players? For instance, having a team composed solely of Harmonizers could lead to indecisiveness, a lack of innovation, and slow progress. Meanwhile, a team of only Achievers might face difficulties in collaboration and could become so focused on individual tasks that they miss the bigger picture.

The other issue is that most interview questions purporting to assess someone’s team-player potential often give away the correct answer, rendering the question useless. Here are some examples:

  • Can you provide an example of a time when you had to collaborate with a team to accomplish a goal?
  • Describe a time when you had a conflict with a team member. How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to support a team member who was struggling. How did you assist them?

The report “6 Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions” reveals the flaws exemplified by each of those questions. The first question explicitly tells the candidate that their answer had better include instances of collaboration; you’ll rarely hear someone admit that they’re standoffish or prefer solitary work.

The second question signals that every candidate must describe how they handled a conflict. But what about the innumerable real-life situations where teammates never handled the conflict, instead letting it fester and damage the team? Interviewers will never learn about those.

And the third question makes clear that only answers detailing support are acceptable.

Now that we know a bit more about being a team player and what interview questions won’t work, here’s the question I recommend you use: Could you tell me about a time you worked on a team?

It’s not a lengthy question, and that’s by design. It’s designed to be incredibly open-ended, lacking any clues about the right and wrong answer. Because of its design, you’ll quickly be able to assess whether your candidate has the right type of team player mindset to fit your needs.

Imagine that your company has been experiencing more than its share of conflict lately; your naturally competitive culture has gotten a bit out of hand. You’d like your next hires to fulfill the Harmonizer role, cultivating unity and mediating disputes.

You ask a candidate to tell you about a time they worked on a team, and here’s their response:

I pride myself on my hard work, and I have zero tolerance for error or incompetence. At my last job, there were some people on the team who weren’t doing the job properly, some due to lack of good training, while others, I guess, just didn’t care. I had no choice but to pick up the slack. I’m not afraid of hard work, and I’m a natural leader, but after a while, it became expected of me to do other people’s work without credit or compensation, and that just wasn’t fair. I guess not all team experiences are positive ones.

Does that sound like a Harmonizer? Of course not. This candidate might fit in a highly competitive culture, but if you’re seeking more camaraderie and affiliation, this candidate is unlikely to fit the bill.

The mechanics of hiring team players might seem simple; after all, the interview question is only 12 words long. But hopefully, it’s clear that there’s much more thinking that has to take place before a company can hire a true team player.

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