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How to spot a team player in an interview

These indicators can help you hire individuals who prioritize collaboration and communication.

How to spot a team player in an interview
[Photo: Pascal Swier/Unsplash]

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Remote and hybrid working arrangements can negatively impact teamwork. A survey from Microsoft found that employees who work from home are less interconnected and more siloed, reducing the amount of collaboration time spent with cross-group connections by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. But companies are built on teams, says Cheryl Hyatt, partner with Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search, an executive recruiting firm.

“One individual can’t run an organization alone,” she says. “They have to have others who work along with them for an organization to be successful. Any individual who does not work as a team is detrimental to the organization.”

Technology can help bridge the gaps, but it takes team players to proactively use them. Here are some ways to spot a team player in a job interview:

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Their Use of Pronouns

Perhaps the biggest clue is in a candidate’s language. Listen to how they respond to questions about their job experience, says Hyatt. “Do they say, ‘I do this.’ Or ‘I did that?'” she says. “Or do they use the word ‘we,’ talking about what we did, which shows they were part of a team.”

How They Answer Behavior Questions

Donnebra McClendon, global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the software developer Ceridian, says you can’t spot a team player without evaluating behavior. “When I conduct interviews, I ask behavior-based questions,” she says. “Candidates are less likely to have studied the answer, so their responses are authentic. In my experience, team players will use ‘we’ statements in place of ‘I’ statements.”

One question that can demonstrate team players is to ask them to talk about a time when they had to resolve an issue, says Hyatt. “It’s important that a person doesn’t resolve it on their own,” she says. “They should listen to others, have conversations, and get feedback from all sides. Those types of questions are important because you can understand how they might react if that type of a situation happens for the organization.”

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How They Share Accomplishments

Candidates want to talk about their strengths and achievements, but Hyatt says you can tell team players in these answers, too. “Accomplishments are about leading the effort,” she says. “For example, the candidate can say they designed the strategy, but they should talk about how the team implemented it. It’s critically important, no matter what organization you’re joining, that you recognize work isn’t a solo effort. Candidates who move forward in the process need to be able to share information that shows they work collaboratively.”

Team players understand that everyone adds value to the collective organizational goals, says McClendon. “During interviews, I listen for examples of collaboration and agility, and most importantly, I listen for how well a person builds a connection with others,” she says. “I don’t listen for specific words because language is derived from our culture. I aim to be inclusive, so I listen for behaviors that demonstrate authentic acts of teamwork.”

If They Listen to Your Questions

Another clue that an individual is a team player is if they listen to the question you’re asking and clearly and succinctly respond, says Hyatt. “A lot of candidates say a lot but don’t answer the question,” she says. “Team players are usually good listeners, especially if they’re going to be part of a collaboration effort.”

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Pausing before giving answers is also a sign that someone is listening. “Some individuals respond as soon as a question is asked,” says Hyatt. “Are they just trying to get out what they want to say?”

How They Describe Their Current Team

Gina Logozar, vice president of human resources and organizational effectiveness at Core BTS, a digital IT consultancy, likes to ask candidates to share the makeup and operating rhythm of their current team.

“My goal is to have a clear picture of what the team is expected to accomplish, the size of the team, the roles of the different members, and how the team communicates and interacts,” she says. “Then I focus on their role in the team and how they contribute to the success of the team.”

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Logozar says a team player will give examples that show they are an active participant on the team, such as collaborating with another team member to accomplish a goal, seeking feedback from others, proactively looking for ways to improve processes, or taking the initiative to take on a task that has not been assigned to them.

Taylor Roa, director of talent at Wistia, a video hosting platform, asks, “What do you bring to a team environment?” “Many people think only about what they are getting, and not what they give,” he says. “A true team player will understand the impact of contributing positively to a team dynamic. They will even enjoy elevating the team around them and take pride in that.”

What They Value

You can also tell if a candidate can be a team player by understanding what they value in a new job and a new employer, says Logozar. She asks candidates to describe criteria that they are going to use to decide whether a job and new employer is a fit for them.

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“A focus on collaboration with others, opportunities to be mentored or to mentor, open and transparent communication, and client/company success signals to me that they would be a team player,” she says. “I get concerned when their answers focus strictly on themselves, such as what tasks will I be responsible for, what certifications can I get, and what will I get paid.”

What They Ask

Finally, pay attention to the questions candidates ask you. “A true team player will be very curious about the makeup of the team they will be joining, and they’ll ask smart, pointed questions to be sure it’s the right fit,” says Roa, adding that a team player will feel like part of the team from the first few interviews.

“Interviewing is an inherently unnatural dynamic,” he says. “There are very few situations in life when you will sit down behind closed doors with someone one on one and ask them questions while actively judging their answers. This can be awkward; it can also bring out the good or bad in someone’s ego. Watch closely for signs of authenticity, honesty, and thoughtful candor. These characteristics are all emblematic of a team player.”

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