Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Teamwork
All job seekers should be prepared to answer behavioral interview questions (“Tell me about a time…”) about working on a team.
Based on my experience consulting with both hiring organizations and job seekers, I can tell you that teamwork questions are the most common of all of the behavioral interview questions.
This is probably because the ability to work with others is considered critical for most positions — from entry- to C-level.
Most hiring managers want to know if you’re a good team player before they commit to working with you every day. By asking a behavioral question, they are giving you the opportunity to demonstrate your team skills by sharing a relevant example.
Teamwork behavioral questions can be general:
• Tell me about a team project that you worked on.
• Describe a project that required input from people at different levels in the organization.
• Share a rewarding team experience.
You may also get questions that focus on how you’ve handled a challenging team dynamic:
• Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult team member.
(This one is a favorite of hiring managers and you may also want to read our post on answering behavioral questions about managing conflict)
• Give me an example of a team project that failed.
Sometimes, you may be asked specifically about experience leading a team:
• Tell me about a time you stepped up into a leadership role. (A future post will give you additional advice on how to answer all types of leadership questions)
All of these teamwork behavioral question offer you an opportunity to showcase how well you collaborate and what a joy you are to work with. You can ace these questions with just a little bit of preparation.
Why Interviewers Ask About Teamwork
Most jobs require you to work with other humans. Before hiring you, a smart manager will want to find out:
• Are you easy to get along with?
• Do you collaborate well?
• Can you communicate effectively with different personalities?
• Can I handle seeing you in the office every day without strangling you?
Some jobs come with specific teamwork challenges:
• Can you deal with difficult personalities?
• Do you know how to push back diplomatically when necessary?
• Can you mediate disagreements?
• Can you motivate people to perform?
You should always review the job description carefully to try to understand what “teamwork” is likely to mean in each role.
At a managerial level, team leadership may be the focus. At a fast-moving startup, they may be looking for people who can pitch in and play many roles. For an entry-level position, it may just be about the ability to get along in a professional environment.
You will want to choose an example that demonstrates the most relevant aspect(s) of your team experience.
It is particularly important for new grads to be able to speak convincingly about their teamwork skills. Early in your career, you probably don’t have a strong professional track record to talk about.
Therefore, the hiring manager will be hiring based on potential demonstrated by academic, extracurricular, and internship experiences.
In the interview, they will be trying to get a sense of what you would be like to work with.
How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Teamwork
We’ve all had team experiences — on the job, during school, in a volunteer or extracurricular role.
Before your next job interview, sit down and make a list of the significant team projects that you remember.
Start by listing every team experience that you can think of, even those that don’t stand out as particularly impressive. Give yourself a little time to brainstorm before you narrow down the list.
Here are some rules for choosing the best examples to share in your interviews:
1. Recent is best. Your most relevant examples will be from the last year or so. It’s okay to go back further for a story that’s particularly impressive or relevant.
2. Be a hero. Pick an experience that really allowed you to shine. Maybe you stepped up to solve a problem, resolve a conflict, or bring the group together. Maybe you helped to achieve spectacular results (brought in revenue, reduced expenses, delivered a high-profile project).
3. Keep it relevant. For each interview, review the job description to get a better understanding of the type of collaboration required (see above). Then pick the most relevant example you have. It will serve you well to prepare a few examples that represent different types of team projects.
4. Go for added value. If you can, choose an example that shows off your team skills while also demonstrating other strengths. For example, pick a story that also highlights your leadership talents, your numbers acumen, or your sales expertise.
5. Use the STAR format to structure your story. We recommend also reading our article Behavioral Interview: Tips for Crafting Your Best Answer for more advice on how to use the STAR format to structure and focus your team stories. Remember: The goal is to jot down bullets to create a story framework, not to memorize a script.
Sample Answer — STAR Format
Now we’re going to share an example answer to show you how the STAR format can be used to structure a compelling team story.
We’ll start with an example answer for a general behavioral question about teamwork: “Tell me about a time when you worked on a team.” (Note: Keep reading to see how this general story can be adapted for answering questions about working with difficult team members)
– Give a little bit of background information to help the interviewer understand the context of the project (and just how important/impressive/difficult it was).
Example Situation/Task Bullets
• At Bank XYZ, we were preparing to roll out the new release of our online corporate banking platform.
• My role was to manage the communications to customers about the new release, which involved coordinating with dozens of people from Technology, Operations, various Product areas, Customer Service, and Marketing.
• This particular release included a major new reporting feature that customers really needed — so it was important to get it right.
Why We Like Them
With these bullets, we get a basic understanding of an obviously complex project. It would be easy to go off on a tangent about different aspects of the banking platform, the release process, and/or the team dynamic.
However, you want to keep your S/T concise while still giving a sense of the importance and scope of the project.
Tip: Think about which details are most important in explaining the project’s back story. Remember that the goal is to keep the entire answer to 1-2 minutes and you’ll want to spend more time on the A and the R sections (which are more about YOU than the S/T is).
– Talk about the key actions that you took. For a team story, the focus should be on working happily and productively with others.
Example Approach Bullets
• Unfortunately, the developers ran into technical problems with the new reporting feature that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the release. In order to make the release date, they had to scale back and offer only limited functionality. We knew that some clients would be disappointed.
• It was my job to get everyone’s input on how to communicate it to customers — and I had to do it quickly because the decision was made right before the release date and we wanted to give customers the courtesy of a heads up.
• After a lot of back and forth with the engineers and the senior people in Product, Customer Service, and Marketing; I drafted the announcement to customers. I emphasized the positive aspects of the new functionality, explained the delay, and layed out the timeline for the full functionality.
• I also had to work with the group to quickly put together talking points for our Client Account Managers and revise all of the training and Help documentation.
Why We Like Them
This piece of the answer really focuses on teamwork and how the candidate collaborated with and managed people across the organization. There is just enough detail to get a sense of what the candidate did and why it was impressive. He also shows that he was able to work under pressure, communicate diplomatically, and meet a tough deadline.
Tip: Make sure that you are playing up the “team” aspects of the project. Who did you collaborate with? What steps did you take to make the team dynamic work? At the same time, look for ways to mention other strengths that you demonstrated.
– A strong interview story always has a happy ending. Wrap up your answer by describing the positive results of your actions.
The outcomes can be quantifiable (reduced processing time by 50%, brought in $50K in additional revenue) or anecdotal (The client told my manager that I was fantastic, the CEO said my presentation was impressive).
Example Results Bullets
• I was able to get sign-off from all of the stakeholders within 24 hours — a minor miracle that required a lot of persistence.
• We were then able to communicate strategically and proactively to clients before the release went live.
• The release communications were positively received by clients. Though some were disappointed with the limited functionality, many more were pleased with the benefits of the feature in beta version and appreciated the timely and clear communications.
• I received nice kudos from the senior managers in Technology and Customer Service — they told my boss that I was invaluable in keeping everybody focused on the customer experience and making the tight deadline.
• My manager was so happy with my performance that I was promoted to Manager level primarily as a result of my work on this project.
Why We Like Them
Any story that ends with a promotion is a winner! With these bullets, the candidate also describes positive feedback from clients and senior-level team members.
Tip: Pick a story with a dramatic ending. It’s not always possible to end with a promotion or a big-money new account.
However, you want to show significant results. Don’t settle for a weak ending like, “So we finished the project and it seemed to go pretty well.” Yawn.
Customizing Your Teamwork Story
But what if your interviewer puts a specific spin on her teamwork question? The most common variations ask about dealing with a challenge or a difficult team member.
The “difficult person” question is pretty common. It would be smart to prepare an example that includes a difficult team member as part of the plotline.
The STAR example above could be customized pretty easily to work as an answer to a “difficult person” question.We would simply incorporate the following bullets into the A and the R sections:
• Unfortunately, I had trouble getting feedback and final approval from my main contact on the Technology team. I knew that he was busy preparing for the release, but he seemed to be blowing off the customer communication piece as unimportant. He was significantly senior to me and kept dodging my calls and emails.
• Finally, I had to push and let him know that the communication would go out as it was at 9AM if I didn’t hear from him before 6pm. I was bluffing because I knew I had to get explicit sign-off from Technology, but it worked.
• He sat with me for five minutes and gave me a few small changes and then his approval.
• Later, after his boss praised us all for a job well done on the customer communication, my contact thanked me for being persistent. And from that point on, he always returned my calls right away.
Remember: As always, practice makes perfect. You will want to choose your example, jot down the key elements of the story in STAR format, and then practice delivering your answer (without your notes in front of you).
This will help you remember the key details and present them in a polished, confident, but natural way.