Steal These 6 Collaboration Interview Questions

The need for employees that can collaborate has never been more pronounced. Increasingly, the work of the business world is carried out by cross-functional teams that include people with different skill sets who have to work together in order to create new products and solutions.

Hiring technically competent people is no longer enough. Part of every employee screening process should include collaboration interview questions to assess how well the someone will function as part of a diverse team.

I’ve put together a list of 6 collaboration interview questions that can help you tease out these critical character qualities that aren’t captured on a resumé.

How to use collaboration interviews

While it’s crucial to use collaboration interview questions to assess new hires, you can also use them when it comes to promoting or redeploying personnel within the company. Building a thriving culture of collaboration at your company is as much a function of bringing the right people on board as it is developing those who are already there.

For new hires, think of collaboration interview questions as a necessary complement to the regular process.

You want to ensure that the prospective employee has all of the technical skill required for the position, but also that they are going to be able to work well with others across the company. Assessing these qualities requires you to get at the person’s values, character, as well as how they perceive their role and responsibilities.

For current employees, the goal is to make sure the right people are working together, and that you are identifying and promoting those who demonstrate collaboration leadership. Such reviews and promotion interviews are necessarily different from interactions with new hires, but collaboration interview questions are no less important.

Whether you are bringing on new people or developing current employees, identifying collaborators will help you staff teams with people who can:

  • Flourish in a collaborative work environment
  • Give and respond well to feedback
  • Identify and resolve issues before they escalate

Here’s how you find those people.

6 essential collaboration interview questions

Question #1: How should you onboard a new team member?

One of the key misconceptions about collaboration is that it will just happen on its own. Get people with the right qualifications together, and everything will go smoothly.

This is a fallacy, though, and real teamwork can only come about if each member is supported and knows how to contribute. By asking this collaboration interview question, you can get a sense of how well this person understands the foundations that teamwork is built on.

The answer you don’t want could be best boiled down to, “Let them sink or swim.” While many talented people will put in the overtime hours to get up to speed with their team, this type of onboarding opens the door to a host of disruptive possibilities.

For one thing, the person joining a team with little guidance may develop their own systems and workarounds to stay on top of their responsibilities. This can lead to serious communication issues down the line, not to mention a mountain of stress for the person who is trying to stay afloat.

What you are looking for in an answer is an interviewer who understands what goes into productive collaboration and is looking for ways to actively support the new team member.

They will be thinking about how to make the person feel like part of a team and begin to share its values. They will take an active role in the onboarding process, reaching out before mistakes happen to ensure that their new colleague knows how to maximize their contribution to the team.

Question #2: How do you provide feedback to a colleague who is struggling or performing poorly?

One of the most difficult aspects of good team communication is providing critical feedback. By asking this question, you’ll get to hear first hand how the interviewer conceptualizes the feedback process and their part in it.

The honest truth is that giving and receiving productive feedback is almost always uncomfortable, and you want to hear an answer that takes this reality into account. What you are interested in are the steps the interviewer takes to make these challenging conversations easier.

How are they preparing? You don’t want to hear that the interviewer delays feedback — problems need to be dealt with promptly — but you also don’t want to hear that someone is criticizing their colleagues without having thought the issue through.

What sort of considerations did they make about the employee’s perspective? Sometimes poor performance is the result of misaligned expectations, and an interviewer who is looking for someone to blame in these situations is putting the cart before the horse.

How did they choose the time or venue for feedback? Attention to these aspects is a good thing, as an individual face-to-face conference may be more productive than trying to solve the issue with the whole team present.

If they faced resistance to their criticism, how did they respond? This is an important followup to this collaboration interview question, as providing criticism is but one step in an ongoing process aimed at the continuous improvement of the team’s performance.

Not every bit of direction is going to be received warmly, and you want someone who has the patience and respect necessary to hold people accountable in a fair way.

Question #3: Describe a situation where you had to work with a colleague you didn’t get along with.

There’s no rule that says everyone in a business has to like each other, but they do have to work together regardless of their feelings. Interpersonal team dynamics play a huge role in successful collaboration, and it is important to identify individuals who can navigate these sometimes treacherous waters.

With this collaboration interview question, you are looking to get the person talking about their approach to difficult colleagues. You don’t want to hear simple or cavalier answers, as these situations are often difficult to resolve.

Red flags include interviewers who “don’t really have conflicts,” or stories that end with some version of “so I don’t really see him/her around anymore.” The reality is that conflict is baked into the collaborative process. A person who won’t recognize productive disagreement, or deals with it by avoidance, is not likely going to help their team.

What you want to hear is an answer that shows the interviewer has the team’s needs at heart, not just their own.

Instead of blaming the other person for the problem, these candidates are taking action to repair or revitalize the failing relationship. They will describe how they took initiative to make changes on their end, and worked with the other person to resolve the unproductive conflict.

Oftentimes interviewers with good answers will talk about how they came to understand their problematic colleague’s point of view. This is a very healthy sign that the candidate will be able to troubleshoot and settle this common threat to collaboration.

Question #4: What habits and values promote teamwork and collaboration?

The shared norms, behaviors, and values of a company are the foundations for collaboration at work, and when someone is unwilling to buy in, it can cause serious problems. The same person who is a terrific employee for IBM, for example, may not fit in well with a young startup. It doesn’t make them a bad person, just not the right one.

This collaboration interview question is your chance to get a sense of how a new hire will fit into your company culture, or how well a current employee is taking it up.

Candidate answers need not specifically name collaboration skills, but they should include habits and values that undergird productive teamwork. If they place importance on things like consistency, emotional intelligence, tolerance, communication, and open discussion, it’s a good sign.

Allow the interviewer to elaborate, as questions of habit and value revolve around complex concepts, such as respect. What do they mean by that term? How do they embody it and recognize it in others? Someone can use the right words in the wrong way, so to speak, and you want to make sure that you understand what they mean.

Such concept clarifications during a collaboration interview offers a deeper window into the person’s values, and may provide a teaching moment if you are able to disambiguate something for them. Tolerance, for example, doesn’t mean accepting what you are told without questioning, even if the interviewer seems proud that they can “tolerate” anything thrown at them.

Question #5: Describe a situation where communication issues led to poor performance. How did you recognize the problem and respond?

There are many excellent collaboration tools that help teams and businesses keep in touch, but they are not a silver bullet. Unless employees are attuned to communication, the multiplicity of channels can just as soon mask as reveal problems.

This type collaboration interview question will help you identify people who help their teams negotiate the problems they face in real time. You are looking for answers that demonstrate the interviewer can step back to analyze the system, rather than reflexively placing responsibility on the party closest to the mistake.

Communication issues are often errors of omission, which is to say identifying these problems often starts with figuring out what’s not there or isn’t happening. Recognizing breakdowns in the system requires someone who can separate the bad outcome from its cause.

Pay attention to how they first recognized that there was an issue. Are they constantly on alert for communication breakdowns and information silos? Have they instituted feedback processes to bring problems to their attention? In short, what are they doing to make sure they are taking a proactive role in surfacing potential communication problems?

Their response is equally important. How did they approach any necessary reorganization? Was it transparent, and did they ensure the team knew what led to the changes? Did they check to see if similar breakdowns were possible elsewhere in the organization?

Question #6: Talk about a situation where you created a productive relationship with someone on another team/department.

Successful collaborative environments are characterized by the free flow of information throughout an organization. People are connected with their colleagues and empowered to create new connections as needed.

Some of the most important relationships — that is, those that surface problems, create solutions, and result in quicker decision making — cross team or departmental boundaries. Using this collaboration interview question will help illuminate people that have the willingness and intuition it takes to form these bonds.

What was their inspiration for beginning a dialogue, and how did they start? It’s a really healthy sign if a person is able to forecast the benefit from working more closely with their colleagues, seeing one another as resources.

If the initial meeting was accidental, how did they know to press forward and build stronger ties? Having someone on a team who knows how to take advantage of serendipity is vital, especially in a collaborative workspace. You want to find people who can capitalize on what others would see as a fleeting or routine personal interaction.

Be attentive to what makes the relationship “productive” in their mind. Do you agree? The way they answer this question will provide valuable insight into how they envision their role within the company.

For some people, their job is the sum total of tasks they are assigned. If you are looking to promote collaboration and cooperation, you want to find people who see their job as furthering the goals of the company. Yes, their direct work is a big part of that, but so is the initiative to seek and form relationships that will help them accomplish more.

If someone can’t supply a story to answer this question, you might tweak it so that they are asked to pose relationships that they wish they had now or in their prior role. Where is the potential value they see, and what’s holding them back?

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira