The Ideal Team Player

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The ideal team player is humble, hungry, and smart (emotionally intelligent).


  • Humility is most the important virtue for teamwork.
  • A humble person lacks ego or concern about their status. They don’t need to be front and center.
  • Leaders often justify arrogant behavior in high performing individuals because they fail to consider the effect it has on the broader team

There are two types of humility problems:

  • Overtly arrogant people: These are easy to identify because they’re ego driven and soak up attention. It diminishes teamwork by fostering resentment, division, and politics
  • People who appear humble due to lack of self-confidence. Their deflated self-worth hurts the teams by not taking a stand when they should for their perspectives.

Insecurity is the common thread for both humility issues.

Humility is the most sensitive virtue, since it’s often the result of insecurity rooted in some early childhood experience. But it can be changed simply by practicing doing the things a humble person would do. Fake it till you make it. It can also be changed by teammates giving feedback to someone who’s open-minded and wants the feedback.


  • Hungry people are always looking for more to do and more to learn.
  • They want more responsibility.
  • They’re self-motivated, diligent, and almost never have to be pushed by a manager.
  • They’re always looking for the next opportunity and next steps.
  • They loathe the idea of being perceived as a slacker.
  • However, sometimes hungry behavior can be bad for a team. Sometimes hunger can be directed in a selfish way that puts the individual above the team.
  • Sometimes work can even consume the identity of an employee and dominate their life.

Most candidates know how to project a sense of hunger during standard interviews. But managers end up spending lots of time trying to motivate, punish, or dismiss non-hungry employees after the fact.

How can you shake up interviews to identify hungry people more accurately?

What happens if you hire someone and then discover they are not hungry?

Hunger is the least sensitive virtue but the hardest to change. It’s easy to identify and point out when someone delivers less than their peers. Goal management can help get the numbers up. But actually changing the underlying motivation can be hard. Unlike the other two virtues, some people see laziness as a good thing. It gives them more free time and less stress and responsibility.

Strategies for managing unhungry people:

  • Identify which unhungry people want to change and move the others to roles that don’t require hunger. Many people are hungry in certain activities but not at work or not in the things that matter at work.
  • Help them understand the importance of the work they’re doing.
  • Help them understand the impact their behavior has on others —- teammates, customers, etc.
  • Get the team to be passionate. Let the person hear how the team is motivated and how their work impacts the mission. Either the employee will become more passionate, they’ll do it to help their coworkers, or they’re just unhungry.
  • Don’t wait till performance reviews to point out when someone isn’t doing enough. Give early and frequent feedback. Tough love is very effective for personal development, but many managers and coaches are afraid to give it. See: The best feedback is immediate.
  • Publicly encourage the employee when they start doing the things you want. Even if it’s just meeting the minimum standard that everyone else is doing. Even if they’re embarrassed. They need the positive reaffirming more than anyone else. If other employees start to resent the praise they get, it may mean they’re not as humble as they think.

Smart (Emotionally Intelligent)

  • This refers to a simplified form of emotional intelligence.
  • This simply means having common sense about people. Knowing what is happening in a group setting and how to deal with people in the most effective way.
  • Smart people ask good questions, listen well, and stay engaged in conversations.
  • Good judgment and intuition around group dynamics and the impact of their words and actions on others.
  • They know the likely response to what they do and don’t say. This doesn’t mean they necessarily have good intentions, though.

Smarts are less sensitive than the other two and often not as hard as hunger. When giving feedback, make it clear that this isn’t about their intention. They’re not trying to create problems. They just don’t understand the nuance required and how their words and actions impact others. Call people out quickly and lovingly. “Hey Bob, this is where you should thank her for her help.” Focus on being sincere and explaining the impact. “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but this is how it came across.” If their intentions are good, it can even become a source of humor for the team. The person will come to appreciate you for it and be glad to cause fewer problems.


Consider conducting the interview in non-traditional settings, like running errands.

Rather than asking candidates to self-assess, ask them how others would assess them. Candidates are more honest and objective when answering on behalf of others. Perhaps they are worried about reference checks?

Don’t be afraid to ask the same question multiple times in different ways if you aren’t satisfied with the initial answer being specific enough.

  • How would your colleagues describe your work ethic?
  • How would your manager describe your relationships with your colleagues?
  • If I asked your colleagues to assess your level of humility, what would they say?
  • How would your teammates describe your attention to detail?
  • Does your team have code standards or best practices? What was your role in creating them? How would your teammates describe your adherence to them? (Looking for initiative, leadership, or at least teamwork.)

If you have questions or doubts on any issue, probe deeper.

Scare candidates with honesty. e.g. “You won’t like working here if you don’t like X.” Many people will try to pretend to agree to get a job but not if they feel like they’ll be held accountable and know they won’t fit.

When asking someone about their accomplishments, and they say “I” more then “We”, ask if they accomplished it alone or as a team.

More interview questions:

  • “Tell me about someone who is better than you in an area that really matters to you.” Humble people are comfortable giving credit and genuinely appreciate others who are better or more talented
  • What would you like to learn this year?
  • What would you like to change about yourself?
  • What would your best friends say you need to work on?

Note: The point of these questions is not to hold their answers against them; it’s to see if they can be humble and genuine and honest.

  • What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? Look out for too many time consuming hobbies that suggest work isn’t important.
  • Ask if they worked as a teenager. School, work, or sports are all acceptable, but look for evidence that they worked hard and sacrificed. Strong work ethics are established early in life.

People Smarts are hard to judge by questions alone, so try to put them in situations to discern their behavior. See how they interact with waiters and waitresses, store clerks, cab drivers, or administrative people at the office.

But some questions can help:

  • How would you describe your personality? People Smart people can usually do so and enjoy discussing their strengths and weaknesses.
  • What do you do that others in your personal life might find annoying? Everyone annoys someone sometimes–especially at home. Are they self aware? And they tend to moderate these behaviors at work.
  • What kind of people annoy you the most, and how do you deal with them? Look for self-awareness and self-control. Smart people know their own pet peeves and know how to deal with annoying people in a productive, constructive way.

Calling References

When calling references, put the reference at ease. After all, their goal is to get the person hired (usually).

  • Don’t ask questions with right or wrong answers. Don’t make them feel like they could say the wrong thing and keep their friend from getting the job.
  • Put them at ease and get them to focus on making sure it’s a good fit for the candidate—-for the candidate’s sake as much as anyone else’s.
  • Get them to talk objectively about the candidates likes and dislikes, preferences, work habits.
  • Ask if they would thrive in this environment.
  • Put the reference in a place where their objectivity helps their friend.
  • Let them know they aren’t the only person providing input and that everything will be confidential.
  • Ask the reference to give you a few adjectives to describe the candidate.
  • Ask how the candidate compares to other people on the team in various habits.
  • Ask similar questions you asked the candidate and see if you get the same answers.

Focus your reference checks on your areas of doubt.

Most references are happy to help someone they like. If a reference doesn’t respond, it might be a sign they aren’t enthusiastic about having to go on record.

Ask the reference what others would say about the candidate. That way, they’re not bad mouthing the candidate themselves, and they’re freed to be honest and objective.

Give yourself a self-assessment from the perspective of how others would answer the questions.

Copyright © 2023 Richard Morgan.