(This article has been revised from its original publication in July 2016)
The ability to work in a team is a skill that is in high demand by employers today. Our current culture places a premium on teamwork. Our corporations have fully embraced the concept of teamwork, to the point that, according to the International Facility Management Association, 70% of all offices have removed doors and walls to provide employees with an “open concept” work environment. To better prepare students to thrive in this team-based culture, our high schools are focusing on team-based school projects, while our elementary schools have rearranged the classroom from rows of individual desks to work tables of 4-6 students. And, in case children and teens aren’t getting enough teamwork in the school environment, there are hundreds of after-school clubs and sports that encourage kids to work together in groups to achieve a common goal.
Given all the emphasis on teamwork from such an early age, why is it that new college grads are still lacking this critical skill? And why is there such a disparity between students’ perception of their skills in this area and employers’ perception? In a survey from the Association of American Colleges & Universities, only 37% of responding employers agreed that recent grads were well prepared to work with others on teams. Student responses, on the other hand, indicated that 64% thought they were well prepared for teamwork.
Students’ lives today are vastly different than when I was in high school. One significant difference is the intense competition to get into a selective college. A recent report by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled “Turning the Tide,” addresses the college admission process and the resulting side-effects, one of which is the intense focus on personal achievement. It may be that, while we’re encouraging teamwork skills, the message students are hearing is “I have to be the best.”
There’s a big difference between giving your best and being the best, and that difference may be lost on students who have worked in groups all their lives while simultaneously laboring under intense pressure to reach dizzying heights of achievement. In these situations, optimum team results may be sacrificed as group members struggle to achieve personal recognition. Sometimes, giving your best may mean recognizing the limits of your skills and allowing someone else in your group to take the lead while providing support to the best of your ability. Unfortunately, many students haven’t been taught – or don’t have the luxury – to take this approach to their projects.
As a recruiter interviewing college students for internships, I asked each candidate the same set of questions, including questions with an emphasis on teamwork skills. Because there were several questions on this topic, there were plenty of opportunities for students to use a variety of approaches in answering these questions. They could have talked about how they identified each member’s talents and divided up the work accordingly. They could have spoken about discord among the group members and how it was resolved. Or they could have discussed how the team laid out the steps to identify and accomplish their goals. Despite the fact that I had already asked questions about their leadership skills, the majority of candidates responded with an emphasis on what they personally had accomplished, and significantly downplayed the contributions of the rest of the team members. It was the rare response that included acknowledgment of another team member’s success.
Now, some readers may be confused at this point. After all, I was interviewing a specific candidate for a job, not that person’s teammates. It would seem to make sense that the candidate would emphasize personal achievements. However, by the time we got to the teamwork questions, we had already discussed at length the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. What I really wanted to know at this point was “How well will you fit in with the team you’re assigned to?” In other words:
Are you aware of the different roles team members may take and are you willing and able to take different roles at different times?
Do you collaborate well and will you be an active contributor?
How effective are you in working with individuals that have a different working style than you?
Can you view situations from another person’s perspective?
Are you able to adapt to changing group circumstances?
Are you able to put the group’s needs and wants before your own needs and wants?
Someone who focuses solely on his or her personal accomplishments when responding to a teamwork question is missing the point of the question. Discussing individual achievements made within the context of a group setting won’t help me understand how well that person will fit into a group environment.
So, how should a candidate answer a question related to teamwork? While I can’t speak for every employer, here are a few tips to share with students on what would have made a favorable impression on me.
Help me understand your role within the group.
If you were the Team Lead – awesome! But here’s the thing: leadership means more than taking credit for the project or doing all the work yourself to make sure it’s done correctly. Leadership means taking responsibility, even when the project doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped. It’s about encouraging your team and helping them when they’re struggling, even if that means putting in more time/effort than everyone else. Leadership means making commitments, not excuses. Leaders recognize and give credit to others for their contributions. Tell me about these things.
You don’t have to be a Team Lead to impress me. For someone to lead, others have to be willing to follow. Tell me about the time you wanted to lead a group, but realized that someone else was more qualified to lead that particular group at that specific time. Explain to me how you gave up your desire to lead the group because you realized your talents could be better utilized in a supporting role. Show me how your efforts in that role contributed to the group’s success.
Team members can often hold several roles within one group, especially those “informal” roles such as “peacemaker,” “timekeeper” or “spokesperson.” Are you the person who manages to keep everyone on track and moving forward? Tell me about this – how do you work the conversation back to the topic at hand without offending those members who want to argue about something completely non-related? Or do other members look to you to speak for your group? If so, how did you find yourself in this role and how have you advocated for your group?
Regardless of the specific example used, remembering to focus on your role within the team when answering a teamwork question will make a more favorable impression on recruiters than merely touting your personal achievements.