For most of us, cooperating with people, discussing ideas, collaborating on projects, influencing others and working on cross-functional teams typically represents 50 percent to 75 percent of most workdays.
Team skills are critical and those who do it well are rewarded in terms of influence, support, promotions and bigger reviews. Those without it are avoided, shunned or assigned to the proverbial closet.
Working with people without decent team skills literally sucks the energy out of the rest of team, bringing everyone down.
The importance of team skills cannot be understated, yet most recruiters and managers are not very effective in assessing this vital skill during the interview. Many people substitute friendliness, warmth and extroversion as signs of good team skills. For some, a smile, a firm handshake, a reasonable degree of self-confidence and direct eye contact is all it takes to earn a positive grade for team skills.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let's set the record straight by better understanding what team skills are and what they are not. With this understanding, we'll move on to describing how to use the two-question performance-based interview to accurately measure real team skills.
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman offers this useful definition of team skills: the ability to inspire, influence and develop others while managing conflict.
You might want to add these additional ideas: the ability to be coached and to coach; to cooperate with others without urging; to deal with people in a professional and open manner, even those you don't particularly like; to negotiate or discuss important issues in an open and fair manner; to openly change your position on an important issue when the facts are, or are not, against you when it's for the good of the team; to deal with differences in a constructive manner; being sensitive to the needs of others; the ability to influence people in an organization who are superior and to be influenced by those who are subordinate; and to be aware of each individual's personal needs in group situations and act with respect to accommodate them.
A particular one-question performance-based interview is an effective tool for assessing team skills. It involves asking candidates to describe major accomplishments related to some real job need (e.g., working with others designing a product under tight restraints or building a team to handle a major project).
Fact-finding, digging deep, getting lots of specific examples and peeling the onion are the keys to the effectiveness of this interviewing technique.
Done properly, this type of questioning can take 15 minutes for each accomplishment to fully understand its depth and scope. By repeating the question for different accomplishments, consistency and growth can be observed in comparison to real job needs.
For team-based accomplishments, it's important for the candidate to describe all members of the team, with specific names and titles. As part of this the candidate needs to describe his or her actual role on the team, the team objectives, how plans were put together and the overall team results, with specific details.
Much of the subsequent fact-finding involves understanding how the candidate influenced, or was influenced by, those on the team. Getting specific facts, examples, and details is essential to this type of questioning.
Look for areas of disagreement and conflict and find out exactly how these issues were resolved and the specific role the candidate had in these areas.
Asking about different team projects over extended periods of time provides an opportunity to see growth in a number of important areas, such as the size and make-up of the team; types of people on the team, including their levels and functions; and involvement with people outside the department, function and company, including vendors, consultants, and customers.
People with strong team skills clearly show growth on multiple levels when their team accomplishments are viewed this way. For example, a technical person who is only involved with other peer technical folks is likely to be less effective on team skills than a comparable technical person who has been dealing with senior-level people in other functions and with customers.
To improve the accuracy of your assessment during the interview, look for social awareness, sensitivity to the needs of others, the ability to interact comfortably in social settings, self-confidence in expressing a contrary viewpoint, examples of working with peers and superiors in other departments, the ability to give constructive criticism and the ability to take criticism (even from a subordinate).
Here are some ways to rank a candidate's team skills:
Assessing and Ranking Team Skills
Level 1 -- Weak: Uncooperative, bad attitude, negative. Hides problems. Too much of a loner. Causes conflict, doesn't resolve it. Antagonistic. Has not worked in multi-functional teams. No team growth observed whatsoever.
Level 2 -- Adequate: Few or no substantive examples of initiating work requiring the cooperation of others. Seems to only cooperate when urged by supervisor. Could not cite examples of handling differences of opinion or dealing with team problems. Examples of dealing with conflict were superficial. Passive with respect to coaching others. Could not find examples of taking coaching or being influenced by others.
Level 3 -- Very Good: Has worked on multi-functional teams and the person's role was substantive. Provided specific and multiple answers of fully cooperating and influencing others without urging. Had examples of openly addressing team problems including dealing with conflict and resolving significant differences of opinion. Provided relevant and specific examples of changing the opinion of others and changing his/her own opinion. Examples indicated the person is not afraid to push viewpoint and gain acceptance with peers, subordinates, supervisors and more senior managers.
Level 4 -- Outstanding: Had multiple examples of taking the initiative to help and coach others, especially peers. Provided examples of anticipating and resolving team problems before they became critical. Is often chosen to handle difficult team projects, in fact, volunteers for difficult team projects. Has examples of persuading and motivating others to act, beyond what would be expected for the level of the person. Presented examples of resolving conflict on issues typically beyond the scope of the position.
Level 5 -- Exceptional: Everything in Level 4, plus has a track record of successfully handling multi-functional teams comprising people of various levels beyond the typical scope of the position. Has been asked to lead teams beyond the typical scope of the position. Has received significant recognition for team skills including promotions, bonuses, raises, and special awards for successfully handling critical team issues and projects.
Accurately assessing team skills requires facts, examples and details. Do not rely on feelings, intuition or emotions. To objectively assess team skills, it's best to conduct the final evaluation in a group setting, sharing specific evidence among all of the interviewers.
Interviewers who have specific facts are able to use this information to defend the candidate from weaker interviews who are using incorrect or superficial techniques to measure team skills. For example, if someone on the hiring team says the candidate just "wouldn't fit with the culture," it's important to start probing and find out the cause.
Most likely it will involve something the candidate said, did or didn't do, what the candidate wore, how prepared the candidate was, the questions asked or something to do with the candidate's personality.
Whatever it is, stronger interviewers can counter a negative or superficial assessment of weak team skills with solid proof, not by being more emotional. The fact that the candidate led a successful cross-functional project team comprised of similar people the person would be working with in your company, might do the trick.
Make sure you provide the title of each person on the team, the project, some examples of persuading people to do things they otherwise wouldn't have, and the recognition the person received. If you can show Level 3 or 4 performance for a few comparable team projects, you should be able to overcome most incorrect assessments of team skills.
As a caveat, it's important to remain objective and unemotional based on your own initial assessment of team skills. If you don't, you won't be willing to get past first impressions and your own biases to obtain the evidence needed to find the truth.
Quiet people can possess extraordinary team skills and outgoing people can be weak team members.
Strong team skills are essential for effective management and for those hoping to move up in an organization. They are a core component of leadership. The ability to influence others, manage conflict and keep people motivated is a rare skill. Don't let yourself or others be swayed by emotions, personality or superficial information to assess this critical area.
Lou Adler is president of The Adler Group, which helps companies make hiring top talent a systematic business process. For information: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.