Guidelines for highlighting your teamwork proficiency during a job interview

Teams are a pretty standard feature of the modern workplace, so you can almost always expect some questions about teamwork in a job interview. But how do you showcase that you’ve got real teamwork skills without giving canned and superficial answers? Here are three rules to guide you.

Rule #1: Be precise and offer tangible instances as illustrations.

Generalisations or vague statements about being a team player are not convincing. Interviewers are looking for specific examples that demonstrate your ability to work well in a team. When you’re asked to describe a time when you worked on a team, do not say something generic like, “When you’re on a team, you should always involve others.” Words like “you should” indicate that you’re speaking in the abstract and not giving a detailed answer about your own team experiences.

Instead, use words like “I did” or “I faced.” Speak in the past tense and discuss a particular project where your collaboration contributed to its success or a challenging situation where your team overcame obstacles. This approach not only showcases your teamwork skills but also your problem-solving abilities and your role in achieving positive outcomes.

Rule #2: Emphasise positive attitudes and constructive behaviours as your focal point.

Your response should highlight your positive approach to working with others. Emphasise how you contributed to a positive work environment, supported your colleagues, and handled conflicts constructively. Avoid negative remarks about past team members or situations, as these can reflect poorly on your ability to maintain professional relationships. Demonstrate your ability to be adaptable, supportive, and a good communicator within a team setting.

Rule #3: Highlight your proficiency in problem-solving and accountability.

Interviewers are interested in candidates who can identify issues within a team and take proactive steps to address them. Discuss situations where you helped solve problems or improve team dynamics. Highlight your accountability in these scenarios and how you took responsibility for your part in the team’s success. This can include instances where you took the initiative to streamline processes, mediate conflicts, or support struggling team members.

An actual instance from real life

Here’s an example of a real-life answer to the question, “Tell me about a time you worked on a team,” followed by an explanation of why the answer worked well:

“I was a team lead for a really disorganised team. The previous team lead only had one-on-one conversations with customers and only shared that information through personal conversations with developers. Some of the clients were even giving requirements directly to the developers, which caused a lot of scope creep and caused project completion delays. When I took over the team, I had to give the mandate that no developer or team lead would implement a feature request that came directly from a customer. And instead, we designated one of our team as the primary point of contact. The project manager worked directly with the teams to clarify requirements. This was a difficult shift for both developers and customers, not because they were bad people but simply because they were so used to working in a more ad hoc way. And even though they weren’t happy with the results they were getting with the old system, they were used to that way of operating. I had to explain the new system to both customers and team members, and I was communicating daily with both groups to reinforce the new procedures. It took a solid month with multiple conversations per day, but the end result was we had a much more organised system for tracking customer requirements. This led to projects being completed on time and to specification. We also built an internal database that developers could access at any time they wanted to see all of the upcoming requirements. We even would show it to customers on occasion to keep them updated and the communication transparent.”

Why It’s Good: The detail in this response is a strong indicator that the candidate really lived this experience. Canned responses and faking it will often be evident by a lack of detail, hypothetical answers (e.g., “one should do this…”), and the use of modifiers (e.g., “always” and “never”). High performers also tend to use more past-tense verbs to talk about their experiences (“I did this and then I did that…”). This answer walks through lots of specific details about exactly what they did.

In general, high performers have the confidence to tackle challenges. They take on challenges without excessive complaining or assigning blame. They believe they are smart and talented problem solvers who can “figure it out.” They are excellent team members who are accountable, good listeners, and tactful communicators, and they share credit. This answer does a good job of explaining the situation in a thoughtful and factual way without blaming the team members or even the previous team lead.

Now, you’ll notice that the candidate chose an example of a disorganised team that they fixed. Is that the best choice for answering a question about working on a team? It depends. If the question asked about the happiest team experience you ever had, then this might not be the best choice. But if you’re interviewing at an organisation that needs problem solvers, operational excellence, etc., then showing how you’re able to turn a disorganised team into something far more efficient and effective could be the perfect choice.