The 3 Traits of Great Team Players (And How to Recruit for Them)

October 31, 2017

Chances are, at some point in your career you’ve interviewed (and maybe hired) someone who just does not play well with others. And while the Michael Jordans of the world can be great for certain roles, when you’re recruiting for jobs that require teamwork, hiring someone who doesn’t fit the bill can damage the whole team.

In his book The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues, Patrick Lencioni lays out three traits that recruiters need to test for in order to hire team players—traits which, he argues, are more important than skills alone. They are:

  • Humble = does not think less of self; thinks of self less
  • Hungry = aggressively pursues goals
  • Smart = emotionally smart, that is, in interactions with others

At the SHRM 2017 HR conference, Lencioni argued that in order to hire team players, recruiters need to look for candidates who are humble, hungry, and smart—candidates who have just one or two of those traits won’t help your team succeed and can sometimes cause damage.

Let’s take a closer look at these indispensable traits and why it’s important to have all three. Plus, we’ll discuss exactly what you can do to spot them in candidates.

Why you don't want to hire someone with just one of the 3 traits

It might be a lot easier to find a candidate who checks just one of these boxes. But, candidates who are only hungry, humble, or smart are bad news for your team.

Candidates who are only Humble = the Pawn

It’s been said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Humble candidates are the polar opposite of the egotistical and arrogant archetype who act like a law unto themselves, even in a highly collaborative group setting. Humble employees tend to be hyper-focussed on helping others and don’t brag about their personal successes.

But Lencioni stresses that while humility is the most important of the three traits, it is not the only quality recruiters should seek to identify team players. In fact, taken on its own, it might not be all that desirable.

Candidates who are humble without the emotional smarts and the hunger to succeed can be easily taken advantage of. Lencioni refers to these people as “the Pawn” and their reluctance to step up to the plate can also make them less likely to push the envelope, holding the team back from achieving its full potential.

Candidates who are only Hungry = the Bulldozer

According to Lencioni, hunger is another attribute that good team players always have. Hungry candidates push and push until the job is done. They’re not satisfied with 99% when they could be giving 100%. This can edge into workaholic territory, but as part of a well-functioning team, hungry employees can motivate everyone to do better.

Michael O’Donnell, owner of Hyacinth Marketing, says a hungry personality is more desirable to him than previous experience. “I prefer to hire young, hungry individuals who are willing to do whatever it takes to make their mark and achieve success as the company succeeds,” he says.

But hunger alone does have its pitfalls. Namely, candidates who are hungry without the tempering influence of humility don’t often work well with others. They are “the Bulldozer” who knock their team mates aside in their desire to succeed, ultimately setting everyone up to fail. 

Candidates who are only Smart = The Charmer

Smart candidates have more than raw intelligence: they’re just plain good with others. Emotional intelligence comes with a ton of benefits, including an ability to empathize with others and show common sense in group situations.

In his Forbes interview, Lencioni notes that smart candidates “understand the dynamics of a group of people and how to say and do things and have a positive outcome on those around them.” As part of a team, this can bring out the best in everyone around them, and help build strong working relationships.

But the ability to easily win others over is not a good thing in and of itself—and unfortunately, candidates who can charm a snake right out of the basket are really hard to resist in interviews. Hire nothing but "Charmers", and you’ll end up with a team filled with Ferris Bueller’s—slacking off just because they know they can get away with it.

Two out of three of these traits is better, but it’s not enough to make an ideal team player

If you’re concerned you’ll be searching to the ends of the earth to find a candidate who embodies all three traits, the good news is that 2 out of the 3 traits can sometimes work, but it’s not ideal. Lencioni describes the types of people who have 2 out of 3:

Humble and hungry, but not smart = the Accidental Messmaker

Candidates who are humble and hungry, but haven’t developed emotional intelligence tend to be good-hearted people who still possess a drive to succeed. Their biggest flaw is their tendency to put their foot in their mouth in group situations. They’re also more likely to be the ones to accidentally make a mistake—but at least they lack the arrogance to get defensive about it. If you’re willing to take the time to develop their emotional intelligence, these candidates can be worthwhile hires.

Humble and smart, but not hungry = The Lovable Slacker

Meanwhile, humble candidates who do possess emotional intelligence but just aren’t all that hungry tend to be lovable slackers. Sure, they’re fun to have around and they care a lot about their teammates, but at the end of the day, their output isn’t all that great. Unless you can find a way to motivate them, employees like this can be deeply detrimental to a team’s success in the long run. Their colleagues will have to pick up the slack for them, and the frustration that ensues is bad for everyone’s morale.

Hungry and smart, but not humble = The Skillful Politician

The most dangerous combination of traits, Lencioni says, it smart and hungry candidates who lack humility. Think politician—they’re skilled with people and know what they want, but they’re the most likely to stab someone in the back the first chance they get. In a team situation, there’s simply no place for people like this, so try to avoid them at all costs.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t settle for tradeoffs. If you want to employ a truly awesome team player—a Steph Curry instead of a Michael Jordan—aim to test for all three traits.

How to recruit a smart, hungry, and humble candidate

The first step to hiring team players is shifting your focus away from technical skills alone and looking deeper into a candidate’s personality. Even the NFL has realized that this is important—after all, a destructive personality can ruin a player’s career and lose the team millions in unrealized potential.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Spice up your interviews to assess a candidate’s real personality: If you’re able to, take interviews out of the standard office setting to test how candidates behave in the real world. Lencioni suggests conducting nontraditional interviews over soccer practice or even taking candidates out shopping. Charles Schwab’s CEO Walt Bettinger takes candidates out to a restaurant and deliberately ensures the waiter messes up their order to gauge how well they react to mistakes. A person who’ll curse out or be unforgiving toward waitstaff isn’t someone you want on your team.
  • Eliminate siloed interviews: For those who prefer in-office interviews, eliminating siloed interviews can improve the process. For example, you can have a number of interviewers talk to a candidate separately, debrief after the first two interviews and then have the next interviews pay attention to areas that you are unsure about (think about 3 values). Another option is to do a panel interview—that way you can all debrief the same conversation and make sure no one misunderstood. After all, some people are more attuned than others to recognizing personality traits .
  • Keep pushing candidates for answers: Lencioni also advocates the “Law & Order” school of interviewing. Don’t be afraid to interrogate your applicants! If they skirt around a question, ask it again, and keep asking it until you get an answer. If you have a nagging doubt that the candidate is hiding something, there’s a good chance they are, so don’t let it go—just change the wording slightly each time. For example, if candidate keeps giving a hollow answer to a question about coping with conflict, ask if their best friend would tell you they hold grudges. And if a candidate eventually snaps at you for the pushy technique, that tells you a lot about them, too.
  • Scare them with sincerity: If you’re not sure how hungry they are, try scaring them with sincerity. Keep pressing them about how serious your company is about something and if they don’t seem enthused by the prospect, they might not be a great fit. This also gives the candidate an out, and saves you a lot of time and money by not hiring someone who’ll leave in a month.
  • Find a way to test for the values that are most important to your company: Lencioni gives the example of Southwest Airlines, which test rigorously for a sense of humor in its pilots by asking them to grab a pair of khaki shorts for the second half of their interview (this used to be part of the airline’s uniform). Some simply find it too childish, but for the company knows that the ones who stick around and enjoy the offbeat technique are better suited for the job.

By making even minor tweaks to your recruiting process, you can hire candidates who bolster your teams and generate greater productivity. They’re also more likely to get along with their colleagues, leading to higher retention rates and a happy, collaborative team.

*Image from Ghost Busters

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