Lessons from conducting interviews and observing how teams function

Jovan Cicmil
Image Courtesy of Author

There’s a never-ending debate around selecting and interviewing candidates. Hire based on experience. Hire based on knowledge. Hire based on education. Hire based on a technical interview.

All these criteria have merits, but have you considered hiring based on whether a person plays chess, or based on how they take a joke?

Here are 5 unexpected ways to identify potential great team members, as well as potentially destructive personalities.

It may be counter-intuitive, but having disagreeable employees is good for business. It is good specifically when you want to surround yourself with people who know how to say “no” to a bad idea — and you should always want that.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for exploitable yes-men, then you want them to be as agreeable as possible.

Agreeable people are more likely to accept a low salary, follow orders without question, and never contribute anything remotely controversial to brainstorming sessions. Put that all together and you’ve got a team member that is economically predictable and low-maintenance, but, more importantly, one that will never take the lead and pull the team in the right direction.

This is not a sustainable situation. It will fail for the same reason that many kingdoms failed: when a king wanted to start a senseless war, there was nobody who would dare tell him to relax and build some infrastructure instead.

While a king might realistically lop your head off if you point out the vacuous nature of their ideas, a smart team leader will reward reasonable disagreement.

If you’re steering the ship into a head-on collision with an iceberg, you want your sailors to mutiny rather than drown with you.

People like to say that what a person does outside of the office shouldn’t concern the boss. I’m certainly not one to discount the importance of privacy. That’s not to say, however, that your team’s performance doesn’t hinge on the members’ extracurricular activities.

Consider two candidates with an identical biography and equally impressive portfolio: John and Steve. The only difference is, John enjoys playing in chess tournaments and jogging. Steve enjoys gambling on horse races and drinking.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Steve partaking in those activities, being the responsible adult that he is. Still, everything else being equal, Steve presents an unnecessary risk. While John is tending to his mental and physical health through activity and competition, Steve is systematically corroding his long-term well-being.

Which one of them do you think is more likely to:

  • Lack focus
  • Take miscalculated risks
  • Be late for work

Consider, in addition, the cohesive value of common interests within the team. Team members that speak the same language in terms of lifestyle are more likely to form a strong group and help each other out.

Here’s an unpopular idea that should be common sense: political extremism is bad for business. Not because any particular ideology makes you less productive, but because ideology makes you more likely to create an unhealthy atmosphere within the team.

You can sniff out an extremist by finding the answer to one simple question: are they able to separate politics from other things? If the answer is no, then you’ve got a person that’s going to judge their teammates, start conversations nobody wants to have, and be hostile to ideas that don’t match their political outlook.

As I once said to a person I was interviewing: there’s a place for political activism, and that place is anywhere except inside my team.

The ideal team members are open-minded and resilient. To quickly gauge these attributes, you can spare yourself the expense of elaborate psychological testing and just make a joke. A simple, harmless joke at their expense.

If they joke back at you, that’s perfect. Whether they accept a bit of self-deprecating humor or toss a friendly roast back at you, it shows confidence and character.

If they fake a smile and move on, it may be that they’re timid, or it may be that you’re just not that funny. This outcome is inconclusive.

But if they get offended and ask you to always remain professional, you might want to politely let them know that they aren’t a cultural fit. People who ask other people to censor themselves don’t make good team players.

Don’t get me wrong — insecurity is perfectly alright. Insecurity is natural. But insecurity that asks the world to adapt to it is destructive and demoralizing.

“Is there anything you’d like to ask?” inquires the recruiter, having barely scratched the surface of what the company does and how the team operates.

“When can I expect my first raise” responds the candidate, showing that they have no interest in how they can adapt to the team faster, how they can get help with onboarding, or any of the 100 technical questions they could ask. The adequate response to their question is “never”.

Their question is appropriate (and I recommend it as part of salary negotiations) but it shouldn’t be on the table until more pressing topics are covered. Priorities matter. Asking for a raise before they bother to find out what they will be doing on their first day of work is a telltale sign that they will not prioritize the team’s best interests when push comes to shove.

Think outside of the box when talking to job candidates. Remember, you’re not interviewing a machine. You’re interviewing a human who will have to interact with other humans within your organization.

Human interaction can be messy enough between compatible people; not screening based on character traits is asking for trouble, especially in small, tight-knit teams.

Your character criteria may be different than mine, and that’s fine — but don’t be afraid to implement it because it doesn’t fit into the traditional interview framework.

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