The Challenge of Hiring for Teamwork

Teamwork is 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 hire just for credentials, technical abilities, domain expertise. Companies need generous-spirited “happy warriors” who are ready to roll up their sleeves to work optimally as part of a team, not introduce drama or disagreeable attitudes. 

In short, employers need people who aren’t just in it for themselves.

But how do you actually hire for teamwork? How can recruiting and HR professionals really know they’re hiring those who demonstrate or inspire a spirit of collaboration?

It isn’t easy. The process can be complex and nuanced, as recruiters and hiring managers have to assess soft skills and attitudes that don’t always fit onto a checklist.

But there are a few key ways to gain insights into candidates’ levels of collaboration.

Ask About Failures

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

  • What did you learn from your hard times?
  • How did you navigate disappointment?
  • How did you take accountability for your role?
  • What happened next?
  • What could you and your 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 can’t recall any failures, or cast blame on former colleagues or employers instead of finding fault with themselves, these are all ominous signs that they might not be good team players.

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 through problems.

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

  • What was one of your proudest moments leading a team or spearheading an initiative?
  • Which 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 on 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.

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Look for positive, generous commentary from candidates. They should be eager to share praise and be full of memorable stories about talented, hard-working people that have helped them to achieve more than they could alone. If, however, a candidate sounds self-centered, then this could be a sign they are too focused on themselves and are not able to be effective collaborators.

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 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 about themselves. They tend to sound humble yet ambitious for themselves and for others. They are also eager to help other people succeed. 

None of which means that 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.

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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